April, 1998. Amazon’s call center in the Securities Building in downtown Seattle. I spent much of that month in a windowless classroom with about a dozen other people learning to master the online bookstore’s elegant UNIX-based customer database. Most of my fellow reps in training were like me–in their twenties, opinionated about techno music, full of young energy. There was one rep, Walter, who stood out from the rest. Jeff Bezos had famously told the staffing company through which I landed the CS gig, “Send me your freaks.” Among us freaks, Walter stuck out. He was in his forties and had recently been laid off from another company. He spoke fluent German and wore khakis, loafers, and Oxford shirts. He never once came across as superior or as a know-it-all, throwing himself into this opportunity to answer phone calls at an online bookstore with enthusiasm. When we sat on the floor to eat pizza, Walter grabbed a slice and sat cross-legged with us. By the end of our training month we all admired Walter and considered him one of us in every way. Soon, Amazon launched its German store and Walter rocketed up the executive ladder.
Walter taught me an important lesson about the humility required to adapt to a new culture. When you encounter something new as an adult, it’s natural to try to understand it by comparing it to what you already know. Admitting your own ignorance and willingly returning to a more childlike state of receptivity requires courage.
Walter succeeded because he didn’t try to impose a familiar business culture on an emerging one. It’s hard to communicate how punk rock Amazon seemed in the late nineties, when having no dress code and eating lunch at your desk was considered radical. It really did stand out as a insouciant, maverick company inventing its own hothouse of relentless innovation.
As we step into the culture of immersive media, we arrive encumbered with cultures that were incubated in other industries, namely the brogrammer-rich environs of Silicon Valley. But some of the attitudes that found their most visible expression in VC-fueled tech startups don’t seem to jive with what the art forms of immersive realities appear to require from us.
One, the winner-take-all clamor for market dominance, “we own this space” mentality, is anathema to a medium that promotes empathy. Considering that young people are increasingly skeptical of capitalism, one might argue that the economics of immersive media are primed to return to the more communitarian spirit that animated the Homebrew Computer Club. Startups that understand how to embrace the post-Obama zeitgeist will operate more collaboratively than those who blindly accept the corporate Darwinism that gave us Facebook, Twitter, and Uber.
Startup culture, at least in Seattle, is slowly evolving to become more female. Traits that we’ve been conditioned to consider “feminine,” like cooperation, nurturing, and compromise, are advantages in a medium that’s social and empathetic. And the sexism that’s rampant in game studios and other tech companies is increasingly proving to be not just morally wrong, but malignantly cancerous to the bottom line. We have a long way to go.
If we can point to culture as the reason why companies like Uber stumble, then it follows that culture can be the reason why certain other companies succeed. It bears asking: what kind of business culture do we want to cultivate in the immersive media industry?
Culture is stubbornly subjective and difficult to quantify. It’s ultimately an expression of values. What are values for, exactly? Values are what guide us through the gray areas of our lives and help us make decisions in ambiguous circumstances. Values are squishy, and squishiness is scary. Businesses traditionally tend to favor exactitude over squishiness.
Metrics-minded people who attempt to solve the problem of culture can fall into the trap of over-quantification. Questions of how to make a workplace more inclusive can become band-aid diversity initiatives designed more to flatter white progressives than actually build on-ramps from underrepresented communities into an industry. Team-building exercises come across as disingenuous, and everybody secretly knows that “no idea is a bad idea” is a blatant lie.
Cultures can be built upon the rickety scaffolding of platitudes. I’ve worked for bosses who trumpet their “open door policy” then hide in their offices avoiding conversations with everyone. Organizations that call themselves flat are actually governed by unspoken hierarchies that favor the extroverts. (The most horrible meetings I’ve ever endured have always been the ones in which everyone’s opinion supposedly carries equal weight, which means that the biggest loudmouth in the office gets to set the agenda.)
It takes more than perks and team-building retreats to create a culture. I think one way to assess a company’s culture is to ask what it values more than money. Another way to put this: what are you willing to lose money for?
Personally, as a startup founder, that’s an easy question to answer. I value art more than money, at times to the considerable alarm of my parents. My whole adult life has been an effort to earn enough money to justify pursuing creative expression. I’m intent on gaming the system well enough so that I can get away with writing novels and now creating VR content. Don’t get me wrong, I like money, too. But I see money as the means to get to do the work I truly want to do, rather than the reward for it.
The paradox of this attitude seems to be that my biggest successes have always been the result of prioritizing art over money. In other words, if you’re not pursuing money in order to fill some ravenous, emotional hole in your life, then you’ll eventually be rewarded for pursuing what you value most. I recognize there’s a lot of faith in that statement.
In practice, this attitude is super complicated and not guaranteed to pan out. But I have to believe it’s better to spend a life being rewarded by the pleasure of the work itself rather than pursuing something merely tolerable in order to chase externally defined symbols of success. The most miserable people in the world appear to share the trait that they never made the leap to pursue what they were most passionate about, and chose to bargain away their passions for short-term security and status symbols instead.
The question that every VR startup founder must face when contemplating what kind of culture they wish to cultivate is: what do I value more than making a buck and impressing people? If the answer is building a community, creating opportunities for those who’ve been marginalized, or bringing beauty into the world, then we’ll begin to discover properties of this new medium beyond what we can now imagine.