Peter Shih, of Y-Combinator startup Celery comes off as a bit blinkered in this Medium piece on why he doesn’t like San Francisco. (h/t Valleywag). For example, he does not care for San Francisco’s homeless, who do not appear to care a whit for what he is looking for in a homeless person:
San Francisco has some of the craziest homeless people I have ever seen in my life. Stop giving them money, you know they just buy alcohol and drugs with it right? Next time just hand them a handle of vodka and a pack of cigarettes, it’ll save everyone some trouble. I’m seriously tempted to start fucking with people and pay for homeless guys to ride the Powell street cable cars in the middle of the day, that ought to get the city’s attention.
What you have in Shih’s article is the perspective that sees problems in terms of the level of personal inconvenience they pose. For example, what do we need to know about the large gender imbalance in the industries that drive San Francisco’s growth?
No, not the football team, they’re great. I’m referring to all the girls who are obviously 4′s and behave like they are 9′s. Just because San Francisco has the worst Female to Male ratio in the known universe doesn’t give you the right to be a bitch all the time.
It’s all about how women are acting toward him.
This tends to backfire.
Should their be more women in tech? Do there need to be quotas or recruitment efforts? Should we offer scholarships to women who want to learn how to code? Just how is this gender imbalance reflected in the finished product, if at all? If you want to get all libertarian about it, there are certainly arguments to be made that this isn’t a problem solved by regulation or other peoples’ money. The important thing is that this myopia keeps those questions from ever being asked.
In other articles, Shih shows that his success is similarly unexamined. He writes about fear and risk and quotes a voiceover from Scrubs, of all things:
“I’ve been thinking a lot lately about taking chances, and how it’s really just about overcoming your fears. Because the truth is, every time you take a big risk in your life, no matter how it ends up, you’re always glad you took it.”
There could not be a more untrue statement. Was Napoleon glad he took the risk of invading Russia? Will someone who took a subprime loan based on a low-security job be glad they took the risk? Probably not! Feeling glad about taking a risk is not a given and it’s strongly correlated with success. Unless, of course, you have the kind of financial and social cushion you can fall back on. A failed startup is fine when you have savings, parents with an extra bedroom and an in-demand skillset.
It’s annoying, yes, but does it have anything to do with business?
Shih works for Celery, which allows small businesses to accept pre-orders. This sort of financial capability doesn’t seem like a big deal until you realize that the it’s not easy to do securely and automatically if you have a small business. It’s really a great idea.
So who is using it? The testimonals page lists a bunch of fashionable startups, most of which have ample VC funding.
This sexy new company is selling to other sexy companies who pay with one another’s seed money.
Selling to “your kind of people” is the path of least resistance. But we live in a country where 1 in 12 people are unbanked and check-cashing stands charge obscene fees to do what anyone who works at Celery doesn’t think twice about doing for free. This sort of payment management holds great appeal to small businesses of all sorts, especially those who can’t keep balances large enough to get the sort of attention from banks that these startups can. Services like Celery and Square can make money bringing Off the Books businesses to a place where it makes sense to go legit and start reaping the benefits of modern finance.
Yet there are exactly zero people on that testimonial page who you wouldn’t be surprised to run into at SXSWi.
Shih aside, a case for reaching outside your comfort zone
Take Uber. This distributed car service should be a godsend for people who live in areas underserved by traditional cabs. Calling individual car services is inefficient and slow compared to letting the software find the nearest car and bring it to you. As part of a libertarian argument against class warfare, John Tamny at Forbes makes the case:
What about bad neighborhoods that are often underserved? Though my poll is clearly unscientific (I’ve asked the drivers who’ve picked me up), Uber drivers all tell me that quite unlike cabs understandably reluctant to go into seemingly dangerous places, Uber cars do. Perhaps one reason the drivers are willing has to do with Uber being a cashless business where customers can’t access a car without providing a credit card first. In this case, no one can run from paying a fare as some have been known to do with cabs. The important thing here is that even cabs have historically been marked as a luxury sometimes provided in “redline” fashion. Uber has fixed this inequality. Indeed, drivers who refuse too many fares quickly lose the privilege of serving Uber customers altogether.
But this doesn’t play out in real life. Uber made this map of trips it facilitated in Washington:
You won’t see anything east of the Anacostia River, nor much in the rest of Southeast outside Capitol Hill and Nationals Park. The service is used by the young and hip because that’s who it’s being marketed to and that’s who is doing the marketing.
What would a broader, more empathetic marketing strategy look like? It might look like a stripped-down version of the Uber app for use in not-so-smart phones. It would look like the sort of flyers and stickers you see used by incumbent taxi services. It would look like marketing budget with less money spent on ferrying people around Austin for free during the aforementioned SXSWi (but thanks for the lift anyway, guys) and more on urban radio advertising.
Afraid of losing the young and hip market by making Uber look like a service for people who need to take a cab to the supermarket because they live in a food desert? Create a premium brand.
Those who see the worlds’ problems only in terms of how it inconveniences them (not to say this is true of Uber) miss people who, for a variety of reasons live differently from themselves. The unbanked, the unconnected, the elderly and the poor all live with massive inefficiencies and inconveniences, many of which could use a little “disruption.”
Even if empathy isn’t your strong suit, it’s a good idea to dig a little deeper to the lives of those who don’t live like you. Empathy and curiosity may be the most self-serving thing you can do.
Additional reading: Paul Carr in Pando Daily on the Uber and the libertarian cult of disruption.