Let’s Make Sure That 2013 Is Better Than 2012
I originally wrote this blog post nearly two months ago. For many years now, I’ve used the Christmas break (which I normally spend away from London and with less ‘Net connectivity than usual) to reflect on the past year and lay plans for the next.
This Christmas, my reflections led me to write a blog post titled 2012: The Year Greed Reared Its Ugly Head, which I never published, but which largely forms the first half of this post.
For me, 2012 began with the memory of the Zynga stock options kerfuffle still fresh in everyone’s mind and, by May, we had seen Groupon and Zynga’s stock plunge below their IPO prices (although both sets of founders did all right). Then came the debacle of the Facebook IPO, with what Roger McNamee characterised as “self-dealing” by insiders at the board level who had “better information” than retail investors.
We also had the debate over whether acquihires were fair to investors and, in London, there were two separate instances of smooth-talking “entrepreneurs” employing staff for their startups, who then weren’t paid. To top it all, news of the LIBOR manipulation scandal broke.
Gordon Gecko famously said that “Greed is, for want of a better word, good” and, to a certain extent he’s right – the desire to earn money and accumulate wealth is a great motivator (and I doubt many founders and early startup employees would put in the hours and effort if there was no prospect of a pay-off) – but it shouldn’t be our primary motivator.
Masahiko Yamada, the President of Fujitsu’s Technical Computing Solutions Unit, once said that “the best innovators’ primary motivation isn’t money. They just want to change the world.”
I believe that a company, whether it’s a tech startup or an investment bank, should contribute more value to its stakeholders than it extracts (and I believe that society at large is numbered amongst a company’s stakeholders). However, I find myself questioning, for example, whether the benefit we receive from Facebook as a social network outweighs the privacy we surrender in return. I look at closed platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Apple, and I question whether the sum total benefit to both those companies and their stakeholders would be greater if they embraced more open models (although I acknowledge that their elevated revenues depend entirely upon that closed model).
During the Olympics opening ceremony, Tim Berners-Lee tweeted “This is for Everyone!” to the world. If he, or the inventors of electronic mail, had opted to patent and commercialise their inventions, where would we be today? Would we be enjoying the technological benefits of those inventions to the same extent? Would they be as widely available in countries like Tunisia and Egypt?
I lived through the original Dot-com Bubble during the ’90s so I know that the hype and wealth generated by the tech startup industry attracts people whose primary motivation is exploiting that hype – smooth-talking silicon snakeoil salesmen who seek to exploit the naive and inexperienced, and talk about helping the tech startup community while extracting far more value than they contribute.
I’ve also spent over a decade working in the financial sector, where I experienced at first hand how insidious and corrupting greed can be. So it doesn’t surprise me that when companies start attracting multi-billion dollar valuations, some people will be seduced.
And that was where my original blog post finished. I didn’t have anything positive or upbeat to finish off with, no light at the end of the tunnel. When I reviewed the post, it came across as depressingly pessimistic and I decided to not publish it.
Since then, however, I’ve been back to Silicon Valley for LDN2SFO (which I’ll write more about in future blog posts), a trip that was only made possible by the overwhelming generosity and hospitality of dozens of people who supported and advised me, and gave up their time to host or speak to the group.
I also attended the Startup Grind 2013 conference the week before last, where I paid a comparative pittance (certainly far less than certain other conferences aimed at the startup community charge attendees) to hear from people like Clayton Christensen, Dave McClure, Mark Suster and Brad Feld, at first hand. The Startup Grind values were on prominent display and they epitomise what I believe we in the tech startup community should strive for.
I suspect that the overt expression of these values is an indirect consequence of, and reaction to, the things I described above. We’re part of a community and (to plagiarise Aaron Sorkin) our successes are made sweeter, and our setbacks, problems and defeats are softened when we share them with others. We should be looking to help lift one another up, instead of trampling over one another in our haste to reach the top.
I feel a lot more optimistic about the future of our industry and community now, than I did two months ago. Hopefully, this coming Christmas, when I look back on 2013, I’ll have even more reason to feel optimistic about next year.