Brian Armstrong

The Art of the Next Big Thing: From Printing Press to Internet

I was thinking the other day about the times in history where there have been opportunities to generate huge amounts of wealth.

It seems to be when a new piece of technology comes along that is a TOTAL game changer.

In recent memory of course is the internet, and all the things it has enabled. A small example being distribution of media such as music and video, and reducing the cost of publishing content to basically zero.

But this trend is not new and has been going on throughout history.

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What about the printing press? It was basically the first internet. Even before that, what about the first civilization to create an alphabet or writing?

What about when everyone was using coal and then oil came along? HUGE amounts of wealth generated.

What about when everyone was running around on horses and then railroads came along? COMPLETE game changer.

What about when everyone was using blocks of ice and then refrigeration was invented?

Steel? Plastic? Agriculture? The wheel? Flight?

Wikipedia actually has a list of the wealthiest people in history (adjusted for inflation) and you can see that aside from Royalty (which doesn’t really count as earning it since you’re born into it) most of them are people who got in early on a complete game changing technology.

The trick is getting in at the right time.

Coming in too early: There are also lots of “next big things” which turn out to never materialize, like the flying car) or a battery which lasts a long time. People have been waiting for those for 50 years. So it’s definitely not easy to bet on the next big thing and be right. You have to hedge your bets.

Coming in too late: The market for oil and automobiles is very mature today. It would be very difficult to build the next great oil company today, or shoe manufacturing company, or any other mature industry where there are strong incumbents. So it pays to be looking for the NEXT big one, not ones that have already passed. If you can be the only expert around when it does hit then you’re positioned well to capitalize. This requires you to toil away in a particular industry when a lot of people probably think you’re wasting your time.

I feel like the internet still has lots of untapped potential, and it’s probably one of your best opportunities for generating wealth today. But it’s starting to feel a bit mature at times.

So that begs the question: what do you think is going to be the next big thing?

For me I see some of these being complete game changers where people will build huge amounts of wealth. See if you agree with my predictions. Maybe you can get in early on one of these…

  • genetic engineering (crops, bacteria for various purposes, and most importantly humans to prevent various diseases)

  • robotics (the military will increasingly become unmanned - casualties are more acceptable if they’re robots)

  • artificial intelligence (I think Jeff Hawkins and his company Numenta have a good chance of solving this in the next 5-10 years, btw it will not be like terminator, the part of our brain which accounts for desires and motives is very old and easy to replicate or leave out of a robot, the hard part is the neo-cortex which other mammals don’t have and is good at learning to make good predictions - this would definitely be a game changer - for more check out his excellent book On Intelligence)

  • Renewable energy, in particular solar and electric vehicles

What do you think will be the next big thing?