Political campaigns and startups have always shared some basic traits: They’re ad hoc organizations with limited time and resources to achieve their missions. They inspire both idealism and cynicism. And whether they change the world or not, they change the lives of the people who join them.
It’s still too early to say whether the 2016 election will inspire a wave of new political candidates who draw inspiration from the world of tech startups, but this week brings news of at least one: Developer and game-company founder Brianna Wu, who emerged as a progressive foe of online bullies during the “Gamergate” fight, is exploring a run for a seat in Congress from the Boston area (Venturebeat). Wu credits Donald Trump’s victory as her chief motivation: “I can’t sit by making pleasant video game distractions for the next four years while the constitution is under assault,” she says.
A quarter century ago, Marc Andreessen pioneered the web browser, and as a venture capitalist today he remains a fount of capitalist optimism. In an interview with The Verge, Andreessen says he still hears a “steady drumbeat of empowerment and opportunity coming underneath what looks like a very stressed, very angry time.”
He also thinks the autonomous-vehicle-driven future may take longer to arrive than we expect — the transition will be slow and complex, as NewCo’s John Battelle has argued. But flying cars might well come sooner than you think. “I don’t know if they’ll get them to work,” he admits, but if there’s a breakthrough in battery tech, get ready.
As regular readers of NewCo Shift, you’ve come to expect an eclectic mix of stories covering the biggest shift in our economy since the Industrial Revolution. In the past two months we’ve been brewing up something new. Starting on Monday we’re experimenting with a fresh idea, and I want to tell you about it, and also seek your input.
US public policy and business practices do an abysmal job of taking care of employees who become parents and helping them take care of their families. Out of 41 countries surveyed by the OECD, the U.S. is the only one that does not mandate any paid leave for new parents. That suggests just how far we have to go — so the sooner we start, the better.
As we do, we could take notes on Patagonia’s successful approach. For American workers accustomed to this nation’s sink-or-swim stance towards employees with kids, Patagonia’s parent-friendly policies sound almost utopian (Quartz). The firm provides generous leaves and offers daycare that’s high-quality, convenient, and subsidized (though not free). The policy is intended “not to fix a problem, but to respond to what humans need.”
The real reason Wells Fargo’s CEO had to go. Why did Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf lose his job while so many other banking bosses never paid a price for their company’s malfeasances during the financial meltdown? In Slate, Helaine Olen argues that the Wells scandal, unlike the mortgage-finance fiasco, involved easily comprehensible bad behavior. Derivatives and credit-default swaps are tough to understand. Opening fake accounts without people’s permission? Easier. Stumpf’s old-school blame-throwing and responsibility-ducking didn’t help him. The Wells story gives us one more reminder that if your desk is where the buck stops, don’t try to duck.
What we can learn from Zenefits vs. Gusto. Zenefits was a hard-driving startup that provided software for human-resources management and that was growing like crazy until it smashed into a wall. The revelation that Zenefits had created a tool for salespeople to cut corners on insurance-licensing requirements toppled the firm’s founder and left the company in crisis. Now it’s seeking a comeback (Farhad Manjoo in The New York Times), promising more transparency and a revamped product. But while Zenefits was doing its move-fast-and-break-things act, a smaller competitor named Gusto that provided similar services took a slower, less flashy route, emphasizing trust over meteoric growth. Now Zenefits is desperately trying to persuade the marketplace to give it a second chance — while Gusto snaps up some of its customers. This story is as close as we may ever get to a controlled lab experiment in the long-term value of business ethics. The findings are exactly what you’d expect: Playing fast and loose just doesn’t pay.
Of course you can’t say that and keep your job. Sure, Donald Trump’s recorded comments boasting about sexual predation in crude, callous language are politically toxic. They’re also kryptonite to employment. It’s “hard to believe he could get past the human resources department of a Fortune 500 company,” writes Andrew Ross Sorkin (The New York Times). This issue is no footnote — it’s at the heart of the bitter rancor that marks this election season. Trump’s appeal to his supporters is in part a backlash against socially and legally enforced limits on bad behavior, inadequately and inaccurately lumped together under the label of “political correctness.” It seems that a lot of people still dream of being Lord of Trump Castle and hitting on the powerless wenches. (Sad!) Many Trump fans yearn to turn back the clock to an era when mad men could stalk and abuse their female colleagues, while making tons more money than them, without ever facing consequences. But clocks move in only one direction — away from the indefensible practices of our elders. Trumpism will be swallowed by a tide of younger workers for whom sexual harassment and assault are as plainly over-the-line as other crimes. It’s already happening. This election’s noisy eruptions are the desperate final spasms of a dying belief system.
Science tastes better with Coke. According to a new study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 96 national health organizations — names like the American Diabetes Association and the National Institutes of Health — took funding from Coke and Pepsi between 2011 and 2015 (Time). The soda makers, increasingly under attack for promoting obesity, are struggling to avoid the fate of the tobacco industry by plowing a chunk of their profits toward good relations with the medical establishment. They’re also lobbying hard to resist regulations and taxes on their product. This isn’t a simple story of quid-pro-quo corruption; the health organizations maintain they’re independent and unswayed by the source of their funds. Perhaps they’re turning bad money to a good cause. But when issues are as hotly contested as this one, researchers can’t just assert their integrity; their credibility demands a clean audit trail.
An embattled blood-testing innovator struggles for a reboot. Theranos, the Silicon Valley company that once promised a health revolution, is beating a full retreat from the consumer blood-testing business on which it built its name (The Wall Street Journal). In an open letter, founder Elizabeth Holmes announced that from now on Theranos will shut down its partnership with Walgreens, shed 40 percent of its workforce (about 340 jobs), and concentrate on producing testing equipment to sell to doctors and healthcare facilities. The retrenchment follows Wall Street Journal stories earlier this year that raised troubling questions about inflated claims Theranos had made for its blood tests,and the company’s forthrightness with investors and the public. All along, the lesson from the Theranos affair has been that you can’t build public trust on a foundation of obsessive secrecy. Yet Holmes’ terse, opaque letter suggests that little at Theranos has changed on this front. Sure, she’s treading a legal minefield. But she offers the world no reason to give Theranos a second chance; she doesn’t even acknowledge the problem.
MailChimp is the anti-startup startup. It’s in Atlanta, not the Bay Area. It didn’t load up on venture-capital money early in its life. It grew slowly, and says it has always been profitable. That means that MailChimp, the popular email-list management tool, is still wholly owned by its two co-founders, even as it’s become a company with 550 employees and a projected $400 million in revenue for 2016. (We use it here at NewCo.) Profiling MailChimp in The New York Times, Farhad Manjoo argues that this model deserves more glory than it gets, and might be eminently more sensible for many startups than the VC-backed model, particularly for the kind of small business that makes up MailChimp’s customer base. MailChimp is not immune to funky conference-room names or crazy decor (like a boardroom decorated with skate boards), but in most substantial ways it bucks every Silicon Valley trend yet seems to stay true to the core of the startup ethos — focusing on a mission and serving customers.
Hey you kids, get on my lawn. On Monday 10,000 people attended a party in the White House’s yard celebrating tech, art, and changing the world. It was President Obama’s personal edition of a South by Southwest-style festival; called South by South Lawn, it featured virtual reality demos, social-media stars and conversations about climate change (The Daily Dot). Long lines waited to try out The Guardian’s 6×9, a VR creation that simulates the experience of solitary confinement. Slack founder Stewart Butterfield spoke about how to promote a more diverse startup universe and avoid creating a self-perpetuating system of exclusion. Obama himself chatted with Leonardo diCaprio and climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe about accelerating efforts to cut carbon emissions. For a few hours, at least, you could forget that the 2016 presidential election is already a political and cultural train wreck and imagine a more hopeful future.
A man for all startups? Sam Altman took over as head of Y Combinator, the celebrated Silicon Valley startup accelerator, two years ago, and has presided over a period of rapid growth and escalating ambition. A lengthy profile of “startup Yoda” Altman (by Tad Friend, in The New Yorker) makes it clear that he’s sharp and talented. But when it comes to assessing Altman’s aims and ideals, the story offers a cornucopia of ambiguities. On the one hand, Altman wants to “move the world forward”; on the other, the organization he presides over is like a tech-industry version of a college old-boy’s network, filled with socially homogenous 20-something entrepreneurs. On the one hand, he’s pals with Trump supporter Peter Thiel; on the other, he’s brainstorming ways to muster tech-community power to defeat the GOP candidate. He is both a believer in singularity-style AI breakthroughs and a “prepper” who has made elaborate survivalist plans in case of global catastrophe. “Altman’s great strengths are clarity of thought and an intuitive grasp of complex systems,” writes Friend. “His great weakness is his utter lack of interest in ineffective people, which unfortunately includes most of us.” Can you make social progress happen even if you “see people as chess pieces”? Keep an eye on Altman to find out.