I was a mixed fan of HBO’s Silicon Valley but there were moments of utter brilliance. Less the jokes or the storylines, but more how bitingly incisive it was when it came to the nature of startups. One of the best moments was when the CEO of Hooli defended how mean the company had become by saying it was the inevitable drift as a tiny idealistic startup became a mega-success and had to keep delivering jaw-dropping growth numbers to Wall Street. “Do you think you’re going to be any different?” (He said something like that, I’m going from memory here.)
In my 20+ years in Silicon Valley, I’ve seen a lot of people and companies change. Look at the founders of Facebook right now: One is digging in his heels and another is lobbying for the government to break it up. And those aren’t the ones who already sued each other. Recent events have ripped the Valley in twain.
I’ve debated with others whether or not success and fame and fortune changes people, or simply allows them the freedom to be their true selves. I think the answer is different in different cases. (And I’m happy to have a long off-the-record conversation about this at the Chairman Mom Flee if anyone is interested…No one has had more friends become enemies than I have as an investigative journalist covering a bubble, a bust, followed by the longest and bro-iest expansion in Valley memory…)
It’s always encouraging when there are signs that all of this isn’t inevitable. That every billionaire doesn’t have to become evil. That every large company doesn’t have to destroy, say, democracy as a necessary side effect on its way to becoming a $1 trillion company.
Netflix is always one that gives me hope. Recently, Paul and I can’t stop talking about Airbnb.
You think Airbnb is interesting when you use it as a guest. But when you experience onboarding as a host, you really glimpse the brilliance of what the company has painstakingly honed. It’s one of the most unique and most effective onboarding experiences I’ve seen, and I think it goes back to the fact that Brian Chesky says he thinks about product in terms of “storyboarding.” It’s a very different feel than a company run purely by data. (Shameless plug for our rental here! It’s designed with harried working professionals and families in mind! And is discounted while we build up our reviews!)
There are founding moments that—for better or worse—shape companies forever. One of them with Airbnb was the decision to eschew the legal “Hey! It’s just a platform!” advice when Airbnb had its first headline grabbing “meth head moment” and instead come up with a $1 million guarantee for renters. It was something that bucked against the way everything had been done in Silicon Valley since the commercial Internet’s inception, and Chesky told the full story in this iconic three hour Pando interview. (I think I’m pregnant with Evie then!)
Sure Airbnb has had its civic battles, its detractors saying it’s making home affordability harder. (And personally I think some regulation around Airbnb is a good thing.) But unlike Uber, the people making money off Airbnb love it. Think about how comparatively little you hear about the damage Airbnb causes in the world than any other major tech company worth tens of billions of dollars. And this is a company that opens up homes to strangers. Craigslist had more scandals.
None of this is an inevitability of being a big tech company, which is what they’d all have you believe. It’s intentionality.
Today’s new questions on Chairman Mom: