I throw up in my mouth a little every time someone says the words, “the next Mark Zuckerberg.” What a shameful, limiting ambition.
I’m all for entrepreneurs getting rich. When we create real value, wealth is a byproduct of success. But we can and should do more than emulate Silicon Valley’s tech moguls.
Entrepreneurs deserve better role models
Facebook may have 1 billion users, but it is a socially corrosive business. It’s value to brands and advertisers is undeniable. That’s because you’re not the customer, you’re the product. And online social networking (not just Facebook) exacerbates feelings of isolation, depression, and an inability to connect with our fellow humans.
Don’t be evil doesn’t mean “Be good”
In his interview with Josh Constine of TechCrunch, Twitter and Jelly co-founder Biz Stone said of Google’s “don’t be evil” mantra:
“A feeling I got from working at Google was that technology could solve any problem. Yes it’s fantastic, but what I realized later was there’s technology and there’s people. Google had its list ordered: Technology. People. And I think the right order is: People. Technology. You have to think about people first and technology second. Hopefully technology gets out of the way.”
“The other thing I learned was their whole aphorism, their internal words to live by is ‘Don’t Be Evil’. Originally I thought that was great, but then I realized ‘Don’t Be Evil’ isn’t ‘Be Good’. It’s measuring everything on a scale of evil.” Stone put on his villain voice, stating “We’re going to assume we’ll always be inclined to evil. Well let’s try to remind ourselves not to be evil.”
“That’s when I realized aphorisms framed in the negative don’t work. A better aphorism might be ‘Be Good’. Don’t have an aphorism that ‘don’t be something’.
I spent an amazing summer as a Google intern in 2007. For all the cool stuff Google does, it’s a much more evil organization than it seemed to me back then.
Capitalism gone rogue
On the heels of this week’s Dreamforce conference, Jack Clark The Register lambasted Salesforce CEO Mark Benioff’s hyper-capitalist pronouncements of a future fueled by big data.
In Salesforce-land, it seems, an ideal future is one where the oceans are being boiled by vast cloud-hosting data centers, which are churning over the endless streams of data companies are harvesting from a world of hapless, technologically unskilled consumers. The better Salesforce gets, the louder and more incessant capitalism becomes.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the keynote is not the technology – after all, Salesforce is just a solid database with a bunch of sophisticated data brokerage services – but Benioff, who has the aura of a cult leader.
The dead giveaway for this is the tremor that creeps into his voice when he mentions the customer, and the way his eyes well up whenever telling about how $GLOBAL_CONGLOMERATE has been able to use his firm’s tools to sell more stuff more effectively to consumers. Salesforce is an arms dealer, companies like General Electric are the munitions buyers, and we are the prey. “Remember who I am and the loyalty I deserve,” he said.
Benioff is singled out, but he’s a convenient, and visible stand-in for many top CEOs in Silicon Valley who share his views.
Facebook, Google and SalesForce are three of the largest and most profitable web technology companies of our era. Their founders are titans, and their tireless work, vision, and–above all–the ability to execute, are what propelled them to such extravagant wealth.
Benioff, Brin and Zuckerberg are not people whom I know personally (though I have met Brin). They’re empire-builders, generals, and no one can besmirch what they have created. But we idolize them because they’re rich, not because of the impact they have made through technology. When we try to walk in their shoes, we limit what is possible.
The heroes we deserve
Every industry has their celebrities, and tech is no exception. Facebook, Tumblr and Square have done a lot to elevate the founder as rock star myth, but it’s good not to get to swept up in in. When your company is successful people will overlook almost anything.
With that said, here are two founders I admire, and whom I think paint a different portrait of a change-making CEO.
While not a pure technology company, The Honest Corporation uses technology to advance a purifying mission. Co-founded by actress turned entrepreneur, Jessica Alba, Honest produces environmentally-responsible products for children. Any manufacturing operation has high startup costs, and low margins compared to technology, but the Honest Corporation has a clear, and beneficial mandate.
Twilio is a company I admire. Founded by Jeff Lawson, Twilio allows anyone with coding skills to build telecommunications apps and services leveraging existing infrastructure. Telecoms apps used to be built from the ground up, which limited what could be built and by whom. You probably use several apps that have integrated Twilio’s functionality, and you didn’t know it.
SMS is still one of the most disruptive technologies, because billions of people around the world are getting their first phone– a feature phone. Disruption is about technology’s impact on people, and Twilio is for the next billion.
Let’s stop chasing billions for a second and think about how we can make money, and make a difference.
So my question to you is this; who are the real entrepreneurial role models of our generation? Let’s change the conversation about who are role models should be. Maybe it’s you.
If you’re working to make the world a better place, I’d love to share your story.
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