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Today's startup world isn't worse than yesterday's

April 30, 2013: 5:04 PM ET

PalihapitiyaVenture capital rarely backs revolutions. And that's okay.

FORTUNE -- Chamath Palihapitiya made waves yesterday at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference, saying that entrepreneurs and venture capitalists should be "utterly ashamed" of themselves for focusing on frivolities like SnapChat rather than on life-changing technologies.

From TechCrunch:

He argued that in contrast to past decades, where tech entrepreneurs were inventing silicon chips, putting computers on every desktop, or wiring the world, we're now 'rehashing ideas from 2003.'

It's a point that echoes past complaints from folks like Peter Thiel and Max Levchin, and seems apropos on a day when "hookup app" Bang with Friends raised VC funding.

But here's the thing: Palihapitiya is hankering for a past that doesn't really exist. Startups and venture capitalists always have been more about incremental improvements than about revolution.

Palihapitiya should know. Before founding VC firm The Social+Capital Partnership, he was an early executive with Facebook (FB). Or, put another way, he was an early executive with a startup that did social networking better than VC-backed predecessors like Friendster and MySpace.

Google (GOOG) may be the greatest VC-backed success story of all time, but it wasn't the first search engine. Netscape wasn't the first web browser. And on and on.

This isn't to say that Palihapitiya shouldn't demand a better future, and both he and Peter Thiel have indeed funded some startups that look more like innovation than iteration (e.g., Asthmapolis, SecondMarket, SpaceX, etc.). But that doesn't mean that the past was some sort of entrepreneurial utopia where VCs were deluged with that millennium's version of the wheel. It was the goal, of course, but hardly the norm.

Paul Kedrosky sums it up thusly, via Twitter: "VCs produce disruption the way lawyers produce bestselling novels: Rarely, mostly by accident, but not for want of trying."

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Dan Primack
Dan Primack
Senior Editor, Fortune

Dan Primack joined Fortune.com in September 2010 to cover deals and dealmakers, from Wall Street to Sand Hill Road. Previously, Dan was an editor-at-large with Thomson Reuters, where he launched both peHUB.com and the peHUB Wire email service. In a past journalistic life, Dan ran a community paper in Roxbury, Massachusetts. He currently lives just outside of Boston.

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