[Note: This article is a follow-up to How do you treat your staff? Like 37signals, or like this prick?, written after that piece received a lot of attention. But my views are more complex than simple Good vs Evil, as a look through all Calacanis-related posts will show.]
I’m still chuckling at the seriousness with which some people treat getting onto Techmeme. It’s true, I keep stopping typing to giggle. It’s embarrassing.
I’d never visited Techmeme until this weekend. Even then it was only because someone told me I’d blipped up there. It’s just another feed of what someone thinks is “important” in infotech, yeah? Who cares. It’s not as if it’s Reuters or BBC News.
It’s just more geeks telling geeks what geeks think other geeks should think about stuff that geeks think about.
But Jason Calacanis cares.
Jason Calacanis must care very deeply because he “joked” about it on this website, and over at TechCrunch he “joked” about getting pageviews. His fan club speculates that Duncan Riley and me and others are only attacking him to generate our own web traffic. Well, I can’t speak for Duncan, but no, I couldn’t care less about website traffic — especially the low-grade drive-by flamers that usually wash up here after being mentioned on high-traffic fan sites. That’s not why I’m here.
I’m attacking Calacanis because I reckon the business style he describes, the one championed by his defenders, is rotten to the very core.
But first, let’s talk about religion…
The Cult of the Internet Start-up
Attracting attention and scoring pageviews is very, very important to these guys — and for good reason. They’re fully indoctrinated into the Cult of the Internet Start-up. They must generate The Buzz.
Let us now read from their gospel…
… 19 Soon, our Labours will have produced The Beta. We shall ready ourselves to supplicate Our Great Saviour the Venture Capitalist. 20 He shall ask, “Doth thy Beta have The Buzz?” 21 If it does have The Buzz, He will see that It is Good, and He shall writeth The Cheque. 22 And there shall be much rejoicing.
23 And then cometh the Second Phase wherein — praise be to The Great Saviour! — we shall write the IPO. 24 If we still have The Buzz, the Shares shall Rise, and the land will overfloweth with milk and honey. 25 And there shall be much rejoicing…
Internet Start-upers are fundamentalists. Anyone who doesn’t follow their pathway of monomaniacal self-sacrifice (read: high-risk workaholism) in pursuit of the Nirvana of the successful IPO is branded a Slacker, even by The Prophet.
The Cultists truly believe that the faster-faster-VC-to-IPO chase to these glorious riches is the right and proper thing to do — and like all zealots, they think the ends justify the means.
Note also Bill Moore’s comment. “A few million (or 10s of millions, max) dollars a year” and being “very comfortable” isn’t enough for him. He talks a bit about “industry changing”, but soon gets back to the money, complaining if he’d get “only” 15% of $100M.
That’s 15 million dollars, Bill!
There’s a word to describe that.
If you’re on an average US, Australian or European wage, you’re already richer than 99% of the planet. But forget the top 1%. Even being in the top 0.01% isn’t enough, it seems. And anyone who isn’t this filthy greedy, anyone who isn’t prepared to treat people as disposable, exploitable objects along the way, is a “wimp” or a “wannabe”.
“There’s a Pig Loose in the Mosque! Sooooooooooooeeeeee!”
This discussion is heated because we’re not talking about subtly different ways of doing business here. We’re challenging the Cult’s core tenets. That greed is good. That the ideal is to grow fast and cash out, not build something of lasting value. That it’s just fine to burn people out along the way — collateral damage, I guess. That it doesn’t matter if your life is totally out of balance now because it’ll all sort itself out later.
A few years ago I was discussing a couple of Internet start-up concepts with a well-respected VC-savvy adviser who paused and said:
You do realise you’ll be doing business with evil people? They don’t care about anything other than the return on their investment. As long as you deliver that, it’s fine. Just remember, though, they are evil.
The Cult of the Internet Start-up is evil. It’s selfish. It’s inhuman It’s amoral. Using the term “work ethic” to describe driving (or seducing) people into appallingly long work hours to the neglect of family and community and even self is disgusting.
This “grow now, worry about the consequences later” attitude is precisely the greedy, short-term thinking which has driven the world to the edge of an environmental disaster. But who cares, eh? You got your $100M — all of it! Leave someone else to clear up that mess, and plough on to the next “world-changing idea”.
Assuming you don’t die of a heart attack first.
Assuming you have a heart.
Calacanis’ original post exhibited the language of exploitation. Petty bean-counting to suck every last productive hour out of the meat-assets. He changed that wording quick smart, eh? But did he change his attitude?
TechCrunch‘s Michael Arrington did a beautifully-written follow-up — though really the message was standard advice for any business: (1) hire the right people, and (2) don’t waste money, but avoid being penny-wise and pound-foolish.
Some of Calacanisâ€™ points were probably written in haste, like his statement â€œFire people who are not workaholicsâ€ (he later changed it to â€œFire people who donâ€™t love their workâ€). Others were not controversial, like his advice to â€œBuy cheap tables and expensive chairs.â€ Overall, I get the impression that if he had spent just a few minutes editing his post, he would have had a 100% different reaction from readers.
Agreed. The reaction wouldn’t have been as sharp. But changing the surface PR spin is just spraying perfume to cover the underlying stench.
Arrington exhibits the same exploitative signs in a later comment.
â€œAnd I totally agree with you that for x duration you can work someone to death but the person needs to understand what happens once x duration is completed. There has to be downtime.â€
No, they donâ€™t need to understand that. Think of them as a goldfish. Goldfish will eat everything you give them until their little stomachs explode (or so I hear). The key isnâ€™t to find a goldfish that knows when to stop eating. They key is to know when to stop feeding the goldfish, for their own good.
Once again, it’s about treating your staff as objects to be manipulated at your whim. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
“If you’re not like us, you’re a loser”
This is not the only way of starting a new business. It’s just one specific model — about fast growth and high risk. Without a doubt, it can sometimes produce astounding results. It can also crash spectacularly, leaving no survivors.
You can also build a business calmly, rationally, with solid foundations — and with respect for the people and world around you. A business which can weather the storms because the captain has a clear view from the bridge, accurate maps and a firm hand on the wheel — as well as a dedicated crew, of course.
Calacanis has been more measured since he encountered the criticism of his original post, but he’s still condescending when comparing the fundamentalist Cult approach to the truly enlightened 37signals.
You havenâ€™t raised tons of money and youâ€™re building a â€œlifestyleâ€ business from what I gather (correct?) Youâ€™re not trying to displace Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, etc. Youâ€™re not trying to build a service that gets to 100M monthly users, and youâ€™re not on some aggressive timeline. Youâ€™re trying to build something that you enjoy working on and that helps peopleâ€¦ correct?
When you take VC money and try to compete in a really aggressive space like search/research youâ€™re faced with folks like Google, Wikipedia, about.com, Yahoo, eHow, DMOZ , etc. These are big companies with lots of resourcesâ€¦ the way you beat them is to zig where they zag and/or out hustle them. So, if you want to compete in that space youâ€™re gonna need to really work hard â€” youâ€™re not going to do it working a four hour work week thatâ€™s for sure!
I’ll gloss over the fact that one of his differentiators is that 37signals is trying to build something “that helps people”, compared to his megalomaniacal goal of “displace Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, etc”. 37signals’ David Heinemeier Hansson quite rightly takes exception to all this.
[W]eâ€™re not building a â€œlifestyleâ€ business. Weâ€™re just building a business. To take the sound bytes [sic] from the recent Wired article, a multimillion dollar one that doubled in revenues last year…
So please donâ€™t make the choices weâ€™ve made about treating our employees one of a â€œlifestyleâ€ (aka â€œsmall timerâ€, â€œtoyâ€) vs â€œrealâ€ business. That somehow only those happy hippies who are not going for the gold can afford to hire whole people with a life outside of work. Thatâ€™s bullcrap.
I very much do believe, though, that taking VC money with loads of strings attached will put hard pressures and increased stress on the decision making. And that in turn can lead to a culture where long hours and no walking outside for coffee can be seen as good, patriotic practices.
What I take the most offence to, though, is the dichotomist split between the workaholic go-getters who gets the quick cash and the lame waiting-in-line nine-to-fivers who get a gold watch after 30 years. What a crock.
We launched Basecamp four years ago. We built it off a 10 hour/week technical time budget. Itâ€™s very possible to build a â€œrealâ€, multimillion dollar business that has high growth without resorting to the workaholic path.
Mr Calacanis, failing to comprehend that there are paths other than your own is fundamentalism. Even when you pretend to accept that there are alternatives — but still wrap your words in condescension.
Cult Myth #1: “It’s OK, I choose to work this way”
No it’s not OK. If you’re immersed in one specific highly-focussed environment for almost your entire waking life, then your decisions will not be made with a sense of perspective. You are not what DHH calls “a whole person”.
Vast slabs of the social fabric which informs good long-term, ethical decisions simply won’t be on your radar.
And then there’s the guys who say, “Well, I can work 16 hours a day for 7 days a week and it doesn’t do me any harm.” Well bully for you. I bet your dick’s bigger than mine too, eh? This isn’t a contest to see who’s the biggest martyr. It’s about who can achieve the most, not suffer the most.
Remember, Patty Hearst was there “voluntarily” too.
Cult Myth #2: “This is what makes America great”
This is the most toxic myth of all — wrapping your obsession in the flag.
No, this attitude is what makes America look like it’s populated by arseholes. Ignorant, arrogant, self-righteous, self-centred arseholes who consume everything in sight and dump their crap on the rest of the world under the delusion that their way is the best and only way. A nation that only now is starting to realise the mess it’s in.
What actually made America great — past tense — was the visionary foresight of its founders, the political geniuses who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. At the time they knew they were creating some special — not just for the moment, but for all time.
God Bless America.
She’d better, because a clear-headed America will be needed to help face the challenges of the future — the very near future. And an America retreating into medievalism and stubborn arrogance is not what the world needs.
Fighting the Good Fight
So, this is why I refer to Jason Calacanis as a prick. His ill-thought-out wording in an essay intended to convey good advice — and some of it is good advice, let’s not forget! — exposed this smelly underlying attitude of winner-take-all exploitation and devil take the hindmost.
I strongly believe this to be a dangerous, toxic, anti-human attitude and it’s infecting others. It must be fought vigorously and with passion.
Calacanis and his defenders reckon that workaholic exploitation is the only way to “change the world”. It’s not. There’s also clarity of vision, a really good idea, and well-planned execution. It’s the difference between beating one’s opponent with serried ranks of massed foot-soldiers, or using snipers.