The problem with start-up culture

The problem with start-up culture

Editor's Letter: Sarah Fulford

Mark Zuckerberg’s credo “move fast and break things” guided Silicon Valley start-ups for many years. It proved to be a winning philosophy. Big Californian tech companies innovated brilliantly, expanded rapaciously and generated ludicrous sums of money. Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Google shape the way we live and wield astonishing power all over the world. Because of their success, other companies try to imitate their corporate habits and style.

The big four became economic giants while cultivating the personas of rebel teens gate-crashing the stuffy corporate establishment. They were capitalists, sure, but revolutionaries too, empowering the dispossessed with information, equipping activist groups with better communication tools and providing workers with new economic opportunities.

Along the way, however, they did break many things. Big tech decimated the media business and launched the greatest disruption of the labour market since the Industrial Revolution—all while ingeniously avoiding paying its fair share of corporate taxes. Facebook is in the news constantly for the threat it presents to democracy itself. It possesses the largest-ever repository of personal data, which can be exploited to sway elections and spread propaganda. The sanctimony of Silicon Valley’s early years has given way to unease, skepticism and congressional hearings.

Even the much-admired, bro-ish playground vibe of start-ups, with their ping-pong tables, candy buffets and beer on tap, has come to be associated with a culture of sexual harassment and discrimination. Shane Smith stepped down as CEO of Vice Media after several employees were accused of sexual misconduct. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick was pushed out for fostering a toxic workplace. In November, 20,000 Google employees walked off the job in a one-day protest against corporate sexism and systemic racism. Big tech is being forced to admit that there is more to corporate citizenship than maximizing shareholder value.

What does this period of moral reckoning mean for Toronto start-ups? Entrepreneurs sometimes complain that Canada is a bad place to grow a business—that we are over-regulated and overtaxed, and that investors are too slow to take risks. Industry players convene panels and conferences on the question of our competitiveness, trying to figure out how Toronto can truly become Silicon Valley North.

But maybe Canada’s signature prudence will serve us well in the long run. Maybe we’ll learn from the mistakes of our headline-­grabbing counterparts south of the border. Maybe, instead of trying to replicate the cowboy culture that has led to so many public relations catastrophes, we’ll build our own, better version. Maybe Toronto can become a powerful global tech centre that’s also guided by a strong ethical compass. It’s nice to see some local CEOs working toward that goal.

Four years ago, my colleague, Mark Pupo, an exacting editor with a sharp eye for detail, left Toronto Life to work at a rapidly expanding tech company. (He continued freelancing for this magazine as its chief restaurant critic. You might know him as the guy who ranks the city’s best new restaurants every April.) Though he threw himself into his new job, he never really embraced the ethos, and he couldn’t help but see his new industry through the eyes of a reporter. The resulting story about his misadventures, “Animal House,” is an entertaining on-the-ground account of what he observed and learned.

In the end, journalism won Mark back. I hope we get to keep him.

Sarah Fulford is the editor of Toronto Life. She can be found on Twitter @sarah_fulford.