Internet, Startups

Of Mercenaries and Missionaries

Right at the end of my time at college I discovered the Mac. I remember being astounded at just how much better it was than anything else I had tried to use. I was struck by the care taken with the whole user experience. I had a sense of connection via the object with the designers. I started to learn more about the company, how it had been founded, its values and its structure. The more I learnt about this cheeky almost rebellious company the more it appealed to me, as it unapologetically pointed to an alternative in a complacent and creatively bankrupt industry. Apple stood for something and had a reason for being that wasn’t just about making money.

Jony Ive, talking about why he joined Apple

If you had to pick a company in Silicon Valley (and maybe the US) with the strongest culture, Apple would have to be at the top. Really, who is better? The loyalty of their top executives is astonishing. Jony Ive, 20 years (he joined in 1992). Eddy Cue, 23 years. Phil Schiller, 17 years at Apple all together, 15 of them in his latest run. Scott Forstall, 15 years. Tim Cook, 14 years. Bob Mansfield, 13 years.

For each of them I suspect Apple is their life’s work. Ive’s quote is telling; it succinctly sums up why people come to Apple and why they stay. I have friends who work at Apple and almost all of have said something similar to me over the years. By all accounts, it’s not an easy place to work. It is full of stress. But people go, and stay, because they feel like they’re part of a larger mission and cause. It’s why this video was so incredibly important when Steve Jobs returned in 1997.

But Apple, alas, is not the norm. A more mercenary culture is pretty pervasive in Silicon Valley, and indeed in the tech world. I saw it throughout the late 1990s, and you see it very much in evidence today. People latching on to a rising startup for a year, two, three or four; looking for riches through that IPO or the acquisition. Then ditching out and on to the next thing.It’s accepted practice among the career-minded and ambitious. But it can have a devastating effect on the startups those folks join; when times get tough, or even a little uncomfortable, the mercenaries are always the first to flee.

If I were an active investor, this would be one of the key ares where I’d focus. Is the company full of mercenaries? Or missionaries?

And as someone hiring people at a startup, it’s one of the first things I try to understand. Are you just another mercenary? Or do you want to help us change the world, through thick and (a lot of) thin?

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