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Looking for the future of technology among the startup strivers

The new company men of Silicon Valley

Illustrations by William Joel and Alex Castro

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Illustration by William Joel & Alex Castro / The Verge

The following is an excerpt from Ellen Ullman’s new book, Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology. You can read The Verge’s interview with her here.

The startup culture has overtaken San Francisco. It was once a place for kids running away from home, where people in their teens and early twenties came to get away from the lives they were supposed to lead but didn’t want to, to be gay or bisexual or other combinations of sexuality, all looking for some version of the old, wild, open San Francisco: the Beats, hippies, free love, the gay revolution. Yet nothing abides forever, and now we live in a city whose former identities, however mythical, have been swept away. A new wave of youthful seekers has come a-searching for yet another mythical San Francisco: a place where dreams of founding a successful internet startup are born, and fulfilled.     

A coder of websites at Facebook is no one in particular. A manager at Microsoft is no one

Dreams of internet success impose a heavy burden on the recent immigrants. The newcomers soon find themselves buzzing like flies in the sticky paper of the startup life. The ethos that surrounds them says that founding a successful company — getting round after round of venture-capital funding, their startup then valued in the billions — is the measure of the highest personal achievement. It is best to be the CEO; it is satisfactory to be an early employee, maybe the fifth or sixth or perhaps the tenth. Alternately, one may become an engineer devising precious algorithms in the cloisters of Google and its like. Otherwise, one becomes a mere employee. A coder of websites at Facebook is no one in particular. A manager at Microsoft is no one. A person (think woman) working in customer relations is a particular type of no one, banished to the bottom, as always, for having spoken directly to a non-technical human being. All these and others are ways for strivers to fall by the wayside — as the startup culture sees it — while their betters race ahead of them. Those left behind may see themselves as ordinary, even failures.

The hopefuls pride themselves on the role they believe they will play as members of a vanguard that will disrupt the existing social, economic, and political structures. But the would-be CEOs can more accurately be called conformists. They want what they are supposed to want; they are the men in the gray flannel suits of our time: t-shirts and jeans, casual business khakis. They are not wild. They march down the startup alley of Second Street not as assemblies of punks but like a disciplined army on maneuvers— yet ever anxious. Their ventures are likely to fade away, as a fickle public disposes of both the soldiers and the code, app by app.

It amazes me what would-be founders will go through to fulfill their dreams. There is no shortage of organizations standing ready to fan the flames of their desires, groups that arrange events that entice the hopeful to come and make their pitches, to hone their PowerPoint “decks,” to practice catching the investor’s interest in the first two sentences, and most of all to fulfill the dream of getting funding. As I left an event one night, I imagined a hundred rooms across San Francisco and Silicon Valley in which the heat of the strivers’ desires was swirling like cyclones, churning counter to the usual air currents. To go against the prevailing winds!

One event involved a big spinning wheel like ones used on old game shows such as Dialing for Dollars (which is exactly what this event turned out to be). Would-be founders attached their names in the places where money amounts normally appear. Then the wheel went spinning. A hundred or so attendees cheered and whistled while the hopefuls prayed, and the wheel slowed down and down, one name after another moving past the winning spot. Until the wheel stopped. Whoops and hollers: one lucky dreamer was the winner. His prize: the privilege of giving a pitch lasting no more than one minute, to an audience that may or may not have included potential investors. The compensation: he had practiced his moment. He assured himself he would do better next time.       

The most elaborate event I attended was one from Live Sharks Tank®. Everyone, including the presenters, had to buy a ticket, which cost about twenty-two dollars. Three hundred and seven paying customers were in attendance.

That night there would be sixteen strivers making presentations and seven “certified investors,” according to the email invitation from the organizers. As per many other events, pitches could last no more than two minutes. The judges were seven “sharks,” who sat at a table on the stage, ready to question the presenters.

The hopefuls were trying so hard. Most were in their mid- to late- twenties, yet they were like high schoolers auditioning for the holiday play. The most common question from the sharks was direct: “If I invest in you, how do I make money?”

Their fervor was the stuff of ecstasy.

The presentations were a blur of the usual delivery services, life planners, craft products. One can see why venture capitalists have become jaded, cynical about the onslaught of pitches. It’s not clear that the presenters understand the depth of the skepticism they face. There was one standout, however: a man who proposed building virtual-reality devices that would allow the blind to see that alternate world. Given the two minutes, it was hard to tell how he might do this. Nevertheless, it was a reprieve, something meant to benefit not the well-to-do but the needy.

The sharks chose five finalists, who came onstage and sat on metal folding chairs. The sharks, however, would not choose the winner. That determination would be done by the audience, decided by how loudly they whooped for each finalist. And there came another television moment. The master of ceremonies placed his hand over the head of each finalist in turn. Yays, yells, claps, whistles, whoops, and shouts. More softly for the next. Quieter yet for the next one. Until we came to the finalist in seat four. The audience exploded. The winner: the man with the virtual-reality devices for the blind.   

Then it was all over; the stage was bare. Rather than the grouchy slouched exits of the disappointed that I expected, what followed was a round of furious networking, as had occurred in the hour before the presentations. Many stayed to demonstrate their work on their laptops, and others went from demo to demo with genuine interest, expressing approvals, asking questions, or not impressed and moving on. The three hundred in the room wanted to make connections, maybe friends. They seemed happy, joyful even. I realized that, for them, the pitch events were not all trials and humiliations. The meetings were also a chance to be among their own kind, to support one another, sustain their hopes that founding a startup could be realized. The whooping and hollering, the hooting as the wheel of fortune turned: these were their raves. Their fervor was the stuff of ecstasy. These events were their fun.       

After the Sharks event, I spoke with one of the judges, Roger King. He is the founder of the Bay Angels, a group that organizes events where hopefuls give pitches to wealthy individuals, rather than to venture capitalist companies. I asked him what he thought of the evening. “A circus,” he declared it. “Not professional,” by which he meant presenters should get at least eight minutes while they show their deck of slides.

I wondered what tonight’s winner would get. “Nothing,” he said. “Maybe an interview somewhere.” He waved his hand as if that somewhere were in a faraway fantasy land.

What happens in the startup world does not rise from the ground up but descends from the VCs on down

Despite King saying that the Sharks winners received nothing, the event organizer, Jose De Dios, sent me an email in which he averred that the proportion of winners who got funding was nearly 100 percent.   

Roger King’s Bay Angels event took place in a well-appointed law office on a high floor of the tower Embarcadero One. It had sweeping views across the Bay, from the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge in the southeast to the Golden Gate in the north. This aerie — the tower in the sky, the reassuring hush of the ventilators — physically enacted an inherent tenet of the startup culture, I thought. Venture capitalists stand on the heights. What happens in the startup world does not rise from the ground up but descends from the VCs on down.

I stood and looked across the Bay to Oakland, to the wide arc of the evening, where clouds were drifting off after a day of rain. I thought of Google X’s Project Loon, which is a plan to fill the skies with glittering polyethylene balloons. Each balloon, flying with the stratospheric winds, will provide internet access to those on earth within the balloon’s wireless range. The goal is to build a network that will eventually serve the two-thirds of humanity living in the electronic darkness. But I could find no mention on the project’s website of what Google X will give to the people below: reliable electricity, clean water, security from the ravages of ethnic wars, not to mention computers and cell phones and software. Even Bill Gates was skeptical. “When you’re dying of malaria, I suppose you’ll look up and see that balloon, and I’m not sure how it’ll help you,” he told Bloomberg Businessweek. “When a kid gets diarrhea, no, there’s no website that relieves that.”

The Bay Angels’ event was indeed more professional than the Sharks’ gathering. The price of admission, about $11, was waived for presenters, five of them that night, each of whom would get his eight minutes. The 40 or so seats for the audience were mostly filled, not a black face among the attendees, nor would there be among the presenters. Then the pitches began: Yet another travel app, this one involving personal valets. 3D printing. Outlook viewers installed at national parks, like the ones that have telescopes, except these will show virtual reality, the history of the place, etc., as if being there in person was not a sufficient experience. An app to simplify real-estate searches. (Yet more disparagement of women: the typical user, the presenter said, is not fond of tech — in their view, a 55-year-old woman. The common slur: “Even grandma can use it.” Never mind grandpa.)

“I’m not working for society.”

Finally there was something interesting, again a medical application. The presenters described algorithms they had developed for reading MRIs. A woman taking part in the presentation was the chief designer of the algorithms. MRI machines produce images in slice after slice, and it is tedious for doctors to look through them; it’s easy to miss anomalies. The presenters’ software would do the searching. This seemed plausible to me. Computers don’t get tired; they are good at pattern recognition. If I’d had money to invest, I would have gone over to talk to them.

While listening to the MRI presentation I had a moment of believing that, in this grueling winnowing process, something good for society might emerge. I don’t mean a grand scheme to rearrange the lives of human beings around the globe, but a targeted application that would improve the lives of those in need of the technology.

Then the inevitable networking followed. A tall man of about thirty approached me. Enthusiastically, he described the app he was creating. Its algorithms would let employers scan résumés to see which applicants were a good cultural fit for their organization.

My reaction was swift. I told him that “fitness” was another word for selecting a person the group would be comfortable with, a type of person they already knew: guys like themselves. His app, I said, was a way to maintain the existing segregated technical culture.

He listened patiently. “Well, all that may be true,” he replied. “But I’m not working for society. I’m working for the company.”