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The Land of the Unicorns

Mountain View, California

When venture capitalist Aileen Lee first coined the term “unicorn” for a tech startup valued at more than $1 billion, it was supposed to have that mythical connotation that immediately comes to mind. When that seminal article was published in TechCrunch in 2013, there were few tech companies that fit the description, today, there are close to one hundred.

Notwithstanding the emergence of new tech hubs in the United States, as reflected on previously, the vast majority of these unicorns are stabled in the San Francisco Bay Area, and more specifically in the Santa Clara Valley just outside the city’s limits, better known of course as ‘Silicon Valley’.

First named for the myriad silicon chip manufacturers based here, the valley has become the undisputed global headquarters of the technology industry, home to almost all of the household name titans.

Here to host a delegation of Aussie executives investigating the impact of digital disruption on the financial services industry, I got a rare insight into this high-powered – if dressed-down – American business community.

The Googleplex, as the search engine giant’s HQ is known, spreads over miles of verdant and expensive landscape deep in the valley’s heart. The campus’s approach is signalled by a sea of chirpy-looking employees – or ‘Googlers’ as we are informed they are officially dubbed – atop blue, red, yellow and green bicycles that emerge from the leaves, headphones in and contemplating world domination.

Among the Googlers, there are many factions and sub-cultures, including the rare ‘grooglers’ (grey Googlers i.e. employees over 40) and the very hip ‘brewglers’ (those that brew their own craft beer). Having overstayed our welcome by a few minutes, our tour guide – a very smart and somewhat theatrical Sydneysider working in the AdWords division – calls his boss to inform her he was a very apologetic “loogler” (late Googler).

Beyond the cute internal lingo, the rest of the storied rumours of the superior workplace culture of the Googleplex seem to be true. Googlers luxuriate on banana lounges, feast on free food grown in the campuses garden, speed down slides instead of stairs to get between floors and generally enjoy themselves while diligently coming up with new revenue streams and ways to monetise the significant troves of data they have on us all.

Tech firms like Google and Facebook – with their comfortable grey hoodie work wear and commitment to diversity and inclusion – enjoy a remarkably high level of consumer trust and satisfaction for businesses of their size.

Largely that is due to the fact that they have treated our data with relatively minor abuses. Consumers seem to have implicitly agreed that free access to search engines and social networks, in exchange for being targeted for sneaker ads and holiday packages is a deal that works in their favour.

However, as anyone who works in media knows well, the margins in advertising are only so wide. There has to be some temptation among those here in the Googleplex who, despite their sunny disposition and sweatpants, are tasked with generating profits and shareholder returns to do more lucrative things with our data, like actively selling it off to third parties or even using it as blackmail against us.

Given the relatively benign activity of puppy memes and political rants that dominate social media, it can be easy to forget that these corporate players have inordinate amounts of personal information about us all: they have our private conversations, our search engine activity, everything we have ever done on the internet. And we all willingly gave it to them by way of contract, every time we click that button at the bottom of a legal document we don’t read.

So far the tech giants’ focus on a consumer-friendly reputation has outweighed the strategy of treating our personal information as a goldmine. But the same was probably true once of banks, before they stopped giving a shit and realised bonuses and shareholder returns trump customer satisfaction. As the tech firms inevitably move beyond their traditional realm of entertainment and networking to disrupt more powerful industries like banking and insurance – armed with superior data on customer needs and wants – this possibility will only be heightened. Moreover, in countries like Australia with weak privacy laws, there is really nothing to stop them doing this beyond that reputational concern.

And yet, spending time with the entrepreneurs and idealists – and even the more hard-nosed venture capitalists and investors that make this place a reality – you get a sense that this sort of corporatism is unlikely here.

For while capitalism is absolutely a prerequisite for the innovation and invention of the digital revolution, this is still California, and a part of it once synonymous with ashrams and sit-ins, not mobile apps and data wars.

Inspired by the hippie philosophy which still lingers here, the inhabitants of this valley stress to us their genuine intention to “do good” and not just “do well”, with many flaunting their charitable giving and flexible, worker-friendly cultures.

To a cynical journalist, it still smacks a little of corporate PR not grounded in reality.

But so did the existence of unicorns once.

tech-unicorns-illustration

Image source: The Michael Report.

Published on 13 October 2016