I just finished hearing the latest episode of the Planet Money podcast titled “Anatomy of a Scam“. As I heard the story, which is strongly urge everyone to listen to, I felt helpless. As I thought about it over the past few hours, I realized, why can tech and all the millions of dollars in public and private capital not address challenges like this.
It is a common refrain in the Valley- you meet two kinds of people. Those who think they are out to change the world and the second type who think the first type are fools, charlatans or some combination of the two. While neither of these opinions is really true, one wonders- why is there so much attention on some problems while others go completely neglected.
For example, there are a dozen startups trying to deliver specially cooked food or restaurant food or ingredients for you to cook at home. These startups have raised a ton of money trying to solve a problem that exists peripherally but does not truly make a dramatic difference in the life of many. I do think this is an opportunity for someone to try to solve. But does it warrant all the attention, money and hype it has received- questionable.
I’ll now turn the attention to Doris, the protagonist of the Planet Money episode. She, all of 75 years of age, gets conned into spending $45000 of her hard saved money into a “Work from home and make a 6 figure income” scam. As a listener, it struck me hard. How does this happen in a society like ours? How did iTaxClub exist for as long as it did, and make $220 million and not get the attention of a broad audience? That $220 million of the hard earned money of those who do not have the ability to discern between a scam and a real opportunity? And the many, many more iTaxClub’s that continue to thrive in Utah and go unchecked. Why is this not a huge opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of so many?
For this and many such problems, there are three common solutions.
- Government and regulations – We know how this goes. As well intentioned as anyone is, lobbying and arcane State laws and protectionist interests ensure that there is never a good legal way to solve problems like this.
- Educate the People – This would be the right answer. But if one can reach these people and educate them, we wouldn’t be here in the first place.
- Entrepreneurial Solutions – The entrepreneur is always looking for a big opportunity. What better than to take a swipe at a thriving cottage industry of con artists who use traditional phone based methods to rip people of their life savings?
If I had an answer to this problem, trust me, I would dive right in. I dont. Atleast not yet. But I intend to think about this as hard as I can and as much as I can. But in the meantime, it is worth spending a minute or two in trying to answer the bigger question- are we solving the right problems?
One of the best parts about Silicon Valley, something that makes me enjoy living here is the belief that there is nothing that cannot be solved with technology. That confidence and swagger is why the Valley is as successful as it is. This is one such problem waiting for a bunch of smart people to solve. Anyone game?