Books Shine Light On Craziness of Start-up Ville

Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, September 19, 2016

I am going to invest in a microbiome company and so I am now consumed by examining the environment of my own gastrointestinal microbial bugs – a.k.a my summer reading list.

“Deception, lies and betrayal in the “tech whorehouse” – Ellen Huet.  Ms. Huet writes for Bloomberg Business Week and the above quote is her synopsis of the book “Chaos Monkeys.”  Written by Antonio Garcia Martinez, it purports to tell the truth about his start-up adventures in the Valley.  He dives into the day-to-day realities, the frantic pivots, “the enthusiastic ass-kissing, the excruciating internal politics,” but in the end the book is a bit of a con.  Martinez became rich not by building something wonderful, but by snookering, lying and manipulating people, and then he wrote the book as a “revenge” piece.  He names names, and you get to see the back story about the Valley.

He writes, “To all my enemies: I could not have done it without you.”  He had a start-up (AdGrok), he sold it to Twitter (they overpaid) and then went to work at Facebook – (not exactly the deal that Twitter thought it was getting).  Facebook went public, and he made some money.  Along the way he gets fired (naturally) – and in the end hunkers down to live on a boat and write this book.

But he does uncover the bed sheets that wrap the relentless self-promotion of many of the multiple executives he worked with.  His take at Facebook was this: “What was an improbable bonanza (mobile ads in its news feed) at the hands of the flailing half-blind becomes the inevitable coup of the assured visionary.  The world crowns you a genius and you start acting like one.”

Look, I loved the book.  But I do not extol or admire Martinez’s behavior.  As a matter of fact, I find it attractively abhorrent.  Like a train wreck I could not turn away (sort of like watching Trump), but I know that his hand was on the wheel when the train jumped the tracks. You do not admire Martinez in the end.  Ms. Huet brings it all home when she writes, “In other words, if Silicon Valley is a jungle, some monkey is always going to wind up king.”  Reader beware – “Chaos Monkeys” is like cocaine – highly addictive.  Take only small doses under a physician’s care.

My other summer read was “Disrupted” by Dan Lyons.  This one is simply marvelous with no reservations.  It is required reading for all millennials who will finally get that they are being used and abused by the lies and fantasies of wealth unrealized – and it must equally be read by old geezers like me, because it reinforces the belief that we are not crazy.  Lyons is the “beached white male,” a former Newsweek journalist who gets fired and gets a job at a start-up where he is the oldest person in the company.

Wanting a “piece of the action” in the second coming of the Internet bubble, he takes a job at HubSpot (a marketing, software, “click bait” company.)  The company is “a hash of Orwellian doublespeak, tinged with a dollop of Scientology”, wrapped in a burrito of total bullshit.  And like much of the Internet world, the company had a valuation of $2 billion, but had never, not once, turned a profit.  Welcome to the fun house.

Lyons wages war with everyone at the company, but you the reader, will fall over laughing, because “you can’t make this stuff up.”  Teddy bears, free candy, unlimited vacation time – a heady stew of Oooom mixed with the founder’s “culture code” of Heart – “an acronym of five deadening words: humble, effective, adaptable, remarkable, transparent.   And of course the company is none of these.

But remember that all the world’s a stage, and the chief meme that drives all plots is sweet revenge.  In the end Lyons gets fired, but is summoned to Hollywood to write for the HBO television show “Silicon Valley.”

The books are funny, and they do shine a light on the craziness of this thing called start-up-ville.  But there is a dark underbelly of both that is like watching sausage being made.  The Valley has a touch of Muggle World, and to quote William Yeats, “Things fall apart (or get broken apart), the centre cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

Rule No. 479: Next summer, Nietzsche.

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