The problem with opaque tech companies


If you were the CEO of a new tech company, what would be the first thing you’d do to attract investors to fund your ideas? Maybe pitch your product at a tech show like CES or appeal to Facebook or Apple in Silicon Valley. Or perhaps market your startup through podcast advertising, and try to get some coverage on YouTube or Instagram from a so-called influencer.

But if you’re the CEO of HDAC, an Internet of Things (IoT) company, you take out a premium, multi-million dollar advertising slot in the middle of football World Cup games.

And they don’t have a product to sell. They don’t even seem to have a service. I think that’s a huge problem.

I was confused at first by the vague ad, which portrays a family using various internet-connected home devices to lead some sort of ideal modern life. Quite why your dishwasher needs to talk to your toaster I’m not sure, but I can see the use of a fridge which re-orders cheese when you run out of it, or a thermostat which calculates how much your heating is costing you and re-adjusts itself accordingly. They even inexplicably Skype their parents through the dining table, rather Star Trek but admittedly very useful.

Far from offering a distinct technology which connects your appliances to one another – or a range of smart toasters, HDAC seem hell-bent on selling the abstract idea of blockchain (the technology which Bitcoin is built on, and which facilitates purchases using cryptocurrency).

Or at least that’s what I think they’re trying to market.

The language in their website is technobabble – you could re-order all the words and it would mean the same thing to me. But repeated with religious frequency is the phrase “The Blockchain Solution”. There’s no mention of the actual problem they’re trying to solve, or the group of people which is their target market. It’s all massively vague, and with good reason.

I think the advertising is ill-defined because it’s not grounded in real life. It’s designed by and for the Silicon Valley tech bubble which reveres new tech like Bitcoin and gets high off of sending you GDPR privacy emails. It’s not a financial bubble, but a social one, like the echo chamber of Twitter or Facebook.

Companies are obsessed with new developments like blockchain, and invest lots of money into them, leading to bubbles like in Bitcoin, which burst earlier this year. They create Utopian office spaces for their employees – Facebook and Google have transit buses which pick you up and take you straight to their campus. You can get your hair cut, go to the gym, and eat 3 meals a day, all without leaving work. Toxic environments for employees which encourage them to work insane hours are the norm.

There’s also a trend where the biggest Silicon Valley firms are some of the least transparent when it comes to PR. Try getting a straight answer out of YouTube or Facebook about their business practices. It’s impossible.

Having such a disconnect between what companies are providing and what people need is a big problem for the world economy. Especially when there’s so much money behind some of these companies. HDAC must have some deep pockets to be able to afford advertising alongside global behemoths like Budweiser beer and Kia cars. And I’m not convinced that money is being spent in a way which benefits consumers.

Funding research into a tech firm with no grounded direction apart from a grand design on changing the landscape of life in the home is not money well spent, because with a goal that broad, you are more beholden to your CEO’s whims. You’re also less likely to find a market if you’re not selling something people want.

The opaque internal workings of HDAC might reveal that there’s an extremely specific business plan, starting with smart dishwashers and moving forwards to conquer the home from there. But somehow I don’t think so. The disconnect between tech firms demonstrated by the shocking arrogance of Facebook with our data gives rise to a cult-like trust that ideas like Bitcoin and blockchain, by themselves, will infinitely improve people’s lives.

I’m not against research into blockchain, whatever form it might take. But I think that having a goal which is grounded in reality, and selling something people want – not a formless concept – is crucially important.

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