What if tech “thought leaders” don’t have clothes?
About seven years ago, when I was working at the pace of tech startups in New York, I heard Brian Cohen, President Emeritus of the New York Angels, offer a difficult love perspective that has stuck with me to this day.
“I think the passion has done more harm to the entrepreneurial community than anything else,” Cohen said. “I’d rather you weren’t passionate.” It blinds you. On this occasion, he spoke at the CoInvent Startup Summit, at the end of 2014, in front of an audience of startup founders, potential funders and others interested in the scene. Cohen, now president of the Science Literacy Foundation, said he wanted to see a shrewd businessman who could implement an idea to solve a problem more than passion.
There is a danger not only of getting lost in the passion but also in the mystique that can surround an innovator. A quirky, quirky character could be a very real part of who they are. However, a zealous character alone does not always lead to results.
It can be easy to get carried away by energetic and charismatic personalities that can surface in the technology and business sectors.
These days, we have become familiar with examples of thought leaders and potential innovators who have benefited from a bit of light only to have their shtick reconsidered under scrutiny. Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos with her black turtleneck emulating Steve Jobs and the overflowing enthusiasm of Adam Neumann, formerly of WeWork, are just two prestigious names that come to mind; but they are not alone.
This week, federal courts are settling a case involving an alleged cryptocurrency laundering scheme stemming from the 2016 Bitfinex hack that stole between $3.5 billion and $5 billion in Bitcoin, based on current estimates. The suspects in the case include Heather Morgan, a former collaborator of Forbes who describes himself as “an international economist, serial entrepreneur and investor in B2B software companies”. Morgan also goes by an online persona, Razzlekhan, a surreal rapper who… Well, personal tastes vary and let’s leave it at that.
Her husband, Ilya “Dutch” Lichtenstein, is also a suspect. Lichtenstein’s claims to fame include fundraising from luminaries including billionaire Mark Cuban. Lichtenstein’s LinkedIn page lists him as the founder of Endpass, a blockchain startup developing a cloud-based decentralized wallet. He was previously the founder and CEO of MixRank, a former Y Combinator. Although Endpass’s social media remained active, but quiet, the company’s website was down.
As of Tuesday, the case was pending with Morgan out on bail and Lichtenstein still in custody.
Why is all this important? Am I unfairly hitting exuberant and unique personalities who encounter personal difficulties?
Building and running an innovative business requires a touch of showmanship to attract backers and engage clients. One of the traits I’ve always admired in tech startup founders was the willingness to swim upstream against a strong current and believe in their ideas even as the roaring waters threatened to overwhelm them.
However, as Cohen said, passion alone is not enough. A colorful presence alone does not guarantee the emergence of tangible technology or the business behind it will thrive as a going concern.
The media play an important role in lobbying to promote ideas. It’s so easy to push a narrative where every new tech company has to be a unicorn and every founder “kills it.”
I remember covering one particular startup demo day that left me a little flabbergasted. A Founder took the stage and effectively launched into a flood of awareness completely disconnected from substance. The other presenters made it clear what their ideas were and why they thought they could be successful. But this founder didn’t even seem to be working on prepared ideas.
Some people in the audience cheered loudly and called the pitch groundbreaking.
I looked at the guy next to me — we had the same dismay “WHAT?!” face. That’s one of the reasons I’ve never really been an “access reporter.”
We can all do with a dose of skepticism of the promised innovation. It’s something I look for in my current news coverage and plan to bring to my next “That DOS Won’t Hunt” podcast, here at InformationWeek. Passion and character are nice, but we can’t lose sight of executing ideas to solve problems, as Cohen said, especially when it comes to technology, transformation and innovation that we we need.