Paul Graham, founder of startup factory Y Combinator, has ignited a new debate in tech world with an essay on “mean people.”
It may sound like a trite idea, but it has deeper meaning right now as it is squarely aimed at Uber, though it never mentions Uber once.
Graham is a man of stature in the technology startup world. His words matter. Y Combinator has created startups like Dropbox, and Airbnb. As of last year, Y Combinator companies were worth over $US13 billion.
Uber is the most dominant, exciting startup to appear since Facebook. It’s also the most polarising startup since Facebook.
This month has been dominated by story after story of Uber executives misbehaving: From Uber’s CEO proudly admitting to messing with a rival’s fundraising, to an Uber executive suggesting the company spend $US1 million to research and attack its critics. There are, of course, many more stories about the company and its executives that people like to gossip about off the record.
Some people think that these arrogant, ruthless, jerkish characteristics are necessary for a startup to succeed.
Graham seems to disagree. He thinks the opposite is true. He thinks people that are mean will fail:
Why? I think there are several reasons. One is that being mean makes you stupid. That’s why I hate fights. You never do your best work in a fight, because fights are not sufficiently general. Winning is always a function of the situation and the people involved. You don’t win fights by thinking of big ideas but by thinking of tricks that work in one particular case. And yet fighting is just as much work as thinking about real problems. Which is particularly painful to someone who cares how their brain is used: your brain goes fast but you get nowhere, like a car spinning its wheels.
Startups don’t win by attacking. They win by transcending. There are exceptions of course, but usually the way to win is to race ahead, not to stop and fight.
Another reason mean founders lose is that they can’t get the best people to work for them. They can hire people who will put up with them because they need a job. But the best people have other options. A mean person can’t convince the best people to work for him unless he is super convincing. And while having the best people helps any organisation, it’s critical for startups.
While this is an ideal view of the world, lots of people are already questioning how realistic it is.
After all, Bill Gates was considered one of the toughest, meanest, most ruthless businessmen at the height of Microsoft’s power. Steve Jobs was considered a jerk and a very difficult person to work with. Larry Ellison, one of the richest men in the world, is a brutal businessman.
It seems like there is a distinction between being a “nice” person and being a ruthless businessperson. The two are not mutually exclusive. You can been a good-hearted person who is kind to people in your circle, while still being a mean, ruthless arrogant businessperson.