The new tech entrepreneurs need to grow up fast

27 June 2017

Anti-Uber protest

The inhabitants of Silicon Valley are not used to being on the back foot. They are the ones disrupting old industries with exciting new tech-driven models. They are the ones becoming billionaires before 30. They are – well, the way of the future.

The old rules don’t apply. And the new rules are self-evidently better.

But recently the shine has come off fairly dramatically. As yet another sexual harassment scandal has been highlighted around the behaviour of venture capitalist Justin Caldbeck of Binary Capital, the industry has been forced at least to acknowledge one thing. There is a problem.

Because if it was just Uber, you could write it off as one bad apple. But credible stories have been emerging from many quarters since Susan Fowler blew the whistle on her experiences there.

At the least they need to learn the social responsibility lessons that the established companies have already learnt

The Linked In co-founder Reid Hoffman was moved to suggest that the tech industry needs to frame a “Decency Pledge”, a code of conduct that would describe what all those ‘old-style’ fusty businesses have long since recognised as basically social responsibility but which apparently needs to be spelled out for the new generation.

Maybe it would help. But really, Silicon Valley should expect to do better than that.

If you create an aspirational model that is all about personal enrichment, then you encourage the most shark-like tendencies. Trying to rein in the consequences of that with a few rhetorical exhortations for good old-fashioned decency is hardly scratching the surface.

Instead, you should look towards that aspirational model. 

Some of the more mature tech companies have learned – some the hard way – that new business models have the capacity both to be more sustainable and socially responsible but also to uncover new ways to get it wrong.

Google recently announced that they would no longer scan the emails of users of their ‘free’ Gmail service in order to target adverts at them. The move was cautiously welcomed by privacy campaigners, but to be honest it was as much motivated by the realisation that Google now has access to better data about user preferences than it ever achieved by scanning emails.

Nevertheless, it represents another chapter in the maturing debate around how much privacy people should be expected to sacrifice in return for customised services. Because we know there is a line somewhere. We just haven’t quite worked out where it is.

And, of course, Google has been in the forefront of seeking to use its technology to solve society’s problems, particularly in the areas of smart energy grids and other initiatives around sustainability. Companies like Apple, Tesla and Facebook have all established significant profile in the context of making a positive impact on the world.

It SHOULD have become part of the aspirational model of the new tech entrepreneur. After all, the millennials are supposed to be the more sustainability-minded generation. The new tech entrepreneurs should be the ones disrupting old models not just to use technology to improve customer experiences and thereby build great businesses, but also to challenge the old notion that it’s only about the bottom line.

We have some great role models in Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, successful tech entrepreneurs who have mobilised the vast majority of their wealth in the name of social benefit. But they still made their money by exploiting their near-monopoly status hard while they could – being the biggest shark in the shark tank – and then belatedly giving some of it away.

The new tech entrepreneurs could represent a step forward. They could be the people that understand that, in order to create wealth for the long-term, you need to create wealth in the right way from the beginning. We need that because only such a powerful movement of successful businesses can be the counter-weight to the dinosaurs that believe the only signals businesses need to care about are those from the marketplace. 

We also need that because these are the entrepreneurs and the businesses that will set outrageous ambitious goals for sustainability and achieve them.

Maybe they won’t meet that aspiration. But at the very least they need to learn the social responsibility lessons that those older established companies have already learnt. They need to learn that business should be conducted with a base of values.

Without it, they have a movement focused on bright sparkly objects but without maturity and wisdom. That cannot be the enduring new face of business for the sustainable age.