In the past couple of weeks, the co-founders of Microsoft and Twitter have been attached to the same kinds of unsavoury stories that have long dogged the people behind Facebook, Apple, Zynga and other top tech firms. What is it about computers and money that instills villainy?
As Tom Foremski at Silicon Valley Watcher has noticed, it seems like there’s been a spate of news about ethics-challenged startup founders lately. Paul Allen says in his new book that fellow Microsoft founder Bill Gates twice watered down Allen’s stake in Microsoft – with Allen’s consent but to his later regret – before later discussing with current CEO Steve Ballmer ways to dilute him further after Allen took a leave of absence for cancer treatment and his productivity dropped. The “spiritual leader” of Twitter and man who coined the company’s name, meanwhile, still feels betrayed that he was fired by eventual Twitter CEO Ev Williams after Williams took a stronger interest in the microblogging service that Glass had been instrumental in developing and had championed from the beginning. Williams also left a bitter trail of colleagues at Blogger.com, the company he co-founded and later sold to Google.
That’s not to say either man is a lifelong asshole; Gates, for example, has given more than $US28 billion to charity. Nor are angry former coworkers always trustworthy sources of information. But judging from the preponderance of stories circulating out there, it sure looks like tech founders collectively tend to act like jerks as they build their fortunes.
Take Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who has admitted to sending instant messages in which he wrote “I’m going to fuck them” in reference to associates with whom he was collaborating on a Facebook-like website. Or the emails that revealed that he’d referred to Facebook users as “dumb fucks”. Then there’s Zynga CEO Mark Pincus, who once admitted, before some of his scammy advertising partners were publicised, that “I did every horrible thing in the book to – just to get revenues right away.”
And then there was the time, which is now part of Silicon Valley legend, when Steve Jobs misled his Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak about the size of a bonus the pair received from Atari, giving him only $US350 and keeping $US5000 for himself.
“My hope is that the next generation of young entrepreneurs can tell the difference [between right and wrong]and will choose to build ethical businesses,” Foremski writes. Sadly, the biggest, shiniest, most profitable example of a young startup right now – Facebook – has one of the most chequered ethical histories of all. Recent charitable gifts notwithstanding, Facebook’s history may prove to be inspiring in all the wrong ways.
[Photos (from left to right) of Zuckerbrg, Gates and Williams via Getty]