Your Mother Calls Bullshit on Silicon Valley

I picked up Guy Kawasaki’s book, Reality Check and was immediately turned off by his assertion that Silicon Valley is a meritocracy like nowhere else on earth, that it doesn’t matter what school you attended, how much money your parents have, as long as you can code. A few pages later, he quotes approvingly a venture capitalist who “gets it”as funding “Guys under thirty making a product they want to use.” Kawasaki says, “Amen.” So, let me get this straight – Silicon Valley is a meritocracy as long as you are a guy under thirty. As The Invisible Developer commented when I read him this,

“He’s assuming then, that only men under 30 have money?”

Or, alternatively, whatever it is that men under 30 want is going to be a hit with women and older people because … Excuse me while I call bullshit on all of this. Perhaps the problem is that we have too many products made by guys under thirty. Let me tell you a few things that a lot of women (and men) over thirty want. They want their children to do their homework. They want their kids not to fall behind over the summer and have to re-learn a few months of material in the fall. They want to not fight with their kids about doing their schoolwork. That’s why (among other reasons), we decided to do an adventure game that teaches kids math. Last week, we were at a conference for CABE – the California Association for Bilingual Education – giving a presentation on educational games to teach math to students for whom English is a second language. folklorico dancers at CABE With over 500 participants, most of them female, most of them over 30, there was a healthy degree of skepticism about the educational games on the market. As several of the parents (mostly mothers) in attendance commented,

The kids like playing them, but are they really learning anything?

Maybe these games were the ones guys under 30 would like to use, but teachers and mothers were not so enthusiastic. We’ve had venture capitalists tell us that “the education space is so overcrowded” but we don’t see it that way. It is overcrowded with apps you can knock off in a weekend, that are, like James Gee called them, “Shooting and spelling, shooting and multiplication, shooting and — ” It did not seem to be so crowded with software that really educates. Another venture capitalist asked me,

“Education? Hasn’t the Kahn Academy already cornered that market?”

To be fair, this man’s area of investing had nothing to do with education, but he isn’t the only one who has made that comment, a comment that would not be made by most mothers, or teachers, who have actually tried to get a fourth-grader to listen when she was standing over them explaining division. I really like the Kahn Academy but believe me, it has not cornered the market on K-12 education. I have three points:

  1. Silicon Valley is NOT  a meritocracy when you can start out by saying you are only going to fund a very narrow slice of age and only one gender. The lack of ethnic and racial diversity speaks for itself. There are people who hold a world view that says an overwhelming share of the merit is held by white or Asian males under 30, that males receive 98% of all investments because they are just, well, better, and that is why African-Americans, Native Americans and Latinos almost never get funded. I’m not one of those people.
  2. Women and minorities  are not afforded the same luxury of failure that Kawasaki so lauds in his book. Where else could you fail spectacularly and then go on to succeed in your third or fourth try. However, there are a great many articles documenting “constructed criteria”, that is, we’re not prejudiced, it’s just that he/she was not successful at a previous start-up, doesn’t have a degree in computer science, doesn’t have experience in this industry. Those same flaws, though, are not a problem for the “right” demographic.
  3. By focusing on a narrow demographic, products are made that don’t reflect the needs and interests of a large swath of the population, like mothers of school children, and teachers. Educational products made by people who have never been in a classroom often begin with the assumption that teachers are the problem and technology is the solution. Funding people over 30, and women, to make products THEY would want to use is a missed opportunity.

This conservatism in funding in Silicon Valley is especially amusing since so many people want to be “disruptive” , “innovative” or “revolutionary” but they want to do it by funding the same type of people to do the same type of things. I remember, advice from my MBA program.

“Always remember, ladies and gentlemen, while Burroughs had all of its engineers hard at work making a better adding machine, Steve Wozniak was in his garage inventing the Apple computer.”

Twenty-five years later, it looks like even more brilliant advice. Maybe investing in the people who you think are going to make the next Facebook or the next Google is a lot like Burroughs trying to make a better adding machine.

Grandmother This is what we do every day – buy our games and see what people over 30 want to make.


P.S. The book isn’t completely worthless. There are some good parts, and the chapter The Inside Story of Entrepreneurship by Glenn Kelman, CEO of redfin, is the most accurate thing I’ve ever read about running a start-up. You should read it.

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