The Dangerous Hubris of the Startup World

Students of history will almost certainly be familiar with the 7 Deadly Sins – the list of human vices that are,  purportedly, the source for much of humanity’s evil. Of these, one in particular stands out:

In almost every list  Pride, or  hubris, is considered the original and most serious of the seven deadly sins, and the source of the others. It is identified as a desire to be more important or attractive than others, failing to acknowledge the good work of others, and excessive love of self.

Despite age-old recognition regarding the folly of pride, it remains pervasive in politics, culture, media and enterprise – and it’s definitely with us in the startup world, too.

Here’s Quora’s Charlie Cheever (emphasis mine):

…Investors appear to be convinced that it will (gain popularity): Quora snagged $11 million in Series A financing, largely thanks to former Facebook colleague Matt Cohler, who is now with Benchmark Capital. It helps that Quora’s closest competitors are sites full of poorly articulated and often unreliable answers (think Yahoo! Answers, Formspring, Mahalo, Ask or Cheever dismisses the notion that there is a direct competitor for Quora.

Really? Quora has no competition?

Next up is Mark Zuckerberg, whose ego (or misconceptions about it, depending on your  perspective) inspired a motion picture:

“You have one identity,” he emphasized three times in a single interview with David Kirkpatrick in his book, “The Facebook Effect.” “The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly.” He adds: “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”

Another extremely bold statement coming from a CEO and shareholder in a company that monetizes identity. It shows… chutzpah, at the least.

Perhaps no one is more transparent about his maniacal hubris than Elon Musk (of Paypal, Solar City, Tesla and Space X):

“We’re all focused on our little things that are of concern to humanity itself. People think of curing AIDS or cancer as being very important, and they are—within the context of humanity. But curing all forms of cancer would improve the average life span by only two to three years. That’s it.”

“In other words, while eradicating disease is a worthy pursuit, and would extend the lives of individual human beings, my  life’s work is extending the life span of life itself.”

While I admire the “big dream” perspective, I think a lot of people would take offense at the insinuation that curing cancer or AIDS are, relatively speaking, “little things.”

Apple’s Steve Jobs “is considered one of Silicon Valley’s leading egomaniacs.”

The ego of Googlers starts at the top and seems to run down the chain of command.

It would seem that hubris is no anomaly in the startup world, particularly in some of the most successful companies on the radar – Google, Facebook and Apple could certainly be joined by the likes of Microsoft (particularly in their halcyon days), Oracle and Amazon.

How, then, can we reconcile the supposed evil and inevitable downfall that accompanies pride with the success that arrogant companies and CEOs achieve. Are “nice guys” (rumor holds that Yahoo!’s Jerry Yang fits this mold) doomed to fall by the wayside while their egotistical peers rise to fame and fortune?

I suspect not.

In fact, while a few big examples dominate the headlines, my experience has been that a great number of good people with down-to-earth personalities make up the startup landscape, and the “no assholes rule” is spreading.

Years ago, some pretty big assholes ruled the worlds of supporting startups and venture investing. But over the past decade, and particularly the last five years, it’s my sense that a new,  introspective, self-effacing  breed are moving into the drivers’ seat.

Netflix’s Reed Hastings could serve as an example, Groupon’s Andrew Mason is likely another and Zappos’ Tony Hsieh a third. I know a few folks in the space that I’d personally vouch for (at least, from my interactions) as honest, humble and down-to-earth, including Fred Wilson (Union Square Ventures), Paul Graham (YCombinator), Andrew Braccia (Accel),   Joe Greenstein (Flixster), Brian Halligan & Dharmesh Shah (Hubspot), Naveen Selvadurai (Foursquare), Sachin Agarwal (of Posterous) and many more.

I don’t mean to conflate arrogance/pride/hubris with confidence, vision or tenacity. These individuals have the latter three in spades, but manage to eschew the traditional egomania that often accompanies them.

It’s certainly possible that I’m experiencing selection bias – maybe the groups I connect with and the people I know are responsible for this perception. But I don’t think so – my instincts say there’s a stylistic shift away from hubris towards a more open-minded founder/investor/startup-er.

I suspect that the increase in humility is led by several factors:

• Increased publicity and demands around evangelism for investors and founders which leads to greater value in having authentic, humble, like-able people in these lead roles.

• A shift towards investing in founding teams that don’t necessarily have a “Harvard-MBA” style background (no offense to Harvard, but they certainly create a culture of pride and entitlement) which brings more diverse mindsets to the startup landscape.

• A less escapable reputation and a more connected marketplace due to the nature of media and web technologies which means burning bridges or even rubbing the wrong person the wrong way can have a much greater network effect.

• Increasing availability/accessibility of capital, ideas, people and startups themselves which opens the playing field to a more down-to-earth market.

• A dramatic  increase in the availability of resources and knowledge about how to build a great company, meaning that those who are open to receiving knowledge, learning from others, accepting outside viewpoints and generally staying open-minded can benefit more from those traits that at any previous time.

In the past, I might have posited that humility was its own reward and that, in the long term, it might yield better results than an attitude of “I’m always right.” But I think I can also add that today, it’s more likely to get you meetings, funding, sales and PR (the good kind, anyway).

I hope that’s not just wishful thinking.