Bo Ren is a product leader, TEDx speaker, and writer. She is the former director of product at Bravely, where she helped build a behavioral change platform to help people find meaning in the workplace. At Tumblr, she redesigned the core creative tools, and at Facebook she launched Facebook Notes and Instagram monetization tools. Read more.
Money shapes culture, and culture defines codes of conduct. The current state of the internet has plateaued because it has been governed by the same nearsighted business metrics, rules, and standards for the past 20 years. If we want to better the internet in a truly significant and transformational way, we need capital to put toward this endeavor, but we also need to break out of the traditional methods of raising and distributing that capital. We need new rules, new affordances, and, importantly, new players—those who are willing to think critically, creatively, and thoughtfully about how both new products and the way they are funded will impact long-term social norms.
To understand how the internet has evolved into its current state, you need to first understand the world of venture capital. Venture capital firms are beholden to limited partners—“LPs” or family offices and individuals with old money—who give them money to invest. This relationship incentivizes VC firms to invest in companies that yield fast returns. Depending on their size, these firms may need raise a new fund every couple of years, and those fast returns are needed to raise the next fund. For startups, accepting venture capital money is like receiving a steroid injection: every $1M is expected to be a 10X to 100X return. So-called “unicorn” startups, like Facebook and Uber, yield monstrous returns in huge order of magnitude.
I’ve worked at a handful of these unicorn startups, and have seen first-hand the top-down effect of this system.At Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr, we were beholden to our shareholders and investors to grow our user base and increase our share prices and bottomline revenue. Metrics and the need to meet companywide KPIs (key performance indicators) largely drove product decisions, rather than privacy considerations, the betterment of users, or the sake of innovation. Under pressure to perform astronomical growth and meet shareholder expectations, employees were incentivized to build towards a quarterly goal, instead of being encouraged to wander, find blank spaces, and create new areas to innovate. As former Facebook data scientist Jeffrey Hammerbacher put it, “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. It sucks.”
Product designers, product managers, and engineers need to bring back a sense of wonder and curiosity to the creative process, and, in that respect, we can learn a lot from artists that engage in divergent thinking. Before we ship a product we should ask ourselves: Does this app give nutritious value to the end user? Does it let you disengage, feel boredom, even, instead of addicting you to a mindless scroll? Is the product introducing a new paradigm that allows users to think and feel differently? If so, will it scale accordingly in positive impact? And crucially, Are you adding long-term social value instead of shorter term value to VCs and shareholders?
But in order for that kind of thinking to happen, tech companies need to give their employees the time, space, and incentives to think creatively, constructively, and with long-term societal well-being in mind. That can come in the form of innovation centers within large tech companies that can make high beta, bold bets like GoogleX. Corporate venture capital arms are able to invest in harder problems without expecting an immediate return since they are funded by corporate revenue instead of LPs. Impact funding may also come in the form of grants from large tech companies like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative or Omidyar Network. Similar to carbon credits, tech companies can issue grants to technologists who are working on complex problems with a social good component to offset the harm they have made.
To innovate is to disrupt a normalized way of thinking. To disrupt is to think through a creative process that is a nonlinear path. I worry that with the existing metrics in place, we are forcing product development to go from a linear A to B fashion, short-circuiting innovation. Tech should not be an arms race to raise more money, build first, and fix later. To build a better internet, engineers, designers, and product managers need to be afforded the space to think like artists: divergently, critically, slowly, creatively. But that won’t happen until investors think more creatively about the current investment structures and fundraising practices and create a new economic model in venture capital.
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