Coinbase, Tony Hsieh, and What a Healthy Conversation About Tech Looks Like

The tech industry can sideline the press. But should it?

Over Thanksgiving break, a spectacle developed over a forthcoming New York Times story about Coinbase. News of the story first appeared on Coinbase’s blog, where the company posted an email to employees warning of an impending negative article. “The story,” it said, “will allege that several Black employees had negative experiences at Coinbase over the last few years.”

Soon after Coinbase’s post went up, a chorus of tech insiders implored their peers to cut off the press, and tell their stories themselves. “Build your own media arm, hire an [editor-in-chief], and go direct,” Palantir co-founder Joe Lonsdale tweeted. “The quality of traditional publications is declining simultaneously with our need for them,” said Y-Combinator co-founder Paul Graham. “Better to say your own story than defend the one NYT writes,” said product manager Madhur Chadha.

The allure of “going direct” is simple. Thanks to the social internet, you can now tell your story exactly as you’d like — without any criticism — instead of filtering it through reporters’ and editors’ lenses. Everyone from athletes to politicians have embraced this form of media. And some in the tech industry, after years of easy treatment from the press, are now gravitating toward it too.

Being the target of bad press stings. But for those hoping to develop healthy companies, ignoring it is risky. Journalists can be overzealous, but sidelining their work because it isn’t perfect will only ensure legitimate problems go unaddressed. If Coinbase didn’t agree with the breadth of the Timescritique, it could’ve used the moment to ask why many of its Black employees felt compelled to speak up. If some in the tech industry believe reporters are out to get them, then a dialogue — not boycott — seems like a good place to start.

We need dialogue now because these movements tend to pick up steam and take on lives of their own. As recent history teaches us, it can be difficult to go back. Even those who’d carry out the “go direct” mission feel uneasy about where it might lead. “I'm the thing that they're telling people to do,” Sean Blanda, a journalist turned tech company editor, told me. “For the general public, I always think it's a net negative when there's less journalism.” 

As an independent journalist writing on Substack, I imagined the tech executives criticizing so-called corporate journalism might be willing to engage in a dialogue here on Big Technology. But Lonsdale and Graham ignored my emails (they’re still welcome to join the podcast). At a certain point, you wonder if it’s unfounded criticism or criticism itself they have an issue with. 

Just as the Coinbase drama hit a crescendo, news of Zappos founder Tony Hsieh’s passing broke. Almost immediately, the public conversation turned from anger to love. Gratitude for Hsieh’s work, both in the tech industry and in his Las Vegas community, poured out.

Hsieh was a classic tech founder. He was experimental, quirky, and unafraid of failure. His downtown Vegas residence was a parking lot filled with Airstreams and tiny houses, and I remember visiting in 2015. After watching live-band karaoke and petting Hsieh’s pet lama, I went over to meet him. Hsieh wasn’t overly friendly, but he was gracious, an ultra-successful founder willing to let those who critique him roam free in his home.

Months later, I learned of Hsieh’s management practices, including his implementation of an experimental manager-free hierarchy — called holacracy — that some Zappos employees loved, but some really hated. After Hsieh introduced the system, 14% of Zappos’ 1,500 employees quit, and Business Insider’s Richard Feloni detailed the struggle. 

After Feloni highlighted Hsieh’s management problems, the Zappos founder didn’t cut him off. Instead, he brought him in for a visit. “They treated me fairly and didn't dismiss difficult questions,” Feloni told me. “For all of his quirks and eccentricities, Hsieh was well aware of his critics, and while he always had a rebuttal, he wasn't oblivious and recognized the validity of some critiques.”

Hsieh understood that working in tech means trying a bunch of different things, failing frequently, and accepting criticism along with praise. Ultimately, that openness leads to growth. 

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Further reading: 

Why People Can’t Stand Tech Journalists: An Interview With Casey Newton

A VC Explains Why VCs Are So Pissed Off Right Now

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Inc Magazine names Always Day One one of the best business books in 2020

I was thrilled to see Always Day One named among Inc.’s top 10 business books of 2020. It’s a joy to see it recognized, especially in the midst of a tough year. Here’s the story: “Your Complete Guide to the 10 Best New Business Books of 2020” And did I mention that Always Day One makes a great holiday gift? It’s selling at a 30% discount on Amazon this week.

This week on the Big Technology Podcast: Ex-Uber Exec Emil Michael on autonomous driving, Saudi Arabia, and company culture

Uber is facing a difficult moment amid the coronavirus pandemic. The service, built on the belief that people would forsake car ownership in favor of its ride-hailing service, is watching many of its customers buy cars and stay home. The new trouble for Uber comes after the company worked to right itself after years of turbulence under ex-CEO Travis Kalanick’s leadership. Emil Michael, the former Uber chief business officer and confidant of Kalanick, joined the Big Technology Podcast to discuss Uber’s business prospects, its culture, its current leadership, and its controversies.

You can listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Overcast, and read the transcript on OneZero.

See you next Thursday.