A Visit to the Entrepreneurial Zoo
In 2007, digital advertising veteran Antonio García Martínez left Goldman Sachs for the startup world, joining one ad tech startup before launching his own startup, which he would eventually sell to Twitter for $10 million.
Martínez describes his adventures in Silicon Valley in colorful (and sometimes lurid) detail in a new book entitled Chaos Monkeys. The term refers to software invented by Netflix that tests a product’s or website’s robustness. A chaos monkey, as Martínez explains, is the digital equivalent of a “chimpanzee rampaging through a data center,” destroying the place by randomly yanking cables or smashing boxes. Symbolically, he writes, “technology entrepreneurs are society’s chaos monkeys, pulling the plug on everything from taxi medallions (Uber) to traditional hotels (Airbnb) to dating (Tinder)… Silicon Valley is the zoo where the chaos monkeys are kept, and their numbers only grow in time… The question for society is whether it can survive these entrepreneurial chaos monkeys intact, and at what human cost.”
Taken out of the book’s context, these paragraphs may position Martínez as a concerned observer of the zoo. In truth, however, Martínez was a joyous participant in the zoo’s antics, describing a place where extremes — in money, risks and sex — are celebrated. It is also a place where business is combat and few rules of traditional business seem to apply.
Martínez’s fascinating description of the sale of his ad tech startup to Twitter, which includes a chapter appropriately titled “Acquisition Chicken,” offers a case in point. In the early discussions, Martínez and his two co-founders reject Twitter’s offer of $5 million, a sum that in Silicon Valley is equivalent to a low-ball offer. As Martínez explains, given that “the market price for acquired engineers in the Valley then was anywhere from half a million to $2 million each… $5 million for three hires plus intellectual property Twitter might use… was way too cheap. We hadn’t risked everything from our finances to our sanity for just over a million each that would take four years to earn.”
Martínez decides to dangle the company in front of Yahoo, which passes on the company. However, they are interested in poaching Martínez, who must then decide whether to abandon his fellow entrepreneurs. This type of situation, he writes, is typical for the Valley. “Companies with acquisition wherewithal and the nerve to use it bid for what they wanted in deals,” he writes. “You came in with your team and your product; they gave it the once-over and said, ‘We want person A and B but not C, and we don’t care about the tech.’ They then offered you a lump sum for what they wanted, and you were left to double-deal, buy out or otherwise f--- over whoever in order to get the deal done.”
Eventually, Martínez and his partners would part ways, with the company going to Twitter for $10 million (but structured in a way that the investors in the startup were paid less than their share of the company… because that’s also par for the course in Silicon Valley) and Martínez going to Facebook.
On to Facebook
About a third of the book describes his experiences at Facebook, which offers a behind-the-scenes look at the fabled company and leaders such as founder Mark Zuckerberg and famous COO Sheryl Sandberg. In one telling scene, Sandberg explodes at the use of highly misogynist pictures in a demo of, ironically, software to prevent inappropriate content in ads.
Even for this male reviewer, there is a trace of misogyny that trails throughout the book. Nevertheless, Chaos Monkeys offers a fascinatingly detailed description of a place that is changing the world — but, for many, may not be a great place to live or work.
Receive our latest book reviews in your inbox each month.