The terrifying rise of the political entrepreneur

May 23, 2013

In 1999, I decided to leave the headaches of entrepreneurship behind and get a regular Silicon Valley job in an attempt to ride the dot-com wave. My timing was terrible, and by 2001 I had started another company. In that time, however, I learned that the corporate world is comprised of two groups. In one group, there are the entrepreneurs, individuals judged by actual results and forced to live by Yoda’s famous line, “Do or do not, there is no try.” Then there are the corporate stooges, for lack of a better term, who are usually judged by their ability to play corporate politics, making nice to their various bosses.

Emil Sitka, second from left, is shown in an undated studio handout photo with the Three Stooges, from left, Shemp Howard, Larry Fine and Moe Howard. (AP Photo/Ventura County Star)
Emil Sitka, second from left, is shown in an undated studio handout photo with the Three Stooges, from left, Shemp Howard, Larry Fine and Moe Howard. (AP Photo/Ventura County Star)

How a corporate stooge actually performed, or whether or not they produced value, was of little importance. They only had to be good at crafting an appealing image. This is what made entrepreneurs a different breed from the people who made their bones climbing the corporate ladder. Entrepreneurs were judged strictly by their bottom line results.

But something has changed lately. No, I’m not naive enough to think that connections and the “old boys club” don’t matter. But there seems to be a new breed of entrepreneurs whose greatest skill is playing the political game. We now have “golden boys” who get funded because they’ve mastered the politics of the startup ecosystem. This group never appears to fail because even when they do, they deftly maneuver a face saving acqui-hire that lets them spin it as a win. Venture capitalists overfund them at unjustifiable valuations and tech giants buy these startups based on perceived talent even when their companies are on the path to becoming a total bust.

Now, I’ve decided to refrain from naming names, since any specific mentions would almost certainly induce a wave of denials and distract from identifying and, hopefully, ending the underlying trend. In short, to the perpetrators of this practice: You know who you are.

By the standard of “do or do not,” this new breed of entrepreneur applies a version that prescribes, “do play the political game, and do not necessarily build a successful business.” They are essentially corporate manipulators but instead of plying their political talents inside a company, they’re doing it with the entire technology sector.

If this pattern continues, I fear the tech industry will morph into something that more closely resembles the corporate world, where politics and perception matter more than product development. Innovation will stall if industry maneuvering becomes more important than new technology. People will begin to be as skeptical of the Valley as they are of the government. The meritocratic ideals that tech denizens love to espouse will ring as hollow as a campaign stump speech, and as favoritism and political machination become the preferred modus operandi, the Valley will become increasingly poor at finding and elevating new talent.

If you’re an entrepreneur and you think my fears are unfounded, ask yourself: How long have you been struggling to get noticed while you see a member of the in-crowd get bailed out of a failing company in an acqui-hire? When you see someone succeed based on something other than “do or do not” you are witnessing a perversion of entrepreneurship most likely crafted by people who are more skilled at politics than they are at building a business.

For now, tech is still relatively meritocratic. New talent is welcomed with open arms, especially by the angel community who seem willing to gamble on just about anyone. But if the rise of the political entrepreneur continues, the corporate gamesman and the entrepreneur will soon be indistinguishable from one another.

Franciso Dao is the founder of the private innovation community 50 Kings, a regular contributor to PandoDaily and a former leadership columnist for Inc.com.

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