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An ROI State of Mind

Feb
6
2004

Author Michael Lewis has long argued, with most in Silicon Valley, that stock options encourage loyalty since they give employees a stake – sometimes a marvelously lucrative stake – in the place where they work.
For a while, they do. But there’s a downside for giving away all that stock. It encourages employees to think of the own net worth (measured in stock, which we should all know by now is no measure of good management) as their sole motivation. That thinking was encouraged in a host of ways. Back before the ‘net, Silicon Valley companies used to post the day’s opening price on little sign board at their reception desk. Technology’s only made that sort of contemplation an hourly event and it’s not the sort of thinking that keeps people around unless thing are going well. Instead, it makes them wary – cautious almost to a fault – about any fluctuations in their employers’ fate. It makes them obsess about Wall Street, where their financial fates are really decided. It turns them into amateur Henry Blodgets, selling to the outside, dumping on the inside.
People working for stock want to know that the time they’re spending will be well – if not fabulously – rewarded. If it’s not, they’re gone. The return on their investment – the ROI – isn’t sufficient. And be sure of this: the folks who leave for better pastures don’t waste time looking back and they can be scathing in their reviews of what went wrong. One thing is almost always clear, however: It wasn’t their fault. Someone else is to blame.
Well, that thinking is now seeping outside the valley. Take New York Times reporter Amy Harmon’s piece yesterday about Geek anger over viruses. This is probably what (still) passes for quaint humor at the New York Times which is amused at the contempt Geeks are showing toward the not-so-technical. They’ve tried, the poor Geeks, but all this helping and explaining, well, it’s just a time sink. If people are too stupid to learn, you can’t help them, can you? If they can’t learn to spot a simple virus — it’s an attachment for crying out loud! — well, that’s their fault. If they can’t see what’s going wrong and how they need to get out of the way — well, to hell with them. Anything more is a waste of time.
Want another example of this thinking: Network Solutions dumping the Washington Post off its own URL. Me? I bought this url for the next five years or so. Because I know. But the guys at the Post, well, they probably figured they were a good customer. Or a big newspaper. Maybe somebody’d use the phone and, like, call? Ha!
The same sort of thing’s happened with the Dean campaign. When Dean failed to win his initial contests, the Geeks couldn’t get off the bus fast enough. Once Joe Trippi was fired — or they found out he was making money, it’s hard to tell which was more important — they ran for the doors and they ran fast. Partly they can’t stand the embarrassment of being “wrong,” of picking a not-so-successful pol in what for many was their first go at organized politics. Partly they were following Trippi because he “got it,” which Silicon Valley speak for being in agreement. They’re defensive about leaving, too, which is natural. But they’re also looking for people to blame (and they have every right to blame the national press) which isn’t. But they’ve left Dean. He’s a loser. There’s no ROI on Dean any more. And his “Wisconsin or nothing” message is getting them even more anxious to leave.
This isn’t an exaggeration. One of the things that was so very annoying about the Dean campaign coverage was the emphasis on the “belief” factor. There was plenty of it. But where’s the story on the disengagement? A story talking about the self-administered application of corporate think among some of Dean’s staunchest supporters, particularly those on the web? For many of these guys, sunk costs are sunk costs, it’s time to cut the cord and move on to the next gig. There’s a lot of that going on here. And there’s going to be a lot more of it as the independent minded entrepreneurial thinking that brought you the 1990 Internet Stock Boom keeps going, spreading East from me to you. These guys are fickle and the ‘net gives them the power to move and move quickly.
There’s a lot to be said about the political, social and philanthropic reforms that Progressive Libertarians want to enact: a better run, more efficient non-profit community, municipal governments that actually function. But their anxiousness to move on when things go their way – exactly their way – isn’t one of them.

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 1:49 PM | Permalink

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