WeWork (an American commercial real estate company which provides shared workspaces for technology start-ups), have had their share of problems recently. They grew very fast after their establishment in 2010 and achieved astronomical valuations – but have now come down to earth with a bump.
“Controversial founder” (as the papers put it) Adam Neumann has been ejected and the money men have taken over in a bid to hang onto some of their huge investment. They are going to fail as there is a mismatch between the commitments WeWork made to landlords and their ability to get in incomes from tenants. Reading the financial press is like watching a car crash in slow motion. Everyone can see what is going to happen but can do little about it.
Now comes the news that their IT is “a patchwork of cheap devices and band-aid fixes that will take millions to fix” from Business Insider. This might come as a surprise as their business is all about offering flexible and stylish office space in which it is vital that the IT works well – such are the demands of modern work.
To Silicon Valley watchers, though, this is not a surprise. Neumann is not so much an exception as a type. A messianic leader (and probable egomaniac), who aimed for and achieved rapid growth is a fair description of quite a few entrepreneurs hatched on the USA’s west coast. Driven by fear and greed (and egged on by investors) they were the darlings of the business world. They grabbed market share by cutting corners and drinking the cool aid of an innovation culture in which perfectionism is the enemy of progress. They think it is better to get quick to market with a ‘minimum viable product’ than risk being caught up by a competitor. “Move fast and break things” was how Mark Zuckerberg summed up this mindset.
In 2014, I reviewed Hatching Twitter by Nick Bilton for Aurora and wrote this: “The existence of ready-made platforms, code and other services mean that prototypes can be quickly made and tried. In fact, Twitter was one such – it was, so to speak, stitched together using existing elements.” In the early story of Twitter, the service went down frequently and nearly fell apart as users grew rapidly. Twitter had put a rickety prototype on the market and hoped that it could fund a more robust system before it lost its reputation. They got away with it.
I experienced this culture while working at Google. Often our ‘hangouts’ (international online team meetings) were disrupted by IT that did not quite work (we could hear each other but not see each other). We could share slides but too many people were on the hangout and so the communication would slow up and so on. I used to get very stressed by this if I was presenting slides on the hangout – but I noticed that my younger colleagues were more relaxed and more adept at finding a ‘work around’ and thus keep the meeting going.
Does this matter? It is irritating for a microblog to go offline and a meeting to be disrupted, but as my father used to say “nobody died”.
However, if your ambition is to enter markets where health, lives and personal wealth are at stake this attitude can look casual and arrogant. I think this explains why Zuckerberg got such resistance to launching a cryptocurrency (Libra) and why self-driving cars are taking off very slowly. The USA is the land of the lawyer and if your much-hyped and exciting innovation causes injury (or worse), then you will face a bankrupting class action suit.
Perhaps Zuckerberg should give a speech in which he advocates a policy of “move slower and make sure the thing works.”
Julian Saunders was CEO, Red Cell (a WPP creative agency) and Head of Strategy, McCann Erickson. firstname.lastname@example.org