Made in America

06.09.12

Jack Hitt Examines Why Amateurs Are the Job Creators

Forget Wall Street types—they don’t create jobs, not like startups and backyard inventors do. This American Life’s Jack Hitt, author of Bunch of Amateurs, says dorm-room innovators can save America.

After getting ticked that her dying computer battery required a tangle of plugs and wires, a 22-year-old college student named Meredith Perry decided she'd poke around the subject to find out why wireless hadn’t made the leap to electricity. It’s the classic amateur move, and the story feels vaguely familiar, right? Because you know where it’s going: this paleobiology student, who was interning at NASA not long ago, is now the CEO of uBeam, a company poised to revolutionize life in the digital sphere. 

But it’s the details of Perry’s success that make the story. Once seized with a desire to know why, in a world of remote control and Wi-Fi, we were still worrying about wires and adaptor bricks, she repaired to that authoritative source of inspiration: Wikipedia. Her investigations led one way or another but often to experts who told her that it was all too complicated and that the physics made it impossible.

Perry now gives TedxTalks about innovation and gumption, dissing the old guard’s boxed-in mentality. Turns out, those Wiki entries were enough for her to link two well-known technologies. Piezoelectricity is a form of power that is recharged through slight motion. So, Perry thought, forget about the difficulty of sending standard electricity through the air, why not send ultrasound waves—humans can’t hear or feel them—across a room to a piezoelectric battery? 

Funding is now gathering behind uBeam. And should the startup deliver on this idea’s promise, next year we’ll all be tossing out the name “Meredith Perry” the way we currently sling “Mark Zuckerberg.”

The emergence of new startups and the reappearance of the backyard (or dorm-room) inventor is no real mystery. The era of the amateur typically revives right around the time it’s declared by conventional wisdom to be over. Our time, people breezily insist, is too complicated, too confusing, too corporate, too professional, too specialized for there to be any real amateur pursuits. And then, one day, that no longer seems to be true. A “maker” movement arises and flourishes, and DIY shops and labs pop up across the country. 

Economic slumps and burst bubbles also help. It might just be random chance that when David Packard tinkered in a Palo Alto garage with William Hewlett in 1938, it was the height of the Great Depression. That garage was recently designated a Registered National Landmark. Why? Because in a country of backyard inventors, that’s the location of a lot of American ingenuity.

It might also be more random chance that the two Steves, Jobs and Wozniak, holed up in a Cupertino garage during the stagflationary mid-’70s until they emerged with the first modern desktop. But probably not. The economy matters. These days, the Internet seems almost to have sped up the process, so in the future it might be a few dorm rooms that become registered landmarks. 

An amateur revival is on the way, in part not just because the current generation is learning the hard way that necessity is the mother of invention, but also because that’s how it typically happens here. In recent years, Wall Street investors have managed to flatter themselves with talk of being “job creators” and “risk takers.” But that’s ridiculous. By their own admission, they’re in the exact opposite business. The entire phylum of what they do is called “hedging risk,” not diving into it. And the recent rise of the phrase “job creators” is a bit of Frank Luntz jibber jabber meant to neutralize a lot of populist talk about “the rich.” 

Refusing to join in the general flattery of big money these days is itself the real risk. Ask Nick Hanauer, an Amazon investor. He’s the guy who gave a Ted Talk recently that was so controversial the Ted commissariat refused to post it online until public pressure forced them to relent. Hanauer had found the one idea that Ted was afraid to spread, because, as curator Chris Anderson explained, “it would be unquestionably regarded as out and out political.” Hanauer’s treachery was not that he talked about income inequality, his stated subject. The entire nation has been openly discussing that subject ever since the Occupy Wall Street dude walked into a public park. Here’s the real treason that dinged Hanauer as a Ted-sanctioned talker: “Rich businesspeople like me don’t create jobs.”

A host of crowd-funding sites have stepped up to find projects small and large that would all be considered far too risky for Wall Street types.
Jack Hitt Bunch of Amateurs Cover
‘Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character’ by Jack Hitt. 288 pp. Crown. $26. ()

It used to be that both Democrats and Republicans paid homage to “main street” and “small business” because once upon a time no one disputed the fact, still true, that small businesses and startups are where growth-oriented job creation actually occurs. What has changed, probably, is the funding of political coffers. Now that both parties dine at the same campaign-finance tables on Wall Street, it has gradually become mandatory to flatter bankers and the larger investor class that they create jobs. (Rather than fund them, as important as that is.) 

However, beneath the ballyhoo of this expensive charade, a lot is changing. A new kind of job funder has emerged in the emerging marketplace: Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, WeFunder, Petridish.org, and a host of other crowd-funding sites have stepped up to find projects small and large that would all be considered far too risky for Wall Street types. And just in time. 

In April, the government reported that there was a modest increase of 119,000 jobs. Only 4,000 of them, about 3 percent, came from big firms. Small business and startups? They create 58,000 of them, or half. If any glimmer of real growth in the economy begins to show, it won’t be because of Wall Street’s courage—an oxymoron if there ever was one. It will be because of Meredith Perry’s.