To anyone who has spent time in a great metropolis, San Francisco can only be experienced as a collection of dysfunctions interrupted by the occasional nice view. The housing market is the stuff of nightmares. Traffic heading in and out of town sits gridlocked for hours a day. The overcrowded public transit system primarily serves a narrow corridor of neighborhoods. Whole tracts of the city are weirdly barren of restaurants or supermarkets.

And let's not even start on the ways this increasingly wealthy city fails its large homeless population.

All this dysfunction creates a ready market for consumer-focused startups that can ease the suck a little. It's no accident that Uber, Airbnb and Instacart all started here.  And so it was when app-enabled electric scooters started showing up on the streets of San Francisco in March, a lot of people wanted to ride them. Cheap, convenient, zero-emissions transportation that gets you exactly where you're going--that's something that would improve every city, not just one this broken.

Almost overnight, one of the scooter companies, Bird, was able to raise money at a $1 billion valuation--and almost immediately afterward at a $2 billion valuation. Uber invested in one if its competitors, Lime, valuing it at more than $1 billion and featuring it as an alternative to car rides in its app. Bike-sharing also got a boost, with Uber buying Jump and Lyft buying Motivate.

But along the way, something familiar happened: the backlash. For every San Franciscan relieved to no longer have to wait for a behind-schedule jam-packed Muni trolley, someone else was furious about the plague of scooters barreling down crowded sidewalks or forests of scooters abandoned at intersections. As the complaints escalated, the city imposed a moratorium, ordering scooter-fleet owners to pause operations and apply for permits.

How did something necessary and beneficial so quickly become a magnet for resentment? The answer lies in Silicon Valley's prevailing ethos: Grow fast or go home.

Modeling their strategy on the way Uber and Lyft parachuted into American cities and signed up all the drivers and riders they could before the authorities even knew there was this thing called ridesharing that would need some regulation, Bird, Lime and Spin deposited thousands of dockless, helmetless scooters on the streets willy-nilly. It was a calculated piece of recklessness: better to deal with the inevitable collateral damage of a hypergrowth blitzkrieg than mount a careful rollout only to find the spoils already divided among those who go their first.

But to put it down to healthy competitive paranoia misunderstands the degree to which growth for growth's sake has become an internalized value in the consumer tech industry. Often the companies working hardest to alienate their users and antagonize the public are the ones that don't have any real competitors, the "natural monopolies" like Google in search and Facebook in social networking.  

"Google doesn't have to worry about losing its users; it simply wants them to use Google more and to use more Google products," notes John Herrmann, writing in The New York Times. "Vindicated by growth, these businesses take the liberty to redesign more of our online lives than any of us have asked for."

Facebook is basically unchallenged in social media after watching Twitter sputter out and crushing Snapchat, but it remains as thirsty as ever for every marginal like, share and daily active user. In its tireless drive to maximize engagement--rather than optimizing for its ostensible purpose, connectedness, which is harder to growth-hack--Facebook ended up building a machine that's peerless at spreading disinformation, and which also leaves users feeling unhappy and unwell. Now the company is tacking back toward its original mission of helping people keep up with their friends and family, but only after the externalities it has created for society threatened to become an existential threat to Facebook itself.

What's the alternative? Whatever it is, it probably doesn't come from Silicon Valley. Venture-backed tech companies have to chase hypergrowth almost by definition. VCs make their money from home runs, not singles, so a startup that's keeping customers happy and acquiring new ones at a prudent rate is, in their eyes, one that should be taking bigger risks, even if it means making some enemies. Or especially if it means making some enemies.

But accepting that the only workable strategy for success is pushing the growth button until it breaks feels like an uncharacteristic failure of creativity for an industry that prides itself on seeing new possibilities. After all, doing something faster and bigger than anyone else aren't the only ways to win in business. There's also doing it better. And it's hard to hate on better. 

Published on: Jul 16, 2018