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By | Andrew Orlowski 28th November 2007 01:36

The myth of the humble nerd tycoon

Readers prefer Montgomery Burns to Larry & Sergey

Real Mail Last week I took Alexander Chancellor to task for a column based on a fantasy. He compared the frugal, down-to-earth Google founders favourably with a Saudi Prince. The Google founders don't even have a jet, he wrote, and this humility was the norm in Silicon Valley.

The column was based an ancient profile - but it evidently suited his purposes just fine. The nerds are frugal, and therefore virtuous. So I posed two questions: why do we expect tycoons to be anything other than bastards? That seems to be a bad case of sentimental wish-fulfillment. And why do we expect tycoons to spend their money biking their jam jars over to the recycling plant, rather than swanning around in MiGs, as they should?

First things first, however. The Google founders have several mansions we hear, in addition to the four jets. The Prius has long since been joined by far superior and speedier cars. As for Ellison, writes one:

"Kubla Khan (we call it LarryLand) is rumored to have cost some $80m according to my well-connected Woodside friends. It was originally supposed to cost $30M, but ran wildly over budget." We also hear a figure of $100m. The $30m refers to his previous pile.

Readers are not short of answers

Shaun calls it "Willy Wonka Syndrome:

"We expect technology CEOs to join us on the carpet with the toys they sold us. Not to put us through the mill like so many Augustus Gloops".

Mike P suggests -

My personal theory to explain this phenomenon goes as follows: Silicon Valley and its culture is supposed to be a product of California, with all the conotations of hippy and surfer culture and a reputation for sticking to 'The Man' associated with that state. The media therefore assume that the people who run Silicon Valley must be shiny, happy, peace and love types and not the ruthless, calculating sharks that they really have to be to get where they are. As we have seen so many times in the past, the media are never ones to let inconvenient facts get in the way of a good preconception.

"ps" adds -

I don't know about Beardie, but I know that if I, through my blood, sweat, and tears, and those of my family, make a success of my company, I willenjoy my 747 without guilt. I will do so because I took risks few are willing to take, and because I treat my employees better than myself. The idea that extraordinary skill should go unrewarded - that company founders should accede to a standard of living which, coincidentally, almost always coincides with that of the person complaining - is bizarre to me.

Those who criticize others for spending lavishly, to a man, spend lavishly themselves - just compared to different people. Are they willing to give up their lavish central heating and air conditioning? Their cell phones, their hi-def TV, their TV at all? Are they willing to give up their internet access, their cars, their four square meals? If not, they live as lavishly compared to most as Sergey and Larry do compared to them.

The world, I'm afraid, is not a terribly fair place, and perhaps we should all sacrifice more. Generally, however, we do not - and I would rather be a bastard with a 747 than a hypocrite with a Volvo.

On similar lines -

the most important point, it IS their money. If it's not, then they're crooks and will end up like the crew from Worldcom and Enron - dead or making big 'un's into little 'un's. If it really is THEIR money, the they can get $100 bills and light Havanas - I don't care how bad they are as humans or what poor role models they make.

If "people" don't like it, they can use Yahoo! or MSN or any of the other search engines and not do business with the banner-adverts that are also on Google. Or, better yet, buy up Google stock, get enough to seat some board members, and FIRE their asses.

But so long as everyone can ride in their profit balloon, they can rape villages and burn women and children. That's the way humans work: always have worked and always will work until someone can come up with a more lethal and aggressive way to program us than life does today.


There's not much love for the ginger hippy.

The Beardie One must be singled out for special treatment on account of his magical reputation for "customer service". I'm not sure if it was ever true, but look at it now:

Virgin Atlantic - Crappy Fucking Airline.

Virgin Trains - Crappy Fucking Railway.

Virgin Media - It's just Crappy Fucking NTL and Crappy Fucking Telewest with a new name, you aren't fooling us.

Virgin Records - It was just a Crappy Fucking Record Shop and now the beardie one has gone, having weaved no magic whatsoever over the music-buying experience, we've rebranded it "Zawi". That's so memorable, I had to Google it for the spelling.

Virgin Radio - Crappy Fucking Playlist, kill me now before I die of boredom.

I could go on, but the list of mediocre Virgin brands is too long. When will people wake up to his bullshit? At least with old-fashioned ruthless tycoons like Rupert Murdoch and Monty Burns you know where you stand.


and this gem -

I recall watching a documentary on the genesis of the Airbus A380 way back when it was still designware. One of the interviews was with Beardie himself stood at the bar in the smart bit of one of his 747s. Mid interview, the girl behind the bar handed him his Orange Juice. He excused himself to camera, turned around, thanked the girl for the drink, turned back to camera and resumed his comments with that trademark grin.

Not only was it one of the most blatant pieces of "look what a nice guy I am" I've ever seen, but the TV company had sycophantically left it in!

[ I'll bet there wasn't an empty sickbag on the plane]

Trouble is, most people seeing that won't have read the things said about him by ex-Virgin Atlantic staff and know what a "nice guy" he really is. I still wonder whether if the girl had forgotten to smile he'd have sacked her on camera.

The thing that winds me up about Google is that merely by saying that you have a "Do no evil" policy, you can apparently behave like Microsoft and try to take over the world but be loved for it. Go figure.

Presentation is everything. Substance means nothing. Google are fluffy kittens really. Branson is a saint. The Prius is made of recycled fairtrade coffee and runs on magic moonbeams and love.


And it's worked, hasn't it?

Colin offers an unrepeatable anecdote (thanks) and suggests - if you start the "I brought Branson's Lunch/Taxi/PhoneCall Club" you might get quite a few people wanting to join.

Jack has a theory -

Technology is scary stuff. We all fear what we don't understand and most of us, non-programmers, don't understand most of the systems we use.

The general stereo-type of a IT professional is also scary. They are seen to be apart form "normal" people, again we fear what we don't understand. Like I said, perception not reality. Worst of all, they know stuff we don't. Important stuff, like how our phones work.

Shock, horror, indignation... We are reliant on nerds! We are scared!

Nobody likes being scared. So what if we just all collectively pretend that these are cool guys who are not ruthless and cynical like Trump and Co, but nice boys. A little naive about business, a bit quirky, you know just regular guys like us who ride mountain bike to their mums house for apple pie on a Sunday. They ware woolly jerseys and have pony tails and drive their own cars.

Ahh, I'm feeling better already.

Yes - but it's all made up, Jack.

The bottom line (as it were) is that everything bad one wants to say about the political press can be said in spades for the business press. The business press needs the executives from the corporations to provide them with “exclusive” fodder for their columns. As such, unless the behavior involved is egregious (i.e., including conviction, jail term, and/or an underage sheep named “Boingo”) the business press is as soft and fawning as the lackeys who work for the corporate masters. There’s no cuddly CEO ethos – just a gutless business press afraid of losing access.


As Shaun Rolph noted back when he analysed the birth of the Sadville hype - the business press are more prone to fantasies than even the ShowBiz journalists.

Maybe they just want to be in ShowBiz - and the "humble nerd tycoon" is just the equivalent of those "secrets of the stars" non-stories, designed to show the hack's intimacy with the subject.

In an age without believed deities, the need to re-invent Zeus remains. The wording is deliberate as there are plenty of deities and substitutes ( hello Richard D), but there is no general western acceptance of any of them, except for paper money perhaps.

Roger D

Not sure about the hard-wired bit.

Colin offers an unrepeatable anecdote and suggests - if you start the "I brought Branson's Lunch/Taxi/PhoneCall Club" youmight get quite a few people wanting to join.

I think there are two aspects to this - the ability of the great unwashed (including myself) to delude ourselves, and the implicit distrust of 'legacy' CEO types that make us implicitly trust guys in jeans by comparison. First, if a 'regular' person (e.g. not born with more money then some given GDP) can become ridiculously rich, then there's hope for the rest of us too. The industry where this has been most visible is the IT industry, which has grown and developed from naught in what - 40 years? Page & Brin are classic examples - two college students with a great idea and now they have more money than even Ford Prefect would be able to spend in an afternoon. What's not to like?

Secondly, remember that Google got to where it is because it was embraced by the IT community. It's hip and popular because Page & Brin are regular guys ("don't be evil" as a motto??? Come on!!!). Google may be a regular megacorp in most ways, but they haven't forgotten that it's the IT geeks that put it where it is today. And IT geeks (rightfully?) distrust MBAs. So Google is careful to cultivate an image that it's a worker's paradise, that it's run by altruistic geeks and that absolutely anyone can be a billionaire. I think a lot of .com 2.0 companies work that way - "we're just regular guys" to show that they're not there to make a quick buck at the expense of shareholders, employees and customers. Frugality reaffirms that message, and it appeals to the working masses. The IT industry seems to be particularly sensitive to it, perhaps because the memories of .com 1.0 are still fresh in the minds of many.


It's all that bozo big mouth Netscape guy's fault -

I blame Mark Andreessen. The story I heard from someone who was sniffing around NCSA for entrepreneurial opportunities around the new Internet thing back in the day (1993ish) is that Mark was a very smart techie guy who was presentable enough to business and investor crowds and could parrot a business line without creeping people out with geek-speak. The business people knew they needed street cred among the young geeks, but they knew giving them total control would be disasterous. Think Internet Bubble.

Anyway, this someone made his millions selling software others developed for him in the early 1980s. He did it by bridging the product gap between the Homebrew Computer Club geniuses and all the fairly normal people who were captivated by the idea of the Apple ][ or IBM PC in their homes or small businesses.

To this day, if you listen to Mark Andreessen talk, he packs more nothingness and platitudes into 5 minutes of 78 rpm speech than anyone in the history of the spoken word. He is the perfect techie puppet for the money people. He's richer than Howard Hughes, but continues to jump into small meaningless startups and let investors flip their money based on his name.


Ah, yes. The Guy Kawasaki School of Investment. ®

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