9 tech startup CEOs on the best and worst of 2013
FORTUNE — If Silicon Valley is known for anything, it’s breakneck innovation, consequences often be damned. Startups debut promising ideas — or execute an already existing idea better. Today’s scrappy poster child becomes tomorrow’s old establishment. And one product launch is enough to ignite a new software or hardware category.
The last 12 months have proven chock-full of important tech moments, whether it was news of Microsoft (MSFT) CEO Steve Ballmer’s intention to step down or Twitter’s (TWTR) successful IPO. For a different perspective on 2013 in tech, Fortune sought out nine startup CEOs to weigh in, in their own words.
The company’s 411: Online file storage for the enterprise.
Best: This is the first year really where the conversation around technology turned from being about bits and bytes to aspirational, “change-the-world” topics. With drone delivery, Amazon (AMZN) announced more of a conversation than a product. You have also Elon Musk’s Hyperloop and Google’s (GOOG) Calico. This is a very interesting set of announcements, launches, and initiatives that I think all represent a very exciting vision for the future: Technology isn’t just going to help us communicate and become more social. It’s actually going to change how we live, how we work, and where we travel to. This is the first year there was enough from different companies to show where this ecosystem is going. It’s incredibly inspirational, and it’s the reason we got into this industry in the first place.
Worst: When I tried Google Glass, it burst one of my bubbles. That product still needs a little bit of work.
The company’s 411: Freemium mobile security
Best: Enterprise is actually cool now. [Laughs.] The types of things that are making it cool — great design, great user experience from a product perspective — you’re starting to see that same attention to detail in the development of next-generation enterprise software products as you are with consumer software to some extent.
Worst: I love competition in the marketplace. The end user ultimately wins when there’s more of it. So I was hopeful that there would be a truly relevant third mobile operating system (OS) player by this point — Android, unsurprisingly, is dominating, and iOS is, of course, very strong — but there aren’t yet any material signs that there will be a player with 20 or 30% market share any time soon. That’s pretty disappointing.
The company’s 411: Interactive digital textbooks for the iPad, iPhone, and web.
Best: I feel like the last year has seen the birth of the “boring” company … Despite the fact we’re in a bubble, people are actually biting off really meaningful, boring problems. We’ve gone away from this consumer-y zeitgeist bullshit. Snapchat is fine. Consumer businesses can be built, including ones that aren’t worth anything but are billions of dollars in valuation. But I look at companies like Zenefits* that are trying to improve the benefits of how companies administer health benefits, and I look at companies like Clever* that are solving this really boring problem in K-12 schools. They’re in 15,000 U.S. schools, where they’ve actually got students now capable of returning data back to a teacher. These are not “sexy” problems, but they’re so important.
Worst: We have seen the culture war, particularly in San Francisco, shift into high gear where it’s an “us vs. them” mentality. It’s totally unfair, drawing attention to the wrong issues and not helping solve the real ones. It’s class warfare and frankly, disappointing. I think both sides are culpable. But people who are throwing rocks at Google buses and that sort of thing are enflaming the situation. I have long lamented the disconnect between young tech yuppies in San Francisco and the rest of the community. I talk about it at work. I talk to my team about it. I encourage people to vote in local elections.
*MacInnis is an investor.
The company’s 411: A digital documents library and books subscription service.
Best: The whole trend of everyone starting their own company is cooling off a little bit, which has been nice. People are getting more long-term focused. They’re more focused on business models and building long-term businesses and less so hype. It’s been a pretty frothy year in terms of Silicon Valley booming. You can just feel in San Francisco how crazy it is.
Worst: Maybe the same as my high point? [Chuckles.] It was a little bit ridiculous how easy it was to get angel funding. So there were just so many companies. One thing I’ve really noticed in the last year or so is the crowdedness of the area. The traffic has picked up a lot. It almost feels like 1999 in that sense, but at the same time, there are a lot of good businesses being built.
The company’s 411: Online grocery orders and same-day delivery.
Best: We’re in a very highly regulated market, if you can imagine. We’re focusing on crowdsourcing, which if you follow Airbnb, Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar, they’ve had so much trouble working against the regulations to find a niche for their products. Seeing them succeed time after time, city after city was very promising. There’s definitely more hope for this industry.
Worst: Conversely, there were also cities where some of those companies were not very successful. There were some lawsuits they had to face and several cease and desists as well. At this point in time, a lot of the companies that are started, a lot of the innovation that’s done, has to go against the conventional regulations out there.
The company’s 411: Online hub where tour guides and tourists can connect.
Best: Companies like Uber, Airbnb, and Pinterest are doing really good, sustainable international expansion. They’re expanding in a really intelligent way all over the world and actually localizing, rather than just throwing their product out there and expecting it to fly.
Worst: The subsequent coverage, attention, energy, and money flowing into things like Snapchat and Bitcoin that are way more hype than substance.
The company’s 411: An online payroll service for small businesses.
Best: B2B software for small businesses is finally becoming easier to use. Small businesses in general have been a hard market — a lot of companies have avoided them. But there’s now this incredible swell of innovation from companies like Square, Expensify, BambooHR, and TSheets, which is a nice, cool company out of Idaho building time-tracking software.
Worst: The connection between San Francisco tech and the local community. I think tech and all of us in the community have a responsibility to be good stewards or ambassadors. We’re here to serve our customer. ZenPayroll’s customer and community are very connected. We moved the company to San Francisco specifically so we can be around our customers more easily and be in an area where you have so many small business owners. I think that’s something the tech sector will be more focused on moving forward: applying that mindset of how we approach customers to every stakeholder.
The company’s 411: Website and blog builder with drag-and-drop simplicity.
Best: The emerging trend of the Personal Economy, as coined by Mike Moritz of Sequoia this year. People are becoming more entrepreneurial and empowered by technology: drivers starting to drive an Uber car and building their own fleet within a couple years, entrepreneurs starting a business on Weebly and quitting their job to pursue their passion full-time, people renting out a spare bedroom on Airbnb instead of staying in a hotel. That’s very exciting to me.
Worst: Growing insensitivity in the tech community (which is fairly well covered in Valleywag). Most people mean well, but the community needs to better understand how some actions are perceived and get better at listening to contrasting opinions.
The company’s 411: An app that displays other nearby users.
Best: 2013 was a big year for the location space. Thanks to continued technical advances, things like fitness trackers, Apple’s iBeacon, and wearable devices have finally become possible. This allowed us to improve Highlight dramatically in 2013, and it’s only going to get better in 2014 and beyond.
Worst: The death of Aaron Swartz back in January was a definite low point among my friends. It is a real loss to see someone so young and talented come to such a tragic end.