Twitter is Elon's midlife crisis
Why would anyone sign his pledge to be "extremely hardcore?"
Tuesday night, around midnight PST, Elon Musk sent a company-wide memo titled “Fork in the Road.” He is requiring all employees to sign a pledge committing to be “extremely hardcore.” “Only exceptional performance will constitute a passing grade.”
(He also declares “at its heart, Twitter is a software and servers company,” which… I mean… Yikes.)
In the past two weeks, Musk has (1) laid off half the workforce, (2) laid off 80% of the contractors, (3) fired or accepted the resignations of the entire senior leadership, (4) fired everyone who said mean things about him on Twitter or on Slack, and now (5) he’s demanding that all workers affirmatively sign this “let’s all be hardcore” pledge. The Washington Post reports that entire teams are discussing a mass resignation.
The best possible spin you can put on this is that he has decided to tear Twitter down to the studs and rebuild it as Twitter 2.0 (a.k.a “X — the everything app.”). He wants a small, committed team that is committed to his vision and will work like hell to make it a reality. He has spent the past few weeks kicking everyone else out of the building. He’s trying, in other words, to run Twitter like a startup.
The problem is, that absolutely is not going to work.
One of my all-time favorite WIRED magazine articles is No Exit, by Gideon Lewis-Kraus. It’s a 2014 longform profile of Silicon Valley startup culture — “the story of one Silicon Valley startup struggling to survive a modern goldrush.”
It’s the best portrait I’ve seen of the insane hours, stress, and risk in startup culture.
Neither man was having an easy time keeping it together. Chris was waking up every morning at 5 am grinding his teeth, and Nick’s belt was clearly two notches tighter than usual. They had not taken paychecks in months; they’d be lucky, in fact, if they ended up paying themselves $30,000 apiece for the year. Nick was making ends meet by Airbnb-ing out his apartment a couple of blocks from their office and commuting an hour each way from his girlfriend’s place in Petaluma. Chris was leaning hard on his indefatigable wife. For this they had upended pleasant lives, and they could no longer quite remember why.
He compares startup workers to other “techies” who work at established companies like Google and Facebook.
"Techies" often get lumped together, but the lifestyle gap between startup founders and the employees of large companies is unbridgeable. One night I escaped the hacker house to go out with a group of founders from various startups: a dating app, two food-related apps, a videochat app, something that had to do with drone deployment, and an app that was, at last, going to help all of us communicate better. At 10:30 the waitress came over to take our orders for a second round. I ordered another whiskey, but everybody else looked at their phones with muted anxiety. At 11 pm the founders rose in pairs to leave, as if they had an exam in the morning. One founder (his company was literally an app that optimized app stores for other apps), who’d ordered a water and had taken off neither his backpack nor his jacket, apologized on behalf of everybody for leaving so early.
"When you have an early-stage company," he said, "there’s no time to hang out at a cool, trendy bar." He was 23. The bar might have been cool and trendy in Miami in 2004.
(Read the whole piece. It’s so worth it.)
What I like so much about Lewis-Kraus’s writing here is that it invites us to question the Silicon Valley myths surrounding genius-founders and the magic of startups. Most startups fail. Success for most startups just means getting acquired by one of the major Silicon Valley players. They basically function as cheap, outsourced R&D.
Plenty of world-class tech workers would prefer the fat salary, stable benefits, and hard-but-not-life-swallowing work to the startup grind. It doesn’t make them less skilled or less hardcore. And, until recently, Twitter was the sort of company that appealed to such workers.
That’s what Elon is trying to change so abruptly. He would like Twitter’s workforce to be different, right away.
It’s easy to forget, but just one year ago, we were at the height of the “web3” boom. Venture funding was effectively limitless. A new Internet was being constructed on the blockchain. Tech workers were leaving Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Twitter, etc to shoot their shot at getting in on the ground floor of Silicon Valley’s next phase.
As a practical matter, what this means for Twitter’s workforce is that anyone with any taste for the startup lifestyle probably already left the company last year.
Venture capital has been hard-hit by the tech crash. The other big tech companies are laying off tens of thousands of talented tech workers right now. Some of Twitter’s workforce are here on work Visas or have medical issues which make it practically impossible to leave their jobs. So there are reasons why some employees will surely grit their teeth and check Elon’s hardcore-affirmation-box. But Elon isn’t going to get a workforce that is slavishly devoted to making his vision of Twitter 2.0 a success. He’s demanding people who weren’t jumping at startup dreams in the halcyon days of twelve-months-ago should now sacrifice their lives and their sanity because he was forced to buy the company and now he would like it to be a totally different company, please.
Musk founded X.com when he was 28 years old. It was an online payment company, his second startup. It merged with Peter Thiel’s Confinity to become PayPal. Musk was the CEO at first, but Thiel and company kicked him out of the company.
Musk is 51 now. He hatched this plot to buy Twitter just a few months after his partner, Grimes, broke up with him, and just a month after news broke that she had started dating someone new (Chelsea Manning). One could certainly view this entire Twitter fiasco as the most expensive mid-life crisis of all time. (Some guys freak out and buy a Tesla when they hit their 50s. The Tesla guy freaked out and bought Twitter.)
Musk is trying to recapture those startup vibes so he can build Twitter 2.0. He wants it to be everything X.com could have been. He wants to be 28 again, proving that he can still live that startup grind, winning where he once lost. It’s tragic. If he wasn’t wreaking such havoc on so many lives, I would feel bad for the guy.
His vision for an “everything app” hasn’t been well-explained. It seems like he wants to build the equivalent of WeChat, but for the U.S. and the rest of the world outside China. He wants Twitter to also be Venmo and Facebook and Uber and Doordash and WhatsApp and TikTok. There are a couple of obvious problems with this vision.
First, we already have a Venmo, a Facebook, an Uber, a Doordash, a WhatsApp, and a TikTok. These are all robust companies, and there is no value for the end-user in combining them. It isn’t exactly difficult to switch from one service to another. I don’t need my payment app to also be my encrypted messaging app and my live video app and my short-text with links app. Elon Musk is fixating on building a product that will have less user-demand than Mark Zuckerberg’s legless metaverse dystopia.
Second, it’s 2022. People don’t trust social media companies the way they used to. WeChat was founded in 2011, in China, with the support of the Chinese government. That is an extraordinarily different time and different place than we find ourselves in today. Regulators in the U.S. and the E.U. are not going to love Musk’s one-app-to-rule-them-all approach. Existing competitors aren’t going to clear the field. And users aren’t going to trust Elon to store all of their data in one place, protect it from hackers, and not abuse it himself.
Maybe he could have pulled this off in 2012. But not in 2022/2023. Musk is going to wreck Twitter in a quest to recapture the glory days of his youth. There’s no demand for “Twitter 2.0.” The people who use and work at Twitter like Twitter.
There are plenty of other problems with Musk’s startup fantasy.
He isn’t offering his workers the chance to strike it rich through an IPO; he’s just demanding that they work insane hours for the same salary they were already paid.
His company is hemorrhaging money, and he has already saddled it with $13 billion in debt.
He has alienated the entire employee base by being a thin-skinned righteous asshole.
He has offered no actual vision of what he actually wants to build.
His company still operates under an FTC consent decree and has to comply with Europe’s GDPR. Senator Markey has already told him “Fix your companies. Or Congress will.”
He isn’t funding this venture by dazzling venture capitalists with his wit and charm. He’s funding it out of his own pockets.
And oh yeah, he’s facing a ton of lawsuits, both surrounding Twitter and his other companies.
But, on the most basic level, Elon is trying to convince his Twitter employees that they should sacrifice everything to turn Twitter into the company he would like it to be. Why would they want to do that?
Startup life is objectively shitty. Plenty of talented engineers don’t want that lifestyle. And they particularly won’t want to be forced into it by a megalomaniac boss who only communicates his vision through tweets and midnight edicts.
Elon’s Twitter vision is going to fail so long as Elon is at the center of it. The problem with Elon’s Twitter is Elon.
When we venerate sociopaths as the leaders of our economy, we should not be surprised when one acts out on his tendencies. It’s a shame that Twitter is being torn apart this way. The message I take though is that we desperately need workers to have more power in companies, both public and private. There would be fewer mass layoffs and the destruction of Twitter would look very different. Workers have as much or more skin in the game than owners and boards, so they should have a say in the decisions that can cost them their job and home.
Musk apparently tweeted that he was planning to hire a new Twitter CEO, apparently to get out from under the disaster he created and to shift the blame to someone else. Who would walk into a snake pit in a lion's den?
If Musk is focused on an everything app, why wouldn't someone else recreate Twitter, using the Twitter employees who were fired or fled?