CHAOS MONKEYS – Review

I just finished CHAOS MONKEYS by Antonio Garcia Martinez, and though I don’t usually make book recommendations, this is one that I think deserves a review for one reason.

And that reason is…

This is the best nonfiction book of 2016.

And yet, it’s more than that. I wish I could say exactly why.

Right from the get go, Martinez’s kill-or-be-killed / fly by the seat of your pants / play fast and loose / and then play faster and even looser tale of a startup’s CEO in this day and age is riveting stuff… but what struck me most about this book was how much things have changed in San Francisco and the Valley since the dotcom boom of the mid-90’s.

There are more differences than similarities. The book made me nostalgic for things like the Zeitgeist bar, the X dance club, the Paradise Lounge, and so much more… And, it was the utter feeling of impending doom Martinez captures so well that brought me back to those places, that time, and set apart his experience as something unique.

Martinez’ tech world is the Silicon Valley of Death. But things weren’t always like this.

From 1995-2000 I lived in San Francisco’s Mission District. I constantly hung out in South of Market (SOMA). It was an amazingly fun time to be living there. Down at 11th and Folsom Street, you had Boz Scaggs’ bar Slim’s, or the Transmission Theater up the street. There were so many great live music venues for the up-and-comers in the Bay Area scene. Just a few blocks up in South Park and the neighboring warehouses down where the Giants beautiful baseball park now resides, companies were popping up like crazy. Literally, everyday a new startup was being birthed. You could get invited to their launch party, and, if you had ANY sort of original sounding ideas, you could get a job (with stock options of course, kegs and ping pong tables and cubicle-less workspaces being mandatory.)

Open source was a way of life for the first dotcommers. If you said you were trying to make money with your idea you were a sell out. No one cared about that. They’d be offended to even be asked to state a business plan; they were “pre-revenue” and it was all about partnership, the rising of all boats, making the user experience “sticky” — the money would come later, for all of them. They just knew it. The theory was, all the best ideas could be used by all of them, and through symbiosis, they’d all eventually get ludicrously rich.

AOL was dogshit. They were going to come with something a million times better.

Then, the ruthless players started solidifying each other’s niches, secretly… and then the hammer came down on all those poor little commie companies that gave their code and their market share away to the Amazons of the world.

Suddenly, they had no idea how / if people would buy anything they could sell (if they were even selling anything beyond an abstraction.)

They were slaughtered as fast as they were birthed.

I wasn’t a tech guy. I was both working full-time in the hospitality/service industry and going to film school at San Francisco State. And I’ve got to tell you, living, breathing, watching the 2nd gold rush hit San Francisco during my lifetime was nothing short of awe-inspiring. The writer in me had to participate tacitly – I’d party with these people, I’d listen to and live some outrageous stories – but I’d never work with these people. I just didn’t care about getting rich. Additionally, computers were the enemy of art, as far as I was concerned back then. I felt like these people were all living on borrowed time.

I think they could feel it too, and yet the optimism was boundless.

Ask anyone who was living there at the time, and the dotcom bubble was clearly already bursting in 1998. There were just way too many kooky companies supposedly trying to fill “needs” for a cyber-marketplace that hadn’t even begun to monetize yet. Consumers outside of Silicon Valley simply didn’t trust their credit cards to the internet quite yet. PayPal was still a novelty and unproven…

and so it was RIP to webvan dotcom, pets dotcom, and literally thousands of other dotcoms who’d never survive “the first wave.”

To VC companies credit, they licked their wounds, waited until they got rich off of Yahoo, Apple, eBay, Google or Amazon, and, after a few years, it was time for round two. They’d be more disciplined the second time through. And we’re still in the midst of it, though it’s getting long in the tooth. I think Martinez agrees with the assertion that we’ve got another bubble a-brewing. Too much dumb money is getting in too early.

Still, what’s different this time is that there are far more fundamentals that must be adhered to before a company can even get to Series A funding, let alone ascend to vaunted “unicorn” status.

And most of these companies are STILL too scared to go public, remembering the abattoir that was the dotcom bubble burst. Even Uber seems scared shitless, and they’re completely changing the world economy, making it bend to their ends!

Perhaps the polemic is, why go public if you can limit the amount of people you’re beholden to, and limit the risks associated with “blurring the lines?” I really am not sure, but there are too many companies that feel like they’ve been private for too long to me.

Please excuse my digression.

I think CHAOS MONKEYS provides a great window into the insanity of what it is to be a small private tech company now. And I think it was interesting to read just how perfectly Martinez’ quant background made him uniquely suited to survive the gauntlet, albeit barely. The whole time reading, I couldn’t help but think that if Martinez had just come onto the scene some 15 years sooner, he’d have been a dominant player, in the Bezos mold.

Timing is everything. And the timing for this book is perfect. Martinez has given us a visceral, unflinching look behind the Silicon Curtain. Far from being a victory lap, this story is filled with urgency, and is chock full of insight into the truly terrifying journey of making something of oneself.

This book is real.

More importantly, this book is as valuable to a businessman as it is to an artist.

If I have one criticism, it’s that Martinez might show a little too much deference to the Michael Lewis’ of the literary world. But he’s a rookie.

If I have two criticisms, criticism number two would be that Martinez comes off as kind of an egotistical, cynical prick. This makes it tough to root for him.

BUT… he’s just being ruthlessly honest, with himself VERY included, so… how can I criticize a guy for being who he is and being honest about it? I gotta give him credit even if I’m not sure I’d like the guy.

I hope Martinez writes more books, perhaps even ventures into fiction.  I think he’s got the chops, and I think he’s still got more to say.

I’m not sure if we’ll see a film/tv adaptation to this book, due to it’s second half. Part 2 of the book, or “the Facebook section,” though kind of laborious, was nonetheless interesting for me. Many people I’ve spoken to who’ve read the book have a problem with this section, they say it’s like another book. I disagree, I think part one provides necessary context, and I loved his Facebook war stories.

(Full disclosure: I’ve been an investor in Facebook for awhile, and, though seeing how the sausage gets made is a little brutal, I’m happy I know, for the most part, what the culture is really like in hoodie-land.)

I know that I’ll continue to bet on Zuck. He’s half- Terminator – a fierce, inexorable force, and half-General Patton, with an army willing to run through walls on his behalf. Who wouldn’t want to be invested in such a company?

Reading this book, I was left with the feeling that Zuck would just as soon die before acquiescence to a competitor. I was also left with the feeling that Facebook will defy the naysayers for decades. The FB will oppose those idiotic analysts who assert that the company offers nothing of tangible value. And, when Facebook is threatened, I’m convinced that each “lockdown” will bring another innovation that the public has a hard time comprehending at first, until they look at Facebook’s revenue, and then marvel at how this generation’s William Randolph Hearst continues to beat everyone’s expectations.

Indeed, this book, it’s convinced me that Zuck is another Hearst, reincarnated.

I think CHAOS MONKEYS should be at the top of most business school’s reading lists, a kind of LIARS POKER for those thinking of embarking on the startup CEO’s path, the artist’s path, the quant’s path, the businessman’s path, even the politician’s path.

Read this book!

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