Brad Burnham of Union Square Ventures articulated the venture capital firm’s investment thesis in 2011 as investments in:
USV in 140 characters: invest in large networks of engaged users, differentiated by user experience, and defensible though network effects— Brad Burnham (@BradUSV) June 8, 2011
Not all venture capital firms are thesis-based, but the structure of the industry require a small percentage of investments to drive nearly all the returns of a fund. In turn, startups must achieve ballooning valuations, forsaking an exit for founders and early employees to meet the demands of investors.
Perhaps this philosophy would be benign if it were limited to startup unicorns, with valuations north of $1 billion, because startups – no doubt – seek financing with these expectations in mind. Yet this winner-takes-all mindset motivates competitive, aggressive behavior to capture market share and mind share at all costs. The tech industry prizes valuation over ethics, stock options over equal opportunity, and venture funding over sustainable growth.
A widely held view in Silicon Valley is that success is zero-sum. Being perceived as the winner in one’s sector is important for hiring talent, attracting investors and garnering the media’s attention, and the leader has a disproportionate advantage. - 1843 Magazine
In a way, startups are like Hollywood blockbusters, marketing to capture the hearts of millions, but aiming to disrupt our wallets. Ironically, the only way Silicon Valley has managed to succeed in entertainment is by creating a wide variety of compelling, creative original content that does not cater to everyone. But in a world where both giants – Netflix and Amazon – can fund hundreds of hours in original programming while still maintaining millions of paid subscribers and opaque viewership numbers, why does tech care so much about the next big thing?
If a V.C. asks you, “When you get to a hundred engineers, are you worried about the company culture or excited?,” the correct answer is “A hundred? I want a thousand!” Reid Hoffman, a V.C. at Greylock Partners who co-founded LinkedIn, told me, “I look to see if someone has a marine strategy, for taking the beach; an army strategy, for taking the country; and a police strategy, for governing the country afterward.” - New Yorker
Perhaps it is the realization that money, not ideas or people, that drives disruption. In short, you need a lot of money to make a ton of money. Even if startup success is not zero-sum, venture capital funding certainly is close to it, which drives companies to raise larger and larger amounts at bigger and bigger valuations. In the tech community, a “down-round” is almost a curse, a sign that hockey-stick growth is actually closer to a Lombard Street climb. Does slow growth equal slow death?
Being big is defense – a bigger company has more resources to protect its market and its profits. For a short time, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook were the “top five American companies by market capitalization.”
…demand for products and platforms that enable connection will remain huge. The Big Five provide those platforms of the future. - New Yorker
With revenues in the tens of billions, big tech companies can afford to pay software engineers more than startups can, unless those startups are highly-valued, well-funded, and on a promising growth trajectory. Yet without big exits, “the rising cost of talent is turning out to be a big problem for midsize companies.” In addition to spending billions on moonshots, large tech companies can also invest millions in fledging startups, or acquire them outright. Success breeds more success, even if you have to buy it.
Etsy has always wanted to do a whole lot more than sell pot holders: It wants to rewrite the idea of what it is to be corporate, all the while erasing the line between making money and doing good — going so far as to suggest that these two things are essentially the same. - The Cut
Even if profits are not the primary motivation, as is the case in a public benefit corporation such as Kickstarter, there is no guarantee that altruism will drive consumers to pick a do-good company over a for-profit one. In Ben & Jerry’s case, the social mission can survive an acquisition by a global conglomerate. But as long as venture capital returns motivate investors and big payouts motivate early employees, it’s hard to imagine a startup staying small and working for the public good.
Sources inside the company in the years after Twitter’s IPO also said that product decisions were often scrapped or never advanced out of initial tests if they were thought to inhibit user growth. – Buzzfeed
In the name of growth, Twitter abandoned product needs for revenue needs, allocating resources to keep users engaged rather than stopping them from leaving because of harassment. The importance of a platform that values free speech, which in turn has empowered revolutions and movements, may not be enough to sustain a business. In a world where “two out of three Facebook users get their news from the platform,” grassroots movements like “Black Lives Matter” will have a hard time escaping the filter bubble to shape the policing narrative. A social network that allows campaigns to organically proliferate – rather than stifling them with political bias and happiness experiments – is a network that is optimizing for something other than revenue and user growth. So why should slow growth condemn a social network to extinction?
Ello is not going to grow as quickly as possible. Last year we did everything we could to slow growth, and to allow time for Ello to grow the right way. We’re keeping that course. Ello will grow in other ways — in quality, in positivity, through community, and in new features and updates designed to support a visual network filled with love, light, and unbridled creativity. – Paul Budnitz, Founder and CEO of Ello
Ello is a social network. It is also a public benefit corporation. Similar to many startups, it doesn’t have public user numbers, but it does have millions in funding. It is no longer seen as a “Facebook killer”, but now serves a niche community of creators with its ad-free revenue model and troll-free user base. With the average internet user having accounts on over 6 social networks, there’s hope for Ello to be one among many, even if it is not the biggest. Hopefully it will have the time – and the money – to become profitable before venture capital either forces it to sell-out or shut down. Like Twitter, it can “still be a very successful smaller business for a highly engaged audience.”
“Verizon has two choices in my view. They can either let everything as is, and Tumblr will forever be a small service you provide for the benefit of a small quirky community that nobody gets or is able to make money out of, or they change what Tumblr in essence is,” writes Rocha. – Fast Company
Though tech companies have a real potential to alter the landscape of what it means to be a corporation through certifications and alternate legal structures, these are only small steps toward better companies, rather than “disruptions”, in the parlance of Silicon Valley. The unspoken belief is that the arbiter of future success is past success, which furthers the inequality between the successful and the success-less. Maybe one day the sharing economy will share success too.
It is a shame that nearly all good things stay small. Perhaps we shouldn’t disrupt them.