The True Genius of Tech Leaders

Capital, Not Vision.

A humanoid figure standing to the fore of a TED stage; he wears Steve Jobs’s signature turtleneck and bluejeans, but he is also wearing clown shoes. His head has been replaced by a donkey’s head.
in pastel and lKlearchos Kapoutsis/CC BY 2.0 (modified); Ben Stanfield/CC BY-SA 2.0 (modified)

When it’s railroading time, you get railroads. “Innovation” is the intersection of collage and timing. For hundreds of years, people observed the action of a screw-press and the motion of a twirling maple-key, and invented the helicopter:

A woodcut engraving of a screw-press, a plus sign, an engraving of a spinning maple key, an equals sign, DaVinci’s drawing of a helicopter.

But of course, they didn’t invent the helicopter! No one invented the helicopter, until someone else had invented new lightweight alloys, as well as fossil fuel refining techniques, as well as internal combustion engines:

A woodcut engraving of a screw-press, a plus sign, an engraving of a spinning maple key, a plus sign, a carbon fiber molecule, a plus sign, an oil well, a plus sign, an internal combustion engine, an equals sign, DaVinci’s drawing of a helicopter.

Once all those factors were in place, lots of people independently invented the helicopter. Same goes for TV, radio, and many other inventions. When it’s railroading time, you get railroads. It takes some creativity to invent the railroad, but creativity is an abundant element in the human condition. Creativity doesn’t get you anything until other people have build the substrate for your invention.

What we take for singular vision is best understood as lucky timing. Receiving the patent for the radio doesn’t mean you and you alone could invent the radio — it means you lucked into being alive when all the underlying technologies were in place, and you beat everyone else with the ability to invent radio to the patent office by a minute or two.

The Good Timing Theory of Innovation explains a lot about the successes and failures of the heavily mythologized tech founders and the companies they run. It explains how Google could launch such as fantastic search-engine and then launch a string of failed products, from G+ to Google Video to Stadia. Google’s success stories (its ad-tech stack, its mobile platform, its collaborative office suite, its server-management tech, its video platform…) are all acquisitions.

Besides search, Google’s only had two other in-house successes: they made a great Hotmail clone (Gmail), and they got more than a billion people to use Google Photos (but only by bundling it with Android, a mobile operating system they bought from someone else).

Google didn’t invent its way to glory — it bought its way there.

This is a familiar pattern. Remember Microsoft?

When Homer Simpson founded a tech company in 1998, Bill Gates “bought him out,” a process that culminated in Gates’s goons smashing Homer’s capital plant and destroying his intangible equity.

Microsoft bought its way to glory, too. The company didn’t just acquire innumerable rivals — it also used its access to the capital markets to price products below cost to prevent other companies from offering competing products. Microsoft leveraged dominance in one domain — operating systems — to gain dominance in others: office productivity suites and browsers.

Microsoft destroyed Netscape through these tactics, but it did not try to use them on Google. What changed? A humiliating, blisteringly expensive, terrifying, seven-year antitrust lawsuit that nearly saw the company broken up. That experience was so scarifying that Microsoft sat on its hands while Google scored win after win.

Ironically, Microsoft owed its own existence to another monopolist’s brush with death. From 1970–1982, IBM was dragged through the costliest, longest-running antitrust action in American history, a stalemate so grueling and expensive that it was dubbed “antitrust’s Vietnam.” Every year, for 12 consecutive years, IBM’s legal bills oustripped the entire DoJ anittrust division’s. IBM eventually triumphed, but it learned an important lesson: don’t make the DoJ mad.

One of the things that really pissed off the DoJ? Tying hardware to operating systems. That’s why, when IBM was ready to launch its PC, it found an outside company to build the OS for it. That company was Micro-Soft, and the OS was DOS.

Dominant companies claim that they maintain their lead through “innovation.” The numbers tell a different story. The largest tech firms in the world have shrunk their R&D departments year after year, substituting mergers, acquisitions, predatory pricing, exclusive contracts, and other financial dirty tricks for the far less reliable imagination, skill, and insight.

The self-serving myth of the tech founder as a visionary genius covers up a far more sordid tale: tech founders got lucky once (or, in a very few cases, twice), and then used their access to the capital markets to prevent other people from getting lucky in the same way.

They aren’t supergeniuses playing eleven-dimension chess; they’re ordinary mediocrities, no better suited to be in charge of the technological destiny of millions or billions of people than you or me.

The world got a forceful reminder of this fact last week, when Delaware’s Court of Chancery released Elon Musk’s text messages and emails related to his chaotic bid to buy Twitter. It’s a candid look behind the carefully groomed public personas of some of technology’s richest and most powerful players.

It turns out that when these guys — almost all guys — talk to each other when no one else is listening, they do what we all do: they bluff, they wheedle, they make stuff up, they reverse course and pretend they haven’t.

Writing about the corpus, The Atlantic’s Charlie Warzel quotes a “former social-media executive” who says: “Everyone looks fucking dumb,” and goes on to say, “Is this really how business is done? There’s no real strategic thought or analysis. It’s just emotional and done without any real care for consequence.”

He’s right. Musk’s cronies casually throw astounding sums at him: $250,000,000 from Mark Andreesen, a billion from Larry Ellison (who adds, “… or whatever you recommend”). Musk moots daffy notions like charging people tiny fractions of a dogecoin to retweet, before realizing that “blockchain Twitter isn’t possible.”

Warzel sums up:

[T]he eagerness to pony up for Musk and the lazy quality of this dealmaking reveal something deeper about the brokenness of this investment ecosystem and the ways that it is driven more by vibes and grievances than due diligence. Looking at these texts, it seems much easier to understand Andreessen Horowitz’s recent $350 million investment in WeWork founder Adam Neumann’s new real-estate start-up, or Bankman-Fried’s admission that most venture-capitalist investments are not “the paragon of efficient markets” and driven primarily by FOMO and hype. “Like, all the models are made up, right?” he infamously told Bloomberg last April.

The corollary of “if you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” is “you are rich, therefore you must be smart.” After all, if a fool and his money are soon parted, the fact that these donkeys have so much money must mean that they’re nobody’s fool.


Well, sure —if your model of how business works is that brilliant people do amazing things and get rich, then being rich means you’re a brilliant person doing amazing things.

But if success is the combination of luck, timing, and a ruthless willingness to use the capital markets to prevent rivals from reaching their customers, then money becomes a proxy a sociopathic genius, not a creative one.

Or, as Penelope Scott sings,

So fuck your tunnels fuck your cars
Fuck your rockets fuck your cars again
You promised you’d be Tesla
But you’re just another Edison

Because Tesla broke a patent
All you ever broke were hearts
I can’t believe you tore humanity apart
With the very same machines
That could’ve been our brand new start

(emphasis mine)