More tech drama, please | TechCrunch

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Image Credits: Nigel Sussman

As the startup game has matured around the world, it’s become less fun. Building companies from nothing to something is hardly supposed to be laugh-a-minute, but I think we’ve lost sight of how much fun new tech used to be.

An example that comes to mind is Meerkat. Let me explain: Back in 2015, Meerkat brought a simple livestreaming app to the market. If you had a phone, you could post live video and people thought it was the coolest damn thing.

TechCrunch wrote about the app in early March of that year, and we used Meerkat around the office as a neat, experimental tool to do our job. It was a silly time, but good fun. If you were in the writer’s area of 410 Townsend, our erstwhile HQ, you might have wound up on stream by sheer dint of sitting at your desk. We loved it.

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In fact, we liked it so much that the anti-Meerkat backlash was pretty quick. Josh Constine wrote at the time that he was drowning in new livestreams. Natasha Lomas wrote that “live video is the new clickbait.” Soon Meerkat raised capital, launched a platform and came to Disrupt. The app pulled itself from the market in 2016.

It was a moment when the comparatively small startup world was seemingly united behind a single new idea or trend. There was once a time when new social apps would gear up for SXSW, hoping to become a breakout hit among the digerati who were busy pounding tequila and breakfast tacos.

Since then, things have gotten really boring, yeah? More money flooded the zone, B2B SaaS became the de facto startup business model, and platform companies became ever broader and richer, limiting greenfield space for new companies to build and experiment. Sure, the crypto boom has brought some of the fun back, but not more than a fraction. It’s hard to have fun when lots of the new fun space is a grift.

Enter a good old-fashioned Twitter rant from Ryan Breslow, founder and CEO of Bolt. Bolt is a digital payments startup focused on providing online checkout solutions to other companies. It just raised $335 million at an $11 billion valuation. And Breslow, now flush with a mountain of cash and a decacorn valuation, took to Twitter to settle some scores.

In a thread he titled “Stripe and YCombinator, the Mob Bosses of Silicon Valley,” the CEO went back through a sheaf of perceived slights that he endured from a collection of powerful players in the startup industry. A Sequoia partner fired back, saying that the real issue that Breslow had when he was struggling to raise and attract attention to his company was poor metrics. Shots fired.

The thread brought back drama for a short while.

Since the thread and arguments against the thread took over the startup conversation yesterday, Breslow has largely doubled down on his core thesis, sharing that founders are reaching out to him about similar experiences. Regardless of who you think came out better in the settling detritus of the spat, it was a useful exercise.

Yes, Stripe is incredibly powerful and protective of its perch in the tech industry. And, yes, the fact that Hacker News is a Y Combinator property is something we should keep in mind. Even more, we should be skeptical of Silicon Valley’s self-proclaimed vibe that world-changing is more core to the tech ethos than profit. (If that’s the case, then let workers unionize and stop treating junior talent like tissues, but, hey, that’s just me.)

Is all this drama fun? Yes; pass the popcorn. But these Twitter beefs really matter because we can often find the seeds of change or clarity.

Meerkat was dramatic and silly and good, but was also a canary that live was going to be increasingly important as a theme in the tech world. Twitch’s growth since 2015, the burgeoning live-shopping ecosystem, and, hell, even Hopin can trace elements of their success to the demand geyser that Meerkat helped unveil.

And the dramatic fun of the Breslow thread brought the tech world back to the perspective it once had: that powerful individuals control capital and access to the market. Yes, things have changed, but I think that today’s more genteel, more corporate, and less human tech landscape has lost something. It’s more obfuscated, more polished, less real, less fun.

To illustrate: At one point in the distant past, Postmates moved into the office next to TechCrunch. The company’s CEO, Bastian Lehmann, used to lean out his window and shout hellos at TechCrunch staff when we crossed the street. I tried to “borrow” his Angela Merkel cardboard statue. I also once wound up at Postmates 110% a wreck and told Lehmann that I needed to go to rehab (spoiler: true).

It was a time when communication between a tech journalist and a CEO could involve more than anodyne emailed press releases. The startup game has become so industrialized and corporatized that we’ve lost sight of the people building the companies — and how the products interact with real human beings in the market.

A big shoutout to Breslow for speaking his mind. And two cheers for Jack Dorsey, who is busy shitposting his Bitcoin maximalism in the face of a16z and its various acolytes (of course, Andreessen Horowitz is a Stripe investor, per Crunchbase data). These dustups are good, good fun, and useful in that they are doing their bit to bring combat back to tech. Not polite bullshit, but the real scrap. The material fight. The fuck you. The disruptive change.

More of this, please. Let’s make tech fun again, and in the process have a clearer view into what people actually think — and where they see the future going.

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