Hardship and struggle are the blood and bones of every entrepreneurial story worth telling. We never grow tired of hearing about the founder who lived on friends' couches for a year, or got turned down by 49 investors before the 50th one said yes, or was an hour away from missing payroll when the big contract came through.
Sam Altman is the CEO of Y Combinator, an accelerator where the idea of startup-as-struggle is not just taught but celebrated. It was Altman's predecessor, Paul Graham, who popularized the phrase "ramen profitable," meaning the condition of having almost no revenues but being technically in the black "because the only employees are a couple 25-year-old founders who can live on practically nothing."
But while motivated entrepreneurs can and do endure malnutrition, vagrancy and penury, there's one hardship they can't be expected to bear: political correctness. In a new blog post, Altman takes aim at what he sees as growing intolerance in Silicon Valley and its vassal state, San Francisco, toward unpopular ideas and beliefs.
"It seems easier to accidentally speak heresies in San Francisco every year. Debating a controversial idea, even if you 95% agree with the consensus side, seems ill-advised," he writes. "This will be very bad for startups in the Bay Area."
It will be bad, he says, because innovation depends on creativity, and creativity suffers when people feel that they have to censor themselves or risk the anger of the mob.
"It is bad for all of us when people can't say that the world is a sphere, that evolution is real, or that the sun is at the center of the solar system," Altman writes. "I've seen credible people working on ideas like pharmaceuticals for intelligence augmentation, genetic engineering, and radical life extension leave San Francisco because they found the reaction to their work to be so toxic."
At the risk of prompting yet another exodus, it's necessary to quibble with some of Altman's ideas as articulated here, because they are decidedly half-baked. In his terms, they are a lot closer to intelligence-augmentation drugs, which haven't shown much promise, than to evolution by natural selection.
Take the low-hanging fruit that is Altman's position on intellectual heresy. "You can't tell which seemingly wacky ideas are going to turn out to be right, and nearly all ideas that turn out to be great breakthroughs start out sounding like terrible ideas. So if you want a culture that innovates, you can't have a culture where you allow the concept of heresy -- if you allow the concept at all, it tends to spread."
In other words, Altman thinks "the concept of heresy" ought to be a...what's that word for an idea that can't be allowed to exist?
Then there's this creamy tub of I Can't Believe It's Not Logic:
I don't know who [anonymous Bitcoin inventor] Satoshi is, but I'm skeptical that he, she, or they would have been able to come up with the idea for bitcoin immersed in the current culture of San Francisco -- it would have seemed too crazy and too dangerous, with too many ways to go wrong. If SpaceX started in San Francisco in 2017, I assume they would have been attacked for focusing on problems of the 1%, or for doing something the government had already decided was too hard.
I don't know who Satoshi is, either, but since he/she/they never went public, he/she/they needn't fret about what anyone says about him/her/them. As for SpaceX, if the 1% are worrying about how to get their payloads into orbit at lower cost, I'd better renew my subscription to the Robb Report, because I missed that whole development.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk knows a thing or two about being told something is too hard, too crazy or too dangerous. From the day he launched Tesla, he has been told starting a new American automaker from scratch, much less one that required an entire new energy infrastructure, was a fool's errand. He's still hearing that on a regular basis from Tesla bears on Wall Street.
A few months ago, not long before uttering his now-famous remark about going through "at least six months of production hell" on the new Model 3, Musk told me he'd had a nightmare the previous evening about Tesla running out of money. That Musk has done what he's done anyway, despite all the skepticism and the nightmares and a public telling-off by Mark freaking Zuckerberg, of all people, is why we admire him. It's not supposed to be easy.
Altman isn't wrong about everything. There is certainly a sameness of thought that infects many aspects of life in the Bay Area. Tim Ferriss cited it in his reasons for leaving San Francisco in favor of Austin. Ferriss complained of "a peculiar form of McCarthyism masquerading as liberal open-mindedness." But he was also talking about a more general "mono-conversation of tech that is near impossible to avoid" and an influx of "smug, self-satisfied, arrogant and intolerable...fair-weather entrepreneurs and investors."
Social media mobs are a real phenomenon, albeit one that exists thanks to companies in the Bay Area that see themselves as bastions of free speech. Landing in front of one hurts, as Altman knows. Sometimes it can even result in people losing jobs or companies losing business.
But it doesn't follow that everything that hurts is bad. If people who find their ideas unpopular in Silicon Valley relocate to Boston or Detroit or Nashville, that's certainly "bad for startups in the Bay Area," but it's presumably good for startups in those places. Didn't a whole passel of tech billionaires just start a venture fund to encourage just that sort of geographical diversification?
Meanwhile, the tech-enabled, justice-minded mobs -- or crowds, to use a more neutral word -- that Altman resents have achieved some worthwhile things of their own. It was online activism and the threat of boycotts in response to reports of rampant sexual harassment that drove Fox News to fire Roger Ailes and Bill O'Reilly and Uber to fire Travis Kalanick, thereby setting the stage for the #metoo movement that erupted with a New York Times expose of Harvey Weinstein and has put serial abusers on the run in industry after industry. That includes tech, where women founders raise vastly less money than men, often from male VCs who try to grope or date them.
The idea that women should have to put up with unwanted sexual advances as the price of participating in the workforce was for decades its own kind of orthodoxy. Wouldn't overturning it be a form of innovation as important as brain pills?
Yes, that kind of progress can be uncomfortable for some people. If those people don't like it, they're free to take their startups elsewhere. Otherwise, they can eat their ramen and stop whining.