Anyone could have guessed this, but I’m glad to see that it’s becoming more mainstream, and with good data even, to think that people will trade money for meaning nearly all the time. This “What Programmers Want” research that hit the blogs today shows that working in a company full of good people, with meaningful challenges, and that’s well managed is really what we all want.
Right now, like the myopia that plagues our world, companies are all about the quick fix to morale. They’re all about having cool benefits like on-site chefs, beer on tap, bar games at work, etc. - what I like to call “beer and ping pong tables”. No one is more emblematic of this model than the San Francisco “high-tech” scene. Name a company, and it can be described by: a big, open office, big logo on the wall, minimalist IKEA furniture, a big kitchen stocked with snacks and alcohol, etc. It’s got all the ingredients of a frat house - just take away the cleaning crew and add Greek letters.
The one thing that’s curiously missing at these companies is an actual fucking point of existence. Sure the founders of these companies can abstract away their true interests - calling it “value creation” or saying “our users love us”, but we all know that these are just a weak cypher for “it’ll make me a millionaire”.
It’s no wonder such companies exist though. Whenever you talk to the investors behind them - they’re often just as self-denying as the founders. They’re not as bad though - they call it what it is: “wealth creation” - which is why all of their questions are derived from something like “SO WHERE DOES THE MONEY COME OUT?!?!?” I get it, making money is their business, but somehow theLand of Rand is becoming ever more removed from the solving of real problems.
The whole point of the government enforcing private property - i.e. what allows the accumulation of “wealth” from businesses in the first place - is that in the end we should have better allocated resources because all the actors in a system will have contributed their information / decisions that in the end are far better than any centrally planned economy could of hoped for. Modern capitalism did a lot to improve our standard of living, but that doesn’t mean it’s always right or even an end state system.
Conversely, capitalism, especially in it’s modern corporatist form, is actually pretty shitty at thinking about the biggest problems mainly because they’re so focused on short-term thinking and risk management - the latter of which I mean taking full advantage of the moral hazard provided to them.
I think today’s VC world is a harbinger of the decay of this model. It’s easily the most dynamic part of our economy - the most new ideas come through here to get implemented. Startups right now are making great aggregate returns - we’re in middle landrush phase in the internet where tons of critical services and ideas are still yet to be developed. However, money != social value, and these returns are merely the shuffling of deck.
Let’s look at what some would call their “best” company: Zynga - to see how bad this really is. Their idea: take existing games and use psychology to make them more addictive and find clever ways to make money off of them. We’re ignore the fact that this amounts to creating what I call “digital heroin”, and look at their mission: “connecting the world through games” - delusion if I’ve ever heard it. What about their corporate culture? Oh yea, we’ve seen how great that is. You might expect this from BS investors looking to make a quick buck - what makes this even worse is looking at their investors: USV, Foundry Group, Reid Hoffman, Peter Thiel - the very best investors in the business.
So what we’re looking at today is that the best investors funded the most profitable company (makes sense so far…), and that company’s end-user product is, by design, not innovative, not optimized for users, designed to take your time and your money, and is produced by very high pressure culture with high turnover. Ta da! Great use of capitalism guys! Look at all that value creation! Something is rotten in the state of startups…
I think Venkat Rao is correct in saying that, in this new capitalism, startups aren’t the new capitalists - they’re the new labor. These VCs have found a great form ofrockstar delusion that makes Silicon Valley the Hollywood of nerds. Look no further for this new labor framing than the top entry point for these new entrepreneurs: YCombinator - they’re now coming out with an idea that you can apply without an idea - what great problems those applicants will solve…
There is hope though - this isn’t all about doom and gloom. There is hope at the end of this tunnel - engineers are now more and more in the driver seat. Getting back to the first study: people want to work on things of meaning taking on big problems. Engineers, in particular, got in to this to work on the next Moon Landing or something - not to code bullshit iOS apps. The employees at a firm I was at recently were equally cynical and openly mocked their user base. This is company you’ve heard and not even full-on BS, and it’s a story I see repeated all over.
What’s the problem then? Why don’t engineers leave these companies? Why don’t they start their own? Both of these questions have the same basic answer: no one is funding meaningful companies. They have a choice between working at a BS job with no fun, or a BS job with fun people and beer - easy choice. Another problem is that there’s not a lot of inspiration in startup world about solving big problems - HN’s front page is generally a mix of programming circlejerk, startup gossip, some tid-bits (link bait) of perhaps sound advice, and the obligatory geek porn about rocketships and flying cars.
One thing you don’t see is really anything about is how to pragmatically solve meaningful problems in the world. There’s the Social Venture scene, but frankly most of the ones I meet are pussies working on the equivalent of BS social-mobile-game-mechanized-iOS-deal-apps that might give 10% to charity or some such - still not much there.
There’s a vacuum in the market of solving meaningful problems - i.e. finding a way around the problems of capitalism by finding business models that give sustainability while at the same time allowing the autonomy and time needed to take on these big problems. On the other end, there’s a tremendous pressure to get engineers and the perk of meaning is what they truly seek. If we’re going to move past this current economy, we need to figure out a way of connecting these two - or else we’re going to keep making more Zyngas…