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In Silicon Valley, do the jerks always win?

Preston Gralla | Dec. 23, 2014
The frequency with which bad-boy behavior crops up in the epicenter of tech culture can certainly make it seem that way.

Do you need to be a jerk to succeed in Silicon Valley? The frequency with which bad-boy behavior crops up in the epicenter of tech culture can certainly make it seem that way.

The latest dustup involves the ride-sharing service Uber, whose senior vice president for business, Emil Michael, said he planned to hire private investigators to dig up dirt on journalists who he felt criticized the company. It sounded like a contemporary take on Nixon's enemies list.

Michael is still with Uber. Company founder and CEO Travis Kalanick didn't demote or fire him, opting to merely disavow the idea. And Michael's transgression was hardly an isolated case of jerk behavior at Uber. A writer for San Francisco magazine has charged that she was told by people inside Uber that the company might monitor her rides on the service. There have been allegations that Uber has played dirty tricks on its competitor Lyft, it was revealed that Kalanick has privately called the service Boober because its success has made it easier for him to pick up women, the company has come out with blatantly sexist promotions, and more.

If you think all of that sounds like a company that is imploding, I have to inform you that Uber is valued at $18 billion.

And Uber is not an isolated case, but merely the latest manifestation of well-documented jerk culture among tech startups. The game company Zynga, for example, has faced lawsuits for illegally copying games of its competitors, has been charged with working with scam advertisers, and at one point forced four senior employees to either give up some of their non-vested stock or be fired. Zynga founder and one-time CEO Mark Pincus admitted in a speech at Startup@Berkeley, "I funded the company myself, but I did every horrible thing in the book to, just to get revenues right away. I mean we gave our users poker chips if they downloaded this zwinky toolbar which was like, I don't know, I downloaded it once and couldn't get rid of it."

Even established companies in Silicon Valley have exhibited jerk behavior. Apple founder Steve Jobs, thought by some to be almost saintlike, was not exactly a warm and fuzzy human being. Biographer Walter Isaacson said Jobs was both "Good Steve" and "Bad Steve," and he included a variety of "Bad Steve" anecdotes in his biography of him: He denied paternity of his daughter for years (he ultimately accepted it), short-changed Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak on a bonus, and more.

Do we have to just accept this as the way things work? No. In fact, it's not uncommon for bad behavior to come back and bite the founders and their companies.


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