Away with them

Every so often a story comes along which is unremarkable on its face but erupts into wider attention because it seems to represent some larger social fracture zone. …And then there’s the recent story of mismanagement and malfeasance at Away, which has caught the tech world’s attention because it seems a shibboleth for all the industry’s fault lines.

This story is whatever you want it to be. It’s a tale of exploitation of the poor and struggling by executives born rich and privileged; of the unfair, disproportionately harsh and negative scrutiny that women CEOs get; of the inherent cultural toxicity of constant surveillance (Away banned emails and DMs, insisting that all communication took place in public Slack channels); of the need for tech workers fo unionize; of the need for young workers to toughen up and live in the real world, which sometimes has asshole bosses.

Fine, I’ll take a paragraph break, but I’m not done: a tale of how not to apologize (clue: don’t try to exercise draconian control over your employees’ personal social media accounts on the same day you’re publicly apologizing for your previous draconian mistreatment of them); of the sacrifices required to build a startup; of how the real problem boils down to mismanagement and misaligned incentives, and the rest is noise; of how what previous generations considered shitty but acceptable boss behavior is now judged as completely unacceptable toxic abuse.

It is, in short, the perfect Rorschach test for today. Like most Rorschach tests, the panoply of reactions to it is much more interesting than the story itself. This is especially true because of the widespread suspicion that there was a disparity between public responses and private thoughts — that people who didn’t agree that Away’s executives should be lambasted were reluctant to say so. That’s right, it’s also a story about social media, public shaming, cancel culture, and the intolerant left! Seriously, this little morality play has everything.

So, to their eternal credit, the semi-satirical VC Starter Kit account performed a Twitter experiment: “If you’re a VC, founder or journalist, DM me your thoughts on the Away piece and I’ll anonymously post your response here,” and then posted a summary of the responses to (of course!) their Substack.

Interestingly, the results do indeed seem to suggest a far more massive cultural divide than the public responses do. I encourage you to go read them. To my mind, and I concede this is probably pretty idiosyncratic, they ultimately condense down to one of two views: 1. startups are hard, and there are always going to be points where you have to choose between startup success and treating people well, and success comes first; 2. startups are hard, but if you get to the point where you have to choose between startup success and treating people well, you have already royally fucked up, and if you then choose the former, you should be both privately and publicly ashamed of it.

To an extent I think this is generational. It seems that behavior that Gen Xers like myself might stereotypically respond to with “what an asshole, but that’s the way bosses are sometimes, so it goes,” is to Gen Zers “this is completely unacceptable toxic abuse that no one should ever experience.” This is probably almost entirely a good thing. Spreading the notion that it is important to treat other people better than we once did leads a lot more directly to the fabled “better world” than most any of the companies which claim to be doing so.

Granted, on the other hand, if we get to a point where we let the 1% of the most sensitive members of our society, prone to the most negative interpretations of any and all complexity and nuance, dictate what is acceptable, that would be a kind of bizarre form of unacceptable tyranny in and of itself. To be clear I don’t think we’re collectively anywhere remotely near any risk of that; rather, we’re finally beginning to appreciate that “you should be tougher than that” is about as useful to most victims of bullying, misogyny, bigotry, etc. as it is to victims of a stabbing. But it’s important to recognize that the perception of such an endgame, however skewed it is, makes a lot of people uneasy.

Either way, though, I find myself subscribing to theory number two: startups are hard, but if you get to the point where you have to choose between startup success and treating people well, you have already royally fucked up. Just because Steve Jobs was an asshole doesn’t mean that being an asshole is a necessary requirement of CEOdom, much less a sufficient one. If you’ve screwed up to the point that you face that choice, and then go all in on the startup, well, you won’t be the first, or even the millionth … but you may want to take a long hard look at what that word success really means.

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