I read a fine article yesterday by Rob Cox for Reuters about Silicon Valley’s “undeserved moral exceptionalism”. It is difficult to argue with much of what Cox says, which boils down to this: Silicon Valley, by which Cox means the internet industry in general, sees itself as exempt from the normal rules of propriety because it has an undeservedly grandiose opinion of its own significance and accomplishments.
That leads American internet businesses to take shortcuts, most notably in the areas of privacy and indifference to copyright, that would not be possible in other industries. Tellingly – and not just because Cox is an American – he makes no mention made of any European companies in his analysis. I think I know why that is. I think it’s because European start-ups are pussies.
“Ambition is like hunger; it obeys no law but its appetite,” wrote Henry Wheeler Shaw, an (American) humorist and lecturer. When I meditate on that quotation, it appears to me to very well define the elites of Silicon Valley: a very small club consisting of, let us be frank, not entirely pleasant people. But to be successful one cannot always be nice, and that is what Europe must now reconcile itself with, if it is to succeed.
It’s with amusement that I read Mark Suster’s entreaty to his peers not to be “grin fuckers”, when of course that is the basis upon which internet start-ups must operate to win. Peer beneath the glossy Web 2.0 veneer of any Valley start-up and you will find a business model predicated on encouraging unhealthy appetites, manipulating addictions and trading in personal information.
I say this not as a criticism. It is not one. Users must take personal responsibility for the amount of time they spend on FarmVille or World of Warcraft. And, if you are using, but not paying for, a web service, you should expect the company behind it to be profiting from you somehow. To think otherwise is naïve.
But to return to the point, I spend my life in and around European technology start-ups. I know many of them exceptionally well. And here’s what I’ve reluctantly deduced: with a few notable exceptions, Europeans pay lip service to the Valley’s hungry culture of ambition, but their hearts aren’t really in it.
Of course, I am generalising, and there are exceptions. (You can tell the exceptions because they’ve opened offices in San Francisco.) But the greatest technology entrepreneurs are those who smile as they’re stabbing you, those who cheerfully pump out cutesy iPhone apps designed to help you “connect to your friends” while uploading your address books silently in the background.
In Europe we’re too paralysed by manners and constricted by conscience. Too encumbered by genteel European ideals about privacy. Growing up on a socialist continent has crippled us, blinded us even to the virtues of unbridled capitalism. We are hampered by virtue. As a consequence, I don’t see fire in the eyes of European founders like I do in Silicon Valley. And their ideas, for whatever reason, simply aren’t as ambitious.
Who in Europe, besides Soundcloud, aspires to revolutionise the delivery of content for an entire physical sense on the internet? Who in Europe, besides Rovio, has the same insight into human psychology to create phenomenally, even dangerously, addictive products? And how many companies in Europe can really claim to be executing well enough to beat the Americans?
No. Most Europeans simply don’t have what it takes. The culture of “do first, apologise later”, so ostentatiously prevalent in the Valley presently, barely exists in Europe. Again, lip service is paid to the idea, but there’s little in the way of killer instinct, and that’s what has to change here before, for example, London can hubristically claim to be Europe’s answer to Silicon Valley.
There’s one truly glaring exception in the European internet industry to the observation I’ve made here – and I’m setting aside the commercial success of Mind Candy’s Moshi Monsters – and that’s Rocket Internet. They might be copycats, but there is a hunger and ruthlessness in the Samwer brothers’ approach to building companies that is unrivalled elsewhere on the continent.
We find it distasteful because we gentle Europeans don’t like to see it expressed so unapologetically. We prefer the smiler with the knife approach of Facebook or Zynga. But the Samwer brothers are a beacon of hope and an inspiration; they should be worshipped, not derided. Europe must learn to love itself and to go out with that same breathtaking sort of audacity that leaves commentators aghast at Facebook’s latest privacy infraction. I see that sort of boldness in Wonga, but few other companies.
Europe needs to grow up and get mean – or, if not, learn to be content with middling successes like Last.fm and copying the hell out of what our superiors on the West Coast are up to. Soundcloud, Rovio, Mind Candy and a smattering of other businesses I am forbidden from mentioning because they’re run by friends of mine seem to me to be oases of ambition, vision and talent in a largely arid landscape, within which mundane services products vie for attention with uninspiring platform businesses.
I know there are challenges. For a start, people like me will be breathing down your necks every time you abuse someone’s personal information. And legislation coming from Europe is so profoundly and grotesquely anti-competitive it’s enough to make you want to move to the US and give up on Europe entirely. And we must fight against the inclination to punish failure, or to see it as cause for humiliation.
But I want to see the same sort of article as Rob Cox’s being written here, by the Telegraph and Le Monde. I want to see risk-taking. I want to see powerful and terrifying businesses with grand visions and a fuck-you attitude to the law and everything that has gone before. I want to see you guys addressing sex, death and relationships instead of voucher codes and customer service. I want to see European entrepreneurs like I do American ones: Professor Moriarty, not Ross Geller.
The question is: are you honestly hungry enough?