Twitter CEO Wins Crunchies, Crappies

The power of Twitter lies within his chin.

In what might be a Silicon Valley first, Dick Costolo, CEO of Twitter, won two startup awards on the same night, highlighting both the achievements of his role at the company’s helm, and the controversies created in the process.

Inside the Davies Symphony Hall, Costolo won “Best CEO,” the Best Actor equivalent of The Crunchies, Silicon Valley’s lavish annual award ceremony co-organized by TechCrunch, GigaOM, and VentureBeat. Costolo’s newest accolade emerged from fierce competition, in which he edged out Tesla’s Elon Musk, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Yahoo!’s Marissa Mayer, and runner-up-winning Travis Kalanick of Uber.

“This is really a team award,” said Costolo, in a gracious and brief acceptance speech. “It’s just such a delight to be able to get up in the morning and come to work with such enthusiastic, and creative, and courageous people. It makes it fun, it makes it exciting, and it never gets old, so thanks very much — I really appreciate it.”

Today marked the seventh year of The Crunchies, and the first of another event: The Crappies, organized in protest by the San Francisco chapter of Jobs With Justice. Playfully adorned with hand-written, paperboard signage, The Crappies organizers “awarded” individuals and companies for actions deemed problematic and harmful to the city and its myriad communities.

Dick Costolo was among the dubious cast of Crappies prizewinners, receiving the award for Best Tax Evader. The award references the company’s decision to relocate to the city’s Mid-Market neighborhood in the now-termed “Twitter building.”

In agreeing to the move, Twitter accepted a payroll tax credit pioneered by Mayor Ed Lee. The credit, misleadingly called the “Twitter tax break,” in fact extends to any company that relocates to the Mid-Market neighborhood, a trending district that incorporates areas of Civic Center and the Tenderloin, along with stretches of SoMa from 6th to 10th Street.

In guise of the real Costolo, local nonprofit worker and activist James Chionsini, playing a rather convincing Fake Dick Costolo, accepted the award. Chionsini’s last tweet, dated from almost a year ago, rings today with newfound prescience:

The Crappies have followed a wave anti-gentrification protests across the Bay Area, where private buses transport Google workers to and from the company’s Mountain View headquarters. The protests, widely covered in both tech and mainstream press, highlight the tensions rippled by the wave of a tech economy that fails to lift all boats.

“San Francisco is in a crisis,” decries Jobs With Justice. Median rental prices recently topped $3,000 for the first time in history, situating the City by the Bay as the country’s single most expensive place to live.

Will Startups Embrace Management?

The future face of Silicon Valley?

A recent Medium post by Dustin Moskowitz, co-founder of Asana, argues that startups should transition away from distributed, individuated, hierarchy-free management culture — or, better put, anti-management culture — that defines the structure (or lack thereof) of many emerging organizations.

Moskowitz offers counterpoint by way of gaming startup Valve, who in a move of considerable transparency, published a self-critique of their laissez-faire, DIY-ish philosophy:

valve

Asana, and other companies, organize themselves around a culture of “distributed responsibility,” whose details they share generously on their blog. In this culture, domains of expertise fall into the hands of single individuals, where one person is responsible, say, for onboarding, another for CSS, and so on. The approach suggests a peer-to-peer culture of decision-making, rather than that of a traditional, top-down hierarchy.

Dustin’s notion of a good manager, perhaps reflecting a broader perspective shared by many in Silicon Valley, is as follows:

At the end of the day, good management qualities (empathy, attentiveness, honesty, wisdom, among others) trump philosophy, but some thought and planning can go a long way towards creating a culture that best supports your people and the goals of your company.

Interestingly, however, such qualities — while certainly admirable, and indeed desirable — may have little to do with effective leadership, or so suggests empirical research. “In Praise of Dullness,” a widely touted column penned by David Brooks in 2009, suggests that many of these soft-core qualities have little to do with effective leadership:

Steven Kaplan, Mark Klebanov and Morten Sorensen recently completed a study called “Which C.E.O. Characteristics and Abilities Matter?”

They relied on detailed personality assessments of 316 C.E.O.’s and measured their companies’ performances. They found that strong people skills correlate loosely or not at all with being a good C.E.O. Traits like being a good listener, a good team builder, an enthusiastic colleague, a great communicator do not seem to be very important when it comes to leading successful companies.

What mattered, it turned out, were execution and organizational skills. The traits that correlated most powerfully with success were attention to detail, persistence, efficiency, analytic thoroughness and the ability to work long hours.

In other words, warm, flexible, team-oriented and empathetic people are less likely to thrive as C.E.O.’s. Organized, dogged, anal-retentive and slightly boring people are more likely to thrive.

These results are consistent with a lot of work that’s been done over the past few decades.

Granted, Brooks focuses on CEOs, rather than managers, but I think that a similar principle applies in both cases: good leaders are individuals who are organized, consistent, critical, and hard-working, irrespective of their personalities.

The conclusions, while perhaps counter-intuitive, seem to be consistent across a wide body of research. Should this change the way startups organize themselves?

Maybe. I think that both Brooks and Moskowitz have valid points. The research cited by Brooks focuses on leaders of large, traditional, hierarchical organizations, where the qualities that constitute effectiveness may be defined, or at least shaped, by the broader culture of the companies.

Startups like Asana, meanwhile, are smaller, nimbler, flatter, and more collaborative than those highlighted in the cited studies. Given a company where the team evolves quickly, where each member wears numerous hats, where personal growth matters as much as dogged persistence, and where mentorship factors crucially into leadership, is a new kind of manager emerging? Moskowitz writes:

At Asana, we value transparency, balance, working together as peers, and investing in each other, and we try to apply these values to our management culture. We think that good management requires balance. We try to give people the freedom they need to contribute at their full potential, while also providing the support that helps them grow to become even more capable.

Our approach is “distributed responsibility,” exemplified by our AoR (Area of Responsibility) program. Instead of having all decisions flow through the management hierarchy, we go out of our way to distribute them as evenly as possible across all employees. At the same time, our approach emphasizes personal growth, especially through mentorship. I believe the most important contribution of a manager is to serve their reports by unblocking them, mentoring them, and pointing them in a direction that best serves their needs and the priorities of the organization.

Without suggesting too deterministic an outcome, the management culture at Asana certainly seems to be steering the company towards success.

The 111 Minna Story

On the eve of their twentieth anniversary celebration, Eiming Jung and Michelle Delaney of 111 Minna Gallery joined me to share stories from their long and celebrated history.

Opened when SOMA was a ghost town, before Yerba Buena gardens existed — let alone the coffee shops, thriving startup headquarters, and parklets — Eiming decided he wanted to open an art gallery.

What started as a simple home for art quickly evolved into a bar, a coffee shop, a private venue space, a thriving nightlife hub (with guests like Thievery Corporation and Moby, among others), and soon, a restaurant, all accompanying the venue’s extensive, floor-to-ceiling remodel that just took place this summer.

Minna has also become a veritable community space for San Francisco’s startup scene, hosting #sfbeta for more than six years, along with events for countless companies, including StumbleUpon, SixApart, eBay, and many more. The gallery’s now-central location has played a strong role in creating the vibrant hub around 2nd & Minna street, the neighborhood that many of the city’s best known tech companies call home.

We thank and celebrate 111 Minna and the amazing staff and team who make their magical space possible. Drop by anytime for art, amazing music, delicious coffee, and, of course, the next #sfbeta.

Is Snollygoster the new Mister Splashy Pants?

Mister Splashy Pants, the snollygoster of internet whales.

Mister Splashy Pants, the snollygoster of internet whales.

Language giveth, language taketh away; as new words percolate into popular speech, others fade into vernacular’s Valhalla, joining the erstwhile if long-forgotten ranks of eath (a nifty Scottish word functioning both as adjective and adverb meaning “easy”) and the still-comprehensible, if alliteratively gangly, landlubberliness (“the state of being like a landlubber”).

The high priests of English officialdom reside where they have always resided: in the hallowed halls of dictionary editorial boards. (Not all countries follow suit, by the way: French is governed, quite literally, by the L’Académie française, an arcane committee established in 1635, ruled by forty lifetime-appointed members called immortels.)

Each year, English dictionary boards determine, to fanfare approaching the lexical equivalent of Oscar nominations, which newbies (first known use: 1970; defined in already-quaint terms as “a newcomer to cyberspace”) might join the ranks of “ranks” and “the,” among a hundred-thousand-or-so brethren that now include such technology-infused utterances as:

  • woot (“used to express elation, enthusiasm, or triumph”)
  • MMORPG (clumsily, “an internet based computer game set in a virtual world, which can be played by many people at the same time, each of whom can interact with the others”)
  • cyberbullying (“the electronic posting of mean-spirited messages”)
  • mash-up (“something created by combining elements from two or more sources”)
  • sexting (“the sending of sexually explicit messages or images by cell phone”)

Sometimes, however, the internet serves a second role: that of preservationist. The very threat of extinction can serve as a word’s revivalist champion, rekindling obscure vocables via a process whose moniker itself has yet to enter the dictionary, but is surely in contention: the Streisand effect, in which “an attempt to hide, remove, or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely.”

In 2003, Mirriam-Webster quietly laid to rest a dated gem: snollygoster, a nineteenth-century Americanism that, in 1895, the Columbus Dispatch creatively defined as, “a fellow who wants office, regardless of party, platform or principles, and who, whenever he wins, gets there by the sheer force of monumental talknophical assumnacy.” (Neither “talknophical” nor “assumnancy” have any known usage outside this definition, making this phrase as mimsy as the borogoves.)

More broadly referenced as “an unprincipled but shrewd person,” snollygoster enjoys a newfound popularity, a tweedy, rejuvenating hipster moment in which someone, somewhere, probably in Brooklyn, indignantly huffs that they said snollygoster before it was coolQuoting an Atlantic article quoting Mirriam-Webster lexicographer Kory Stamper, “We have, oddly enough, seen more unironic and unself-conscious use of snollygoster in print in the last few years.”

With a decisive +1 from The Atlantic (not to mention a TED talk), snollygoster may be approaching an Arrested Development / Grover Cleveland moment, becoming one of the few words to enter, leave, and re-enter the bindings of Mirriam-Webster’s tome. M-W’s own Stamper waxes optimistically about the odds of this happening — that if snollygoster continues to resurge, the dictionary’s curators will “certainly consider adding it back.”

Much of snollygoster‘s triumph may be attributed to the ephemeral, viral pull of the internet, an attention engine that, in a manner similar to Cupid (the god, not the dating site), strikes immortel-like popularity into words, memes, clips, and so on, seemingly at random, but often with delicious irreverence.

As with words, so with names, as Greenpeace discovered in 2007 when inviting the internet to vote on the proposed name of a humpback whale in the South Pacific. Inserted amongst 29 other candidates, with benign, whale-sounding names like Aurora and Kaimana, was “Mister Splashy Pants,” likely intended as a joke, but one that the internet took very, very seriously.

From Facebook to Twitter, and particularly on Reddit, Mister Splashy Pants became a cause celebre, spiking traffic on Greenpeace to “near-untenable levels” and capturing an oceanic 78 percent of the vote, rivaled only by “Humphrey,” who bogarted a second-place 4,329 votes, less than three percent of the total.

When the internet refuses to let something die, it lives. The fate of snollygoster seems now to fare as swimmingly as that of Mister Splashy Pants, and it’s only a matter of time before the term is dropped by a New York Times columnist, before turning into a verb — “Bob snollygostered his promotion to Assistant Manager with monumental talknophical assumnancy.”

One hopes a similar fate awaits the interrobang.