Today we’re going to talk about the meta-borg of personality scamming that has suddenly and insidiously conspired to dominate the business news cycle.
From Adam Neumann and his manic pixie dream wife Rebekah to Rajeev Misra, the Captain of the ship who backed them, the business section front page is consumed by confirmation of every layman’s worst homunculus of tech leadership. Mocking the patent absurdity of these people is a trap. It doesn’t make us better entrepreneurs, or investors. Instead, let’s spend a minute trying to figure out where these personalities come from and why they’re growing increasingly pervasive.
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Myths, Legends, Coattails
A throughline can handily be drawn from these modern nincompoops to their famously eccentric godfather Steve Jobs. Sure, he was famous for splashy launches and popularizing the “uniform” concept with his black turtlenecks. But the part of Steve that really underpins the modern eccentricity scammer is the fact that his behaviors weren’t just unidirectionally “justified” by business success — they in turn explained away business practices which would otherwise be unacceptable.
Burning Man is a beautiful community full of giving souls who are searching for meaning in earnest. It’s a community to which a plurality of my close friends proudly belong, and one with whose values I’m broadly aligned. But let’s not be naive. Burning Man is, also, a key cultural touchpoint whose influence on its attendees extends far beyond a single week in the desert. When a civilian does MDMA in a Missouri basement, he’s a junkie. When a woke tech bro does it at Burning Man, it’s one small part of his spiritual journey. Wolf whistles betwixt attendees in the off-season extend from bracelet clusters to harem pants to meditation practices and the accompanying eschewment of traditional footwear.
These behaviors all largely exist on a spectrum from harmless (CoExIst bracelets) to transformationally good (mindfulness meditation). So why are we talking about this? Well, to the uninitiated it’s just a weird coincidence that Adam Neumann walked around his office without shoes and Rajeev Misra saw fit to prop his unclad hooves up on a stranger’s knee in a private jet. To the informed, the throughline is obvious. The message is simple. I am a member of your tribe. I speak the way you speak, I won’t challenge your core belief system, I am safe. To others, I may seem odd. All that stuff you like about our community? Just go ahead and assume I embody it all, since I’m engaging in behavior that separates me from normal polite society. Your guard? Let it down. Why would I let our mutual beliefs down in private when I have, at such expense to my image, upheld them in public?
The case of Elizabeth Holmes is a complex one in many ways. She was under the influence of a number of unsavory characters, and she undertook such a wide variety of personality modifications that it’s tough to decipher where the scam stops and the person begins. However, just as Rajeev and Adam sought to associate themselves with the values of Burning Man through a few key outward signs, Elizabeth effectively drew her own parallel to Steve Jobs. She was an outsider, wearing the armor of an austere uniform, adopting a familiar secrecy, and rewarding followers with addictive splash.
The pure eccentricity scammer, like Ms. Holmes, is rare. Far more common are the Adams and Rajeevs and Elon Musks of the world. Sure, they’re ostensibly building real companies. But what drives their decisionmaking? What drives our perception of their businesses? Why do we ignore obvious comparables like Regis until it’s too late? Would it be appropriate for the wife or husband of a Fortune 500 CEO to fire an employee on the spot for having “bad energy,” as Rebekah Neumann did on at least one occasion? What other insidious management practices get explained away on a daily basis by the stretching of norms and misplaced associations of the eccentricity scammers in our midst? Have you seen the way Elon speaks to his staffers when he doesn’t think anyone is listening? Are we smart to give him a free pass?
3 Footprints of the Eccentricity Scammer
Here are a few examples of the patches eccentricity scammers wear on their jackets. The logos change over time, but the principles of attachment and excuse-by-obscurity don’t:
- Overly Broad Mission Statements. A less kind way to write this would be “delusions of grandeur.” We live in a time where “returning value to shareholders” is no longer an appropriate mission, in full, for a business. And, largely, that’s a good thing. However, there is a fine line between engaging in conscious capitalism and diluting the mission of a for-profit business. That line goes out the window when phrases like “global consciousness” and “meta-principles” end up in the mission statements of billion dollar businesses. Beware the startup founder emulating this grandiosity. Even if his intentions are pure, his judgement in seeking this association may be unsound.
- Extensive Personal/Professional Intermingling. Eccentricity scammers will often have trouble separating their lifestyle from their business. Are they using their instagram to share photos with friends or as a loudspeaker for a highly specific image? How well does that match up with what you know to be true? How often do conversations about business devolve into personal lifestyle discussions? How conspicuous is the evidence of that lifestyle in a purely business context? E.G. — Showing up to a pitch meeting dressed intentionally “expensive casual,” suggesting odd contexts for meetings (boat, college club of university they didn’t attend), etc.
- Loud Proclamation of Self-Imposed Rules. Setting personal rules is an important and underutilized skill. As a pilot, I don’t have a choice in the matter- if my personal minimums require not flying when cloud bases are within 2,000 feet of the ground, I simply can’t fly — even when the FAA says it’s legal. However, strict adherence to personal rules in most other areas of life is difficult! Sure, you could consistently not eat bread because it’s not conducive to the body you want to have. But isn’t it easier to loudly proclaim, at every possible opportunity, that you DON’T EAT BREAD? See also: Diet, Exercise, Attire, Travel, Hygiene, Staff Treatment, Employee Treatment. Watch out for these highly visible soapbox moments. Are they congruent? Are they internally consistent? Are they necessary? Do they tell a story? Or are they simply designed to tell a story?
Cool Thing of the Week:
It’s almost winter, which means it’s camping season again in the Urbach household. Whether you’re making your fires in the Bridger National Forest or in the comfort of your own hearth, I think you should be making them with a firesteel. Firesteels are made of ferrocerium, and shower sparks when scraped with the sharpened spine of a proper bushcraft knife. Don’t confuse them with magnesium rods, which create soft shavings which can ignite with help from a source of spark such as ferrocerium.
If you’re not willing to go full Bear Grylls and strike your firesteel with a knife, these handy swedish rods are just what the doctor ordered. Place the rod’s end into a pile of dry thin tinder. Imagine a teaspoon of pencil shavings. Then, scrape the…scraper…down the rod, showering your tinder with 5400 degree Fahrenheit sparks. No joke. Works in the wet, never runs out of butane, thing of beauty. It takes a few dozen strikes to get the hang of things, but stick with it and you’ll be richly rewarded.
Get /Giphy With it:
Useful JPEG to send to colleagues:
After years building startups in NYC, and a stint helping McKinsey & Co. develop their startup accelerator, I’m now leading the charge @ Brandt & Co., a boutique consultancy serving investors and founders in the early-stage ecosystem.
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