I’ve been fascinated in recent months by the relationship between hip hop and tech. In some cases quite explicitly, senior figures in technology find cultural inspiration for the approach they take to management in contemporary hip hop. I’m interested in the notion of ‘business for punks’ for the same reason. 

In essence, I thought this was a product of focusing on ‘disruption’: seeking cultural resources to help motivate oneself to be disruptive. But this fascinating extract from No Such Thing as a Free Gift, by Linsey McGoey, loc 100-118 suggests it might also be a shared concern with ‘getting shit done’:

It took place, reportedly, in New York, where Gates had been hanging out at the back of a bar with Bono and other friends when P. Diddy approached their table. He stood before Gates and nodded. ‘You are a motherfucker’. Gates’s eyes darted at the man. It’s doubtful the world’s most generous philanthropist hears comments like this too often –at least not to his face. Diddy continued his train of argument: ‘You are a motherfucker. What you are doing on immunization in Botswana? Motherfucker’. Gates leaned back in his chair. He realized that Diddy was offering him a high compliment. The encounter is reported by Matthew Bishop and Michael Green in their book Philanthrocapitalism: How the Rich Can Save the World. The book has become something of a bible for a new breed of philanthropist vowing to reshape the world by running philanthropic foundations more like for-profit businesses. In this world, Gates is hailed as the ‘MacDaddy’ of the new philanthropy. Bishop and Green offer a quote from Bono on the appeal of Gates’s charitable work: ‘Jay-Z, all of the hip-hop guys, kind of adore him. Because he is not seen as a romantic figure –well, maybe romantic in the sense that Neil Armstrong is romantic, a scientist but not a poet. He gets shit done’. 8

I’ve been fascinated in recent months by the relationship between hip hop and tech. In some cases quite explicitly, senior figures in technology find cultural inspiration for the approach they take to management in contemporary hip hop. I’m interested in the notion of ‘business for punks’ for the same reason. 

In essence, I thought this was a product of focusing on ‘disruption’: seeking cultural resources to help motivate oneself to be disruptive. But this fascinating extract from No Such Thing as a Free Gift, by Linsey McGoey, loc 100-118 suggests it might also be a shared concern with ‘getting shit done’:

It took place, reportedly, in New York, where Gates had been hanging out at the back of a bar with Bono and other friends when P. Diddy approached their table. He stood before Gates and nodded. ‘You are a motherfucker’. Gates’s eyes darted at the man. It’s doubtful the world’s most generous philanthropist hears comments like this too often –at least not to his face. Diddy continued his train of argument: ‘You are a motherfucker. What you are doing on immunization in Botswana? Motherfucker’. Gates leaned back in his chair. He realized that Diddy was offering him a high compliment. The encounter is reported by Matthew Bishop and Michael Green in their book Philanthrocapitalism: How the Rich Can Save the World. The book has become something of a bible for a new breed of philanthropist vowing to reshape the world by running philanthropic foundations more like for-profit businesses. In this world, Gates is hailed as the ‘MacDaddy’ of the new philanthropy. Bishop and Green offer a quote from Bono on the appeal of Gates’s charitable work: ‘Jay-Z, all of the hip-hop guys, kind of adore him. Because he is not seen as a romantic figure –well, maybe romantic in the sense that Neil Armstrong is romantic, a scientist but not a poet. He gets shit done’. 8

I’ve written a few times recently – here, here and here – about the notion of business for punks propounded by the founder of BrewDog. This extract from loc 89 of The Hard Thing About Hard Things conveys something similar in terms of hip hop:

I’ve also been inspired by many friends, advisers, and family members who have helped me throughout my career and also by hip-hop/rap music. Because hip-hop artists aspire to be both great and successful and see themselves as entrepreneurs, many of the themes—competing, making money, being misunderstood—provide insight into the hard things.

I’m really interested in the role that these identifications can play in furnishing a cultural identity as somehow doing business counter-culturally.

Underlying all this I think is a sense of the drama of being a corporate founder: something which Horowitz conveys as “the struggle to build something out of nothing”. Perhaps they’re seeking to frame this experience in terms that are more subjectively amenable than the traditional vocabulary of enterprise? They’re cultural resources being drawn upon to dramatise what Horowitz calls The Struggle. From pg 60:

Every entrepreneur starts her company with a clear vision for success. You will create an amazing environment and hire the smartest people to join you. Together you will build a beautiful product that delights customers and makes the world just a little bit better. It’s going to be absolutely awesome. 

Then, after working night and day to make your vision a reality, you wake up to find that things did not go as planned. Your company did not unfold like the Jack Dorsey keynote that you listened to when you started. Your product has issues that will be very hard to fix. The market isn’t quite where it was supposed to be. Your employees are losing confidence and some of them have quit. Some of the ones who quit were quite smart and have the remaining ones wondering if staying makes sense. You are running low on cash and your venture capitalist tells you that it will be difficult to raise money given the impending European economic catastrophe. You lose a competitive battle. You lose a loyal customer. You lose a great employee. The walls start closing in. Where did you go wrong? Why didn’t your company perform as envisioned? Are you good enough to do this? As your dreams turn into nightmares, you find yourself in the Struggle

As he goes on to define The Struggle, it’s hard not to image theme music and potentially a Rocky-esque training montage. Life contracts during it and reality becomes little more than the intensity of challenge one is subject to. In this  sense, it sounds weirdly spiritual. Particularly at the end: “the struggle is where greatness comes from“.

The Struggle is when you are having a conversation with someone and you can’t hear a word that they are saying because all you can hear is the Struggle. 

The Struggle is when you want the pain to stop.

The Struggle is unhappiness. 

The Struggle is when you go on vacation to feel better and you feel worse. 

The Struggle is when you are surrounded by people and you are all alone. 

The Struggle has no mercy. 

In the last week, I’ve been exploring the notion of ‘business for punks’, the philosophy propounded by the founder of BrewDog, as the formulation of an increasingly dominant ethos in which ‘disruptive’ corporate activity is valorised as anti-authoritarian. I’ve been thinking about this mostly from the top-down, as a characteristic of founders and CEOs, but I’d also like to understand how this culture manifests itself from the bottom-up, possibly amongst people aspiring to be founders and CEOs one day, but also amongst rank and file staff. 

In Battle of the Titans, a book about the feud between Apple and Google, I just encountered an interesting description of the eventual founder of Android’s early career, focusing on his putative lack of respect for authority. From loc 909:

At General Magic, an Apple spin-off that wrote some of the first software for handheld computers, he and some colleagues built lofts above their cubicles so they could more efficiently work around the clock.

Get that? Building a loft above your cubicle so you can absolutely subordinate your life to your (cubicle-bound) work shows a lack of respect for authority. Such a weird proposition demands hermeneutic insight: my proposal would be this manifests the ‘business for punks’ ethos, such that unsanctioned action is seen as disruptive, even if it reinforces rather than conflicts with existing power structures.

I wrote last week about the notion of ‘business for punks’ propounded by the founder of BrewDog. This little snippet from Battle of the Titans reflects a similar ethos. Is Silicon Valley full of people who understand themselves as ‘doing business for punks’: is this the ethos underlying a commitment to ‘disruption’? From loc 333:

Jobs was personally offended 11 by this way of doing business and wanted no part of it. “We’re not the greatest at selling to the Fortune 500, and there are five hundred of them—five hundred CIOs [chief information officers] that are orifices you have to go through to get” that business. “In the cell phone business there are five. We don’t even like dealing with five hundred companies. We’d rather run an ad for millions and let everyone make up their own mind. You can imagine what we thought about dealing with five,” he said during an onstage interview at the All Things D conference in May 2003. Translation: I am not about to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to have a bunch of suits tell me how to build and sell my phone.

The assumed meritocracy of appealing directly to the public is counter posed to the stuffy intermediaries with a vested interest in established way of doing things.