… or, beware of all enterprises that require new gongs.
Silicon Valley has always had its hero founders and CEOs. During the early dot-com era in the ‘90s, these individuals — and their brilliant teams — drove the tech industry forward, broke the rules and changed the world.
It was around the tail end of that period that we started to hear the term venture capitalist more often. Cash in great amounts started getting thrown at companies and people with any ideas that looked like they might make investors even more money. We all know what happened next.
The dot-com boom and bust wasn’t the end for millionaire tech geniuses, of course. It was followed several years later by the incredible rise of social media startups and a culture where everyone has an idea for an app. For some, this is again beginning to unfold in spectacular fashion, fortunes are being lost and snake-oil salespeople exposed, but at least it makes for some great TV.
Power of Three
Alison Herman’s “Welcome to the Age of Peak Tech TV,” in The Ringer, observes that the trend has thrown up three different shows based on three different true stories, all premiering within three weeks of one another.
These are Showtime’s Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber, adapted from New York Times reporter Michael Isaac‘s book of the same name; The Dropout, based on the ABC News podcast hosted by journalist Rebecca Jarvis, showing on Hulu in the US and Disney+ elsewhere; while Apple TV+ brings WeCrashed to the table, also drawn from a narrative podcast.
“Their similarities speak to a common theme that emerges when you talk about American capitalism in the 21st century. With such a meteoric rise comes the possibility of an equally dramatic fall,” says Herman.
“Each centers on the parabolic arc of a notorious start-up chief,” she continues. “Travis Kalanick, the co-founder of Uber ousted from his role as CEO in 2017 (Super Pumped), Elizabeth Holmes, the Theranos founder recently convicted on four counts of fraud (The Dropout), and Adam Neumann, the Israeli entrepreneur who left WeWork in the aftermath of a disastrous, failed IPO (WeCrashed).”
READ MORE: Elizabeth Holmes trial: jury finds Theranos founder guilty on four fraud counts (The Guardian)
In all three shows, the founders are played by A-list movie stars, and all three arrive at a crucial juncture, according to Herman, “not just the unofficial start of Emmy season, but the space between an earlier generation of tech tycoons — your Mark Zuckerbergs, your Jack Dorseys — and the next.
“What’s unique about this most recent epoch is the deeply held conviction — by founders, funders, the media, and tech culture writ large — that for-profit companies are a vehicle for positive social change,” she adds. “It’s an era we appear to be leaving, with [this] trio of glossy new series forming a collective eulogy.”
Cash on Tap
“To understand Kalanick, Holmes, or Neumann, it’s helpful to understand the system that enabled them,” says Herman in an interesting journey into the mythology and mindset of Silicon Valley. “Once venture capital enters the picture, what starts as personal ambition turns into a professional asset.”
“Essentially, it used to be really hard to raise money, and then it got really easy,” Platformer’s Casey Newton tells Herman. “You had this situation where there was too much money chasing too few good ideas, but the people who won wound up becoming kings of industry.”
“When companies stop competing for funding and funds start competing to finance them, it’s easy for things to get out of hand,” Herman observes. “Backers were often investing in founders as much as, if not more than, their businesses, creating a disincentive to impose any checks on their power.”
At some point, these iconoclastic founders are still expected to deliver, but as Herman points out in some cases, that doesn’t always happen.
“For storytellers, that gap between expectations and reality leaves ample room to explore,” she says. “Shows like Super Pumped, The Dropout, and WeCrashed suggest we’re well into the backlash against hubristic founders and the naive assumptions that helped empower them.”
But she says another bubble is upon us. This time the credulity gap seems even shorter.
“What apps and mobile computing were to one wave of next big things, the metaverse and cryptocurrency are to our current one,” says Herman. “One could speculate that the crypto boom will spawn its own surge of satires, but that’s no longer a hypothetical: A young couple whom prosecutors say laundered billions of dollars in stolen crypto recently spawned three potential Hollywood projects in less than a week.”