I’m writing this on a red-eye flight back to NYC, DoSomething and Crisis Text Line flying back home after a week in Silicon Valley. We’re exhausted after our CEO Nancy Lublin brought 8 of us out here to meet 16 different companies in five days. These 16 companies were generous to give us hours of their best people’s time and allow us to pepper them with questions about product design, engineering, data, culture and priorities at the bleeding edge of tech. We talked a lot, listened a lot and have a bunch of insights about how to make our products, processes and companies more effective, impactful and empathetic. But instead of sleeping on the plane I wanted to do some reasoning about what I observed this week.
We went to amazing offices in the valley. We explored Facebook’s new campus and roof garden, Twitter HQ on Market Street, ZenDesk’s seven story modern fortress and many more. With the money to buy thousands of square feet, these companies can create literal walled gardens for their employees. The idea of San Fransisco techies being a privileged elite is common and many of them were open about the cultural bubble they work in. We often heard about how important empathy is for users, to understand the motivations and tendencies of very diverse group.
(Almost) Everyone we met was incredibly kind and everyone was incredibly smart. There's a perception of companies as monoliths entities that act as a singular entity, but when I spoke to individuals at some of these companies I saw that they still have a human engine that drives it all. At various points throughout the Facebook campus is a poster that reads “Is this a technology company?”. This raises a question I think is really crucial to these social companies. Ostensibly, Facebook is a technology company. Palantir is a technology company. Slack is a technology company. But all these places exist because of people and people problems. It seems a lot of them attribute their success just as much to their focus on empathy and the individuals who use their products. ZenDesk has a support team for their support team that supports the client (a support team).
But for all these people who care about real problems that people are facing, there's a reality that these companies are facing decisions intersecting profit and people. Twitter has a problem with harassment and their product acts as a megaphone for hatred and abuse. Their Safety team is committed and works actively to bring in individuals who have experienced harassment to help them develop solutions. But anyone around for the rise of the GamerGate controversy has seen a subpar response from Twitter the company. I don't want to pick on Twitter, but they've failed a large swath of people because their individual teams concerned with safety and harassment aren't in the driver's seat when it comes to prioritizing features. Advertisement and revenue products are taking a precedence at the expense of users, which is a real slippery slope.
One of my primary gripes with current startup culture is this people vs profit mentality, where users become a resource to be spent for venture capital or advertisement. Growth at all costs means that you'll have to trade something for revenue later down the line and it's usually the users who pay that cost with their privacy or their wasted time when the business has to shut down. The current structure allows for a business to run for years with the goal of being acquired, at which point the investors get a return on their investment and customers are left with a "sun setting" blog post and 30 days to download their data.
I really enjoyed my time in San Fransisco and learned a lot from a number of people who were kind enough to share, but even now I can't shake the feeling that the startup world isn't about building a sustainable future of great products but rather living for the future 5 minutes from now, riding the waves of venture capital.