Silicon Valley Isn’t a Startup Anymore, It’s a Corporation

Tech workers are starting to play it safe in big companies... that's not a good thing for startups or innovation.

March 18, 2016

“I used to look at equity and think every company was going to be the next Facebook. Now when I see equity I’m like, ‘That’s nice, but I want it in actual money.’”
A 29-year-old designer in San Francisco

Equity is losing its value. It’s slowly changed from the optimistic upside of “what could happen” to an empty promise of “what will never be.” Employees aren’t willing to take the risk and employers can’t give it away fast enough. Looking at you, Twitter.

Maybe this was a long time coming, an inevitable outcome as industries mature. It’s clear we’re no longer in a tech gold rush and it seems like every other article is already discounting Silicon Valley as a bubble waiting to burst. Insert recession statistic here.

The Wall Street Journal just posted an interesting article about how tech workers are starting to play it safe when it comes to new jobs. (Hint: Google “Tech Workers Get Choosy About Changing Jobs” in a private browser window and click on the WSJ link to get around the whole login thing.)

I first moved to San Francisco in 2009 and can tell you firsthand that the vibe has changed over the past seven years. Before, there was a buzz of energy. Everywhere you went you could feel the entrepreneurial spirit. And as annoying as it was to overhear talk of platform disruptions at your local coffee shop, everyone had a silent respect for those trying to follow their dreams and do something.

Facebook had under 1,200 employees (now the count is close to 13,000), Uber didn’t exist, and everyone and their mom was starting a company.

Now the city is different. It feels like the budding, hopeful entreprenerds have been replaced by loyal drones silently waiting on street corners for their private commuter shuttles.

It feels like Silicon Valley isn’t a startup anymore, it’s a corporation.

Need proof? Just look at the Salesforce tower.

Cash over equity

Jeff Winter, Thumbtack’s director of technical recruiting, told the Wall Street Journal, “offer acceptance rates have fallen about 5 percentage points from last year, and more candidates tell him they are talking with behemoths like Google Inc., attracted by the security that established companies can offer.” This is even after his company, Thumbtack, closed a round of funding that placed its value over $1B.

As established companies like Google, Facebook, Salesforce, and Apple continue to mature, people see them as the safe bets – employers that offer perks like a 401k and a competitive salary without the worry of going belly-up. This risk aversion is well justified considering overly-hyped companies like LivingSocial are laying off over 50% of its staff, even after raising $900m from top investors.

While this type of fiscally responsible thinking is mother approved, consider the costs of all the young talent flocking to big companies and big paychecks.

First off, it kills innovation. Fewer talented people are now willing to join a fledgling company offering a few percentage points and a $40k salary. Only the lucky handful who secure funding can even attempt to compete. Plus, VCs are starting to tighten up their pockets… wait, is that even a phrase?

Second, the big get bigger and the little guys get squeezed out. That’s what happened to financial institutions in New York and studios in LA. A small group of huge companies own all the little guys and control most of the market. Facebook already got Instagram, Oculus VR, and WhatsApp. And if Spiegel took the offer of $3B for Snapchat, Zuckerberg would own around four billion social accounts plus the virtual reality frontrunner. Think about that.

Finally, being a cog in the machine isn’t as much fun as building the machine. Corporations have 9-5s where you run the very real risk of doing the same shit day after day. People used to buy into a mission or market opportunity, then came the perk wars. Now the paycheck is the driving factor. Do you think 50,000 Googlers get out of bed every day fired up to go to work and make their company a few extra bucks? Naahhhhhh…

So what’s the point?

At the end of the day, you gotta do what’s right for you. Make the safe choice if you have a family to support; choose the company with the free gym membership over the one with free parking, or go against all reason and either start a company or join a small one with potential.

There isn’t a right or wrong answer, I’m simply pointing out that the consolidation of talent could have lasting effects on the industry’s innovators. Then again, maybe it’s a good thing that people are starting to flock to companies that actually make money. Lord knows we don’t need any more smart microwaves.


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