I’ve seen it time and time again: the argument that the internet is a meritocracy - a system in which the most talented and able are rewarded. This argument is especially popular in the world of startups, where we're told that the best and brightest rise to the top.
I recently read an article in Forbes, The Fable Of Market Meritocracy, which addresses the concept of meritocracies in markets generally. It got me thinking about the internet, and whether or not the internet really is a meritocracy.
In theory, meritocracies are a nice idea. But as Shikha Dalmia explains in her Forbes opinion piece, merit is a problematic concept. After all, merit is an intrinsic, subjective characteristic, but one that doesn't always produce results in the real world.
In my opinion, the internet is not a meritocracy. You may be brilliant, but that doesn't mean you're going to succeed. While there are plenty of examples of highly-educated people making big money on the internet, there are plenty of Average Joes, dropouts, hobbyists and teenagers who have struck it rich too.
Taking the concept of merit to the product level is even more instructive. Your UI may be gorgeous, your application may be brilliantly architected, you may offer ten times more functionality than the competition, and you may have an innovative business model. But none of these things mean that you deserve to be -- or will be -- successful.
What truly matters? The value your product delivers. Nothing more, nothing less.
Arguably, the internet is perhaps the best reminder of that. Some of the most successful online properties aren't works of wonder. From Craigslist to Plenty of Fish, the web is littered with 'ugly' and/or simple websites that beat out slicker, more robust websites built by more 'talented' and 'capable' competitors. At the same time, the web is littered with beautiful websites started by smart people that really haven't gone anywhere, despite all the 'merit' they had.
Take, for instance, Pownce, a service some argued might be a Twitter killer when it launched. It sported a far more robust feature set, and was founded by well-known Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. The New York Times wrote that it had the "potential to be powerfully disruptive". If there was ever a startup with 'merit' on multiple levels, Pownce was it. But for all of its merit, the market failed to reward Pownce and it failed. Clearly, there wasn’t enough merit to make up for the lack of value.
None of this, of course, means that you shouldn't focus on your user interface, application architecture and feature set. Or that it doesn't help to be brilliant. All of those things have the potential to be a part of the value creation process. But you can't expect to compete on merit alone. You have to actually deliver value. Unfortunately, tech entrepreneurs are often lured into focusing more on playing up their supposed merits than on building things that offer value. This is especially true of those who get too caught up in the echo chambers controlled by popular tech bloggers and the Twitterati.
That's a mistake. Value comes in many shapes and sizes, and can be created by people from all walks of life. The great thing is that the internet has made it possible for even more people to create value in new ways. You don't need a Stanford computer science degree, and you don't even need a pretty website. That's far more powerful that any meritocracy.