As the co-founder of Silicon Valley's top startup accelerator and one of the technology industry's best-connected investors, Y Combinator's Paul Graham wields massive influence. At the moment, he's using that influence in a way it's hard to find fault with: trying to convince people that being nice is a crucial ingredient to success as a founder. 

In a blog post titled "Mean People Fail," Graham argues that founders who treat other people badly almost never succeed at the highest levels. He chalks up that (alleged) correlation to a number of factors, including the importance of retaining top talent and the "spirit of benevolence" that animates the greatest startups.

It's a great message to be putting out into a world that could use more kindness. Too bad it's not right.

I'm saying "not right" rather than "wrong" because Graham's thesis is the kind of mushy thing it's impossible to falsify, lacking data or definitions. But even without those, his logic breaks down on close inspection, repeatedly. Let's count the ways.

1. "Mean" and "nice" are useless constructs. They're entirely relative. Both exist only in the eye of the beholder, and the same person can be either mean or nice depending on who's doing the beholding. One of the digital entrepreneurs I know best, Gawker Media's Nick Denton, is widely reviled, especially in the tech industry, for the frequently venomous tone of his company's websites. He loves causing trouble for powerful people and his employees have been known to refer to him as the "Dark Lord." He's also a beloved guy with scores of friends who treats his employees better than he has to and has been described to me as "the best boss I've ever had." Is Denton mean or nice? Yes.

What about Mark Zuckerberg, who snickered about his plan to screw the Winklevosses "in the ear" when they considered him a partner? What about Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs, all renowned for their ability to reduce underlings to piles of ash with a withering critique? 

I'm not surprised that Graham finds almost everyone in his orbit to be nice. He's a major power broker whose favor anyone with a brain would want. But he should know that many of the founders he thinks of as lovely people have their not-so-nice sides, too. Indeed, it's a common view (held by Fred Wilson, among others) that the same quality that makes some founders difficult to work with is often what makes them brilliant.

2. The world hasn't changed as much as Graham thinks. Here's what he believes has happened:

For most of history success meant control of scarce resources. One got that by fighting, whether literally in the case of pastoral nomads driving hunter-gatherers into marginal lands, or metaphorically in the case of Gilded Age financiers contending with one another to assemble railroad monopolies. For most of history, success meant success at zero-sum games. And in most of them meanness was not a handicap but probably an advantage.

That is changing. Increasingly the games that matter are not zero-sum. Increasingly you win not by fighting to get control of a scarce resource, but by having new ideas and building new things.

Yet only three paragraphs earlier, Graham was saying that mean people fail because "they can't get the best people to work for them.... And while having the best people helps any organization, it's critical for startups." In other words, success is still about control of scarce resources. Sure, you can argue that niceness is an advantage in acquiring talent, but you can equally well argue that the best people want bosses who challenge them and even scare them a little. Who wouldn't want to work for Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos? 

It's not just the talent game that's still zero-sum. Uber, one of the most successful startups ever, is proceeding on the assumption that it must crush Lyft in the battle for drivers and riders in order to dominate ridesharing. Does that make Uber CEO Travis Kalanick a mean person? See point No. 1 above.

3. A desire to change the world doesn't make you a good person. The founders who resist the temptation to sell out early and pursue their vision to the maximum extent are ipso facto not in it for the money, Graham says: "They may not say so explicitly, but they're usually trying to improve the world."

Certainly "Change the world" is a Silicon Valley cliche we've all grown tired of hearing. But it doesn't follow that a desire to make the world a better place equates to being a nice or good person. Just as often, in business and in life, that "spirit of benevolence" breeds an aura of self-righteousness in which the ends justify the means. Without running afoul of Godwin's Law, I'll say that many of the worst people in history thought they were acting in the best interests of mankind. Look no further than the U.S. Congress to see the kind of nastiness that can flow from true belief in a cause. 

Speaking of improving the world, it would surely be a better place if Graham's belief were correct. So go ahead and believe it if you like. But don't be too surprised when mean people fail to go away.  

Published on: Dec 1, 2014