The Atoms Of Progress

Most people in the startup world tend to share their own unique and incomprehensible dialect of English. Anyone who has ever worked with me knows my unique vocabulary, the words and phrases I tend to repeat over and over again as if I hold the patent to them. “Non-trivial” certainly sticks out as one. “Behoove” is another.

So is “atomic”, and it’s one I’ve been using (and thinking about!) quite a bit.

For contextual purposes, I’m using atomic as a broad adjective to mean a smaller, leaner, more easily digestible version of something larger, just as an atom would be to molecule. I doubt you’ll find that definition in any dictionary, and it’s likely without the context, no one would understand what I’m talking about. It does indeed however describe an inevitability in the technology world, and one that if properly understood, can lead you to some real product breakthroughs.

Let’s take dating as an example.

Version 1.0 of using the Internet to find the partner of your dreams involved a long series of questionnaires, detailing every interest and physical trait in order to give the most complete picture possible. This was an entirely desktop experience, and the amount of information collected generally followed the form factor of the desktop and the input device of the keyboard.

Version 2.0 reduced it down a little as we entered the social era, allowing people to connect their already constructed social profiles, bringing their photos, social graph, and their ontological interests with them. The idea of meeting people on the Internet was more commonly accepted by this time, so we saw more personality beyond the mere listing of traits: screen names, quizzes designed to be shared, badges, and so on. A lot of the extraneous fat was stripped away, making it a more nimble, fun experience.

I’d say we’re now at Version 3.0 of the same concept, which is what I would consider to currently be the atomic version of the concept of dating – the smallest derivation of the original idea. We’re now almost fully mobile, and the form factor dictates that the smallest amount of information necessary to make a decision is all you need. Tinder is the best example of this: it’s basically just a photo.

Take a second and think about why the experience narrowed the way that it did. We all agree that finding someone to spend time with is one of the truly global human needs. For the purposes of finding love, what’s likely the single most important thing? If we’re being honest, it’s physical attraction. Tinder knows that, which is why they’ve removed all of the extraneous steps from the equation. It’s as atomic as it gets.

Here’s another example: self-expression has gone from personal web pages to blogs to Tumblr to Twitter. Just like with dating, each new version took the same common, basic human need (“I have opinions and I want to share them!”) and figured out a way to make it simpler, to reduce it down to the atomic level. The reason why Tumblr works is because they realize that pictures really are worth 1,000 words…and they also take exponentially less time to share.

Where this concept gets really powerful – at least from my side of the table as a serial entrepreneur and as restless of a technologist as there could ever be – is trying to figure out where the next reduction might be. Is there a disruptive technology on the horizon that might brute force a reduction across multiple sectors, like the dawning of the social and then mobile eras? Is there a legacy industry or human need that has resisted it so far?

Healthcare is interesting. Education is too. Government, most definitely. Maybe you have some that you think are even more interesting than those three. Even better, maybe you’re already working on it. I hope so, because it’s as common of a success story as you’ll find in the startup world.


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