Does Utah Tech Need a Culture Reboot?
[Note: In all quoted social posts, any emphasis via italics was added by TechBuzz.]
An Acute Problem
Nobody in Utah’s tech or startup scene failed to notice what happened last week with the Dave Bateman email fiasco. If you need a recap, TechBuzz has it covered.
This article isn’t about Bateman, per se, but the case is important to understand the culture that tolerated his misbehavior for too long.
Bateman’s email prompted a flurry of responses rightly denouncing it as deranged and dangerous. As Voltaire said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” It’s hard to imagine a more extreme screed than Bateman’s secret cabal of world-dominating zealots out to decimate the global population. But Beth Noymer Levine noted on Linkedin that nobody acquainted with Bateman’s past seemed that surprised. Blake McClary on Twitter said “Bateman has been the worst representative of Utah tech for years. We all know this.” Jeff Whitlock, a former Utah GOP delegate confirmed, “I was disappointed, but not that surprised.” Even casual observers could have seen Bateman was at least prone to unwitting sexism and divisive political activism.
It begs the question: Why was Bateman’s increasingly erratic behavior tolerated for years? Why wasn’t he quietly asked to leave Entrata leadership before being publicly removed (and pressured to divest equity)?
Money, or course. Entrata raised $507 million last year. They may have known Bateman’s descent into unreality, and hoped nobody would rock the boat (even if the Chairman might wildly rock the boat later).
Levine went on, “If you knew [Bateman’s dangerous beliefs] and you funded, worked with, and/or promoted Bateman in any way, then you looked the other way (presumably in the interest of some version of greed or ambition) and therefore enabled his dangerous, hurtful, bigoted, and misguided opinions to have a platform. People like Bateman need help, not a platform.”
This whole episode must have been a nightmarish PR firestorm for Entrata. As it turns out, delaying difficult but necessary confrontation isn’t ultimately profitable. The company definitely lost business.
To their credit, CEO Adam Edmunds’ response was strong and swift, and all reports are that Entrata is today filled with the finest people. Jewish speaker and author Alison Levine (not to be confused with Beth Levine) was slated to speak at Entrata the day after Bateman’s blowup email. She addressed the company, and said she could not have felt more welcome.
A Broader Problem
After the blow-up, Salt Lake City VC Bryce Roberts tweeted without elaboration:
"Utah tech community needs a reboot."
Replies confirmed the view that Utah’s tech problems include bigotry, but extend beyond.
Matt Harrison added: “The sense of community is messed up: Do you work for one of 5 companies? Have you been funded by their founders? There is a lot more to Utah tech than that.”
There’s plenty of founder worship in tech. Successful founders are seen as brilliant and are often very rich. Success sweeps them into an exclusive in-group of peers that mostly look and think the same. “Brogrammers” were one of the first things lampooned in HBO’s Silicon Valley (first episode, first season). Tech is immensely profitable, and it’s no surprise it attracts aggressive, ambitious men.
To be clear, we need aggressive, ambitious people to build incredible companies from scratch. It’s unimaginably hard. But aggression and ambition alone aren’t enough. They have to be carefully directed at a worthy and welcoming mission. Like all energy sources, akin to fire or electricity, those energizing traits can create or destroy.
Money is just a means to an end, and the singular pursuit of profit can destroy real mission, leadership, and culture. Whole Foods founder John Mackey wrote an entire book about this called Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business. “Just as happiness is best experienced by not aiming for it directly,” says Mackey, “profits are best achieved by not making them the primary goal of the business.”
It may even have been Bateman’s profit ambition that drove him to extremes. Kyle Jepson, formerly of Entrata né Property Solutions, said on LinkedIn that Bateman’s early leadership was admirable.
“When I first joined Property Solutions in 2011, Dave Bateman was a truly inspirational leader. We had monthly company meetings where he would always give a stirring closing speech… I always came out of those meetings feeling like a knight on a quest to slay a dragon.”
By the end of my three-year stint at Property Solutions, Dave The Inspirational Leader had been completely replaced by Dave The Axe-Wielder… his riveting speeches were replaced by (I kid you not) a little segment where he would point at employees at random and say, ‘How have you made me money in the past month?’”
A Better Foundation
So what does a constructive mission, leadership, and culture look like?
In short, it’s about being a missionary, not a mercenary.
Missionaries welcome others, teach and learn, and always serve.
Mercenaries dominate others, assert authority, and rule with ego.
We’ve already mentioned Whole Foods founder John Mackey. From its founding, Whole Foods was focused on better food, more ethically sourced. That mission helped Mackey rally a community around the nascent store. In 1981, after only three years of operation, a massive flood in Austin Texas overtook Mackey’s only location. The store’s entire inventory was destroyed. With losses near $400,000 and no insurance, many would have given up, but Mackey was on a mission. Because of that mission, the community continued to back him. Customers, neighbors, staff, and even creditors and investors all helped, and after complete disaster, Whole Foods reopened less than a month later.
Mackey’s mission paid off, both during operation and at exit. After nearly four decades running one of the most respected grocery store chains in the country, Whole Foods was bought by Amazon for $13.7 billion.
Closer to home, let’s look at Davis Smith and Cotopaxi. The company is unrelentingly focused on bringing good to the world first, harvesting profits after. Any examination of Cotopaxi shows the company had that focus from day one, with products made from scrap material to reduce the waste footprint. It’s a certified B corporation, something Smith implemented before the novel structure was widely known or popular. The goodness of Cotopaxi, in its culture, supply chain, and customer satisfaction, are all clearly a product of Smith’s leadership and singular mission-driven focus. Do good by literally everyone in and out of the company, and profits consistently follow. Last year Cotopaxi received a $45 million investment from Bain Capital, with the aim to drive international growth for the mission-driven brand.
What about CEO Monte Deere of Kizik and Handsfree Labs? The company has incredible patent holdings. In practice, nobody else on earth can make a “hands free” shoe without that IP, not even Nike. So does Deere lead with a take-no-prisoners approach, to dominate the market and elevate himself? It appears not. In this writer’s experience, Deere is (like Smith) unreasonably kind, even when there’s no obvious or immediate benefit to him or the company. When visiting the Kizik offices, this writer saw Deere’s office door open, welcoming any passerby among his employees. Rather than leading as a conquering warrior, he leads as a missionary, and for Deere, it’s hardly a figure of speech. Deere led a religious mission in Malaga Spain from 2012 to 2015, helping younger missionaries with every aspect of their difficult work.
This writer can’t say for certain from firsthand experience, but from all the formal and informal eulogies of MX’s late founder Bradon DeWitt, it appears he may have been the same kind of serving leader this state so badly needs more of.
Our tech community is better than bigotry or brogrammer bravado. It’s something every aspiring founder, investor, and individual contributor should remember when doing business and building this ecosystem.
"Utah tech community needs a reboot," said Bryce Roberts. Ten years ago, Roberts wrote a blog post about the power of culture within then-pre-IPO Facebook. The company was bent on rapid innovation, and values like “done is better than perfect” and “move fast and break things” were at that point still powerful new mantras. Roberts concluded his post with this advice, something Utah’s tech community should take to heart in consciously crafting a culture of welcoming and goodness:
“I would argue that every company, particularly in our little corner of the world, could benefit wildly from having a similar set of guiding principles, captured in their own voice, and repeated frequently that can serve as the foundation for conditioning the kinds of cultures they want to build.”