The NewCo Daily: Today’s Top Stories
Welcome to 2017! If you’ve been disconnected from work for a little while, as many of us have been, you’ll be interested to hear this news: If you lived in France, you would now have a right to disconnect from work on a regular basis (Yahoo News). The French aren’t facing any more of a work-life boundary collapse than the rest of us, but their culture and political system seem better equipped to push back.
France’s new “right to disconnect” law isn’t actually a rigid regulation; it looks more like a modest attempt to bolster the fast-eroding sandbar that separates our work from our personal lives. Companies with more than 50 employees are encouraged to identify times when employees aren’t expected to reply to emails, for instance. The “right to disconnect,” it turns out, isn’t a right at all. It’s more like the latest round of negotiations between companies and employees about how we draw lines around labor in the digital age. Don’t expect a final settlement any time soon.
For Platforms, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities
NewCos are built on the dream of changing the world by creating new companies that work differently and better than their predecessors. In 2016, the world of tech-fueled, mission-driven, urban-based enterprises could no longer escape the responsibilities that come tied to the bumper of that dream, making a racket. The old excuses — “we’re just a tech company” and “we’re running a neutral platform” — stopped working, as Charlie Warzel writes in Buzzfeed.
This covers both tech giants like Google and Facebook and newer digital-urban hybrids like Uber and Airbnb, according to Warzel: “The idea that their enormous and deeply influential platforms are merely a morally and politically neutral piece of the internet’s infrastructure — much like an ISP or a set of phone lines — that should remain open, free, and unmediated simply no longer makes ethical or logical sense.”
In 2016, whether it was Facebook responding to complaints about “fake news,” Twitter handling outrage at harassment by trolls, or Google dealing with anti-semitic search results, every platform found that users expected action, not excuses, and stands, not equivocation. Every choice carries risks and costs, but evasion is no longer much of an option. For platforms In 2017, expect these moments of truth to come even more frequently.
Redesigning Apple — Minus the Paranoia
What would happen if you stocked a startup with Apple veterans and encouraged them to preserve the best of Apple’s culture — discipline, design, ambition — while jettisoning less appealing aspects like secrecy, hierarchy, and centralization? That’s what a company called Pearl Automation is setting out to learn (Vindu Goel in The New York Times). Pearl makes automotive safety upgrades, like rear-view cameras you can add to your car. It brings innovation, a high-gloss sheen, and premium pricing to its products, all in emulation of Apple, and its devices work in tandem with the iPhone.
But Pearl’s culture aims to empower decision-making much more broadly within the company — unlike Apple, where a tiny group of central-committee leaders sets priorities and plans products. One Apple alum quoted in the Times piece likens Apple’s high-paid expert workforce to “warrior monks” who “don’t talk and do whatever is asked.” While that has certainly worked out for Apple over the past decade, it may not be a model many companies, or many employees, wish to emulate.
Have VCs and Entrepeneurs Become Enablers of Fraud?
2016 saw a raft of ethical trainwrecks in startup land — from allegations that Hampton Creek sent contractors to buy buckets of its vegan mayonnaise to the meltdown of Theranos’s instant blood-testing business to Zenefit’s program of helping employees take shortcuts through training requirements (Fortune). There may or may not be any more fraud in the tech startup world than in any other industry, but for a community that prides itself on combining profitable enterprise with world-improving change, the ethics breaches stand out in extra relief.
Fortune’s Erin Griffiths asks whether the startup culture’s rule-breaking ethos is itself to blame. If you live by “fake it till you make it,” you just might die by faking it a little too much. For the moment, cash-rich investors looking for hits seem willing to look the other way and even to encourage entrepreneurs to punch up their numbers and ignore industry norms. In a financial down-draft, of course, that could all change fast.
John Battelle’s 2016 Predictions — a Scorecard
NewCo editor-in-chief John Battelle starts every year with a list of predictions for the tech economy, and closes out the year by grading himself. How’d he do in 2016? Mostly hits — along with a few standout misses (NewCo Shift).