Navigating the AI Startup Ecosystem: It’s All Picks and Shovels or “Features”

In the rapidly evolving world of artificial intelligence, startups find themselves in a dichotomy reminiscent of historical ventures: they are either the purveyors of “picks and shovels” or they are the innovators behind unique “features.” This distinction not only highlights their business models but also their potential for impact and longevity in the industry.

Picks and Shovels: The Infrastructure Builders

The “picks and shovels” metaphor, drawn from the San Francisco Gold Rush, aptly describes startups that provide the essential tools and infrastructure powering AI applications. These entities, much like the merchants who supplied the 49ers, are often the silent backbone of the industry. Companies such as OpenAI, Perplexity, and Llama Index exemplify this category by offering large language models and computational resources. They are the architects behind the scenes, enabling others to build and innovate on the surface.

Key Players and Their Roles:

  • OpenAI: Known for GPT models, OpenAI epitomizes the “picks and shovels” approach by offering foundational AI technologies that power a myriad of applications.
  • Perplexity AI: Specializing in search and information retrieval, Perplexity provides tools that enhance how we interact with and process vast amounts of data.
  • Llama Index
  • Anthropic

These companies, by focusing on the core technologies, ensure their relevance and longevity as the AI field expands. Their success hinges on the ubiquity and indispensability of their tools in the development of AI applications.

Features: The Innovation Dilemma

On the other side of the spectrum are the “features” startups, characterized by their focus on specific, innovative applications of AI that can be easily integrated—or replicated—by larger platforms. The cautionary tale of these startups echoes Steve Jobs’ observation about Dropbox: what seems like a revolutionary product can often be reduced to a mere feature by larger incumbents.

The Vulnerability of Feature-Centric Startups:

Consider a startup whose flagship product is an AI-driven tool for crafting email replies. The innovation, while valuable, faces existential threats the moment a giant like Google decides to incorporate a similar feature into Gmail. The challenge for these startups is not just innovation but also differentiation and defensibility.

Disrupting Through Revolution, Not Evolution

For startups in the “features” category, the path to disruption is fraught with challenges. The key to enduring success lies not in mere innovation but in revolutionizing how we perceive and interact with technology. Disruption requires a reimagining of services and experiences, creating something so integral and unique that it cannot be simply absorbed as a feature by incumbents.

Strategies for Sustainable Disruption:

  1. Build an Ecosystem: Instead of offering a standalone feature, create an ecosystem of services that interlock and provide unique value that is difficult to replicate.
  2. Focus on User Experience: Innovate in ways that significantly enhance the user experience, making your product not just a tool but an indispensable part of daily routines.
  3. Leverage Network Effects: Design your product in such a way that it becomes more valuable as more people use it, thereby creating a barrier to entry for competitors.


The AI startup landscape is a dynamic and challenging arena where the distinction between being a foundational tool and a novel feature can determine a company’s fate. For those in the “picks and shovels” category, the focus should be on innovation, scalability, and reliability. For the “features” startups, the goal is not just to innovate but to revolutionize, ensuring that their offerings are not just absorbed but become irreplaceable. In the end, true disruption in the AI space is about redefining paradigms and creating new realities that evolve beyond the current boundaries of technology.

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