OK Silicon Valley, We Can Take it From Here
Many in the technology community were quick to pass off Tom Perkins’ rant in the Wall Street Journal about a coming “progressive Kristallnacht” (yes, he really wrote that if you haven’t heard already) as the ramblings of an aging one-percenter who has lost touch with the real world. The whole wag-the-Nazi-finger-at-people-who-disagree-with-you thing is such a cliché these days that it has lost any of the intended power to shame or warn or whatever people like Mr. Perkins are trying to accomplish. Perkins’ argument is wildly offensive and plenty of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists have already covered this ground in their quick responses condemning him. (See Mark Suster’s blog or Mark Andreessen’sTwitter feed from the weekend for some of the best of this.) Even Partners at Mr. Perkins’ namesake venture capital fund distanced themselves so fast you wonder how much longer the “P” will remain on KPCB’s letterhead.
Unfortunately, the broader point he was trying to make – that regular people hate rich people for being successful – has been alive and well in Silicon Valley for a long time. While Perkins’ letter was way off base in it’s stupid comparison to Nazi Germany, his broader point is grounded in the Valley’s long-held ethos that they are building a real world Galt’s Gulch that lazy workers and government bureaucrats are hell-bent on tearing down.
The quick dismissals from the Valley elite might make you think that Perkins’ feelings are fringe views out there but you don’t have to look far to find the younger Valley set echoing his broader sentiments. Facebook billionaire and Golden State Warriors owner Chamath Palihapitiya isn’t shy about his disdain for government or his strong belief that companies are the new forces for change and influence in the world. He rooted for the U.S. government shutdown to make his point that governments matter less to the health of the world economy than do Silicon Valley’s public companies. From other tech founders we have heard recent rants against San Francisco’s homeless and calls for Silicon Valley to secede from Californiato form it’s own state. Famously Libertarian Peter Thiel has drawn up plans for his Seasteading Institute, an island free of government control were the elite can experiment with new forms of governing without interference.
Don’t think that these ideas are new to the Valley or that they are just the result of young, rich entrepreneurs who will eventually mellow with old age. Unfortunately, they’ve had had plenty of mentors espousing these “us vs. them” attitudes for decades. Look no further than the recently released emails between Steve Jobs and Eric Schmidt about their “gentleman’s agreement” not to hire each other’s employees. In an effort to rein in engineer’s salaries, starting in 2005 Apple and Google apparently agreed to not poach employees. According to an ongoing federal investigation they eventually roped in Intel, Adobe, Intuit and Pixar to the secret pact to tamp down salaries for these highly sought after employees. You can draw a straight line from Jobs’ and Schmidt’s disdain for their front line workers’ success at these highly profitable companies to newer enterprises like Zynga where CEO Marc Pincus reportedly clawed back employees’ equity if he didn’t like their contribution and Uber where its drivers often seem to more of an impediment than the engine of the company’s success. Many of these executives find solace in the writings of Ayn Rand and one quote from The Fountainhead seems to be a guiding light. When one character is asked “who is going to let you” referring to his proposed architectural style he replies “That’s not the point. The point is, who will stop me?” In my many trips to Silicon Valley as an investor I always expect to see this written on coffee mugs and t-shirts.
But there is a powerful shift going on in the tech world. As distributed, mobile, remote and virtual become more the norm than the exception, innovation is thriving in markets far from Silicon Valley. And with this is coming a wave of forward thinking management styles that reward collaboration, shared sacrifice and community building. Just look to Tony Hsieh’s initiatives in Las Vegas to see how a company can impact a community by building a foundation for long-term economic growth for all participants, not just for Zappos. Or 37signals in Chicago where Jason Fried (no bleeding heart liberal) has built a wildly successful business respectful of his team’s lifestyles and personal schedules that is in direct opposition to Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayers’ view of remote workers.
Though deeply entrenched in the tech world, Misters Hsieh and Fried have taken their cues from outside the Valley to guide their path. Leaders like Jon Huntsman Sr. who embraces the servant leader role where mentorship and community engagement count more than large yachts and even larger penthouses. And writers like Susan Cain who proves that you can be quiet and strong and lead without raising your voice when she wrote in her bestselling book Quiet “We don’t need giant personalities to transform companies. We need leaders who build not their own egos but the institutions they run.”
It’s no coincidence that this new phase of innovation without ego and management without bombast is flourishing outside Silicon Valley, far from those taking their cues from Tom Perkins and his divisive paranoid fantasies.
So, take a look in the mirror Silicon Valley. You are having that moment when every aging son finally has to come to terms with the fact that he looks a lot more like his father than he is willing to admit. So it’s your choice now, either embrace the out of control nose hair or get the clippers out. Keep railing against the government, building your Utopian islands and planning for secession or start acting like grown ups like the rest of us.