For my online friends who have been deleting their Vero accounts because of its CEO’s dodgy past, I admire your idealism but it’s a bit like saying donuts are bad – because, carbs and sugar – whilst you continue to eat bread, cereal, pasta, cakes and cookies every day. If you want to only deal with companies that have a clean record on ethics and morality, if you want to sleep easy at night knowing that you have not helped to support discriminatory, non-inclusive, exploitative, morally offensive practices, then I suggest you should review the truth behind these good things that you probably quite like:
- Subscription-based streaming of TV and movies to your living room.
- The ability to order a hot meal delivered in the next hour from your mobile device.
- The ability to order a cab in the next 5 minutes from your phone.
- Subscription-based streaming of virtually all music ever produced.
- Cheap books or any other consumer product, delivered to you by tomorrow.
- The ability to share your words, pictures, news articles and cat videos with your friends, family and colleagues all around the world.
Quick recap for those who haven’t heard about Vero – the upstart social media platform that is promising to take on Instagram/Facebook by giving you a chronological feed and no advertising. Many people were getting frustrated at IG and FB for a variety of reasons. My own gripe was the shadow ban and the apparent arbitrary banning of certain hashtags which hit most of the lingerie community. The Vero app got a lot of word of mouth publicity recently and their app struggled to cope with the huge number of sign-ups. Then came the backlash when we started hearing all sorts shady tales about the company and its CEO and founder. People started to delete their accounts, giving emotive reasons such as “I couldn’t support a monster” and variants thereof. As with any kind of viral media buzz, the social media group-think tends to coalesce into two opposing camps, in this case, Camp A: Vero is Satan’s spawn; and Camp B: Yeah, but Instagram still isn’t working for me.
So here is why I will be giving my Vero account a chance, although I don’t love the interface, the app is buggier than a pram with a broken wheel, and its subscription-based business model may turn out to be non-viable.
There is zero point in judging the ethics of the company by looking at its investors or founders. Tech companies go through rounds of funding which gradually shrinks the stake of its original investors. The only reason why Vero has managed to last 3 years without resorting to bigger rounds of investment is because Ayman Hariri is loaded, but even he will eventually have to keep divesting his stake and then, enter the venture capitalists, hedge funds and institutional investors. Let’s take a look at how lovely some of these people are.
Have you seen who owns Facebook? Apart from all those lucky employees and college chums, the biggest investors are Goldman Sachs, Li Ka-Shing and a slew of massive VC firms. Along the way, many other private equity firms and hedge funds have entered and exited. Do you know what private equity firms do to most of their investments? They take big stakes in companies, leaving the founders very well off, leveraging the companies into massive debt so they can make a very profitable exit in 3-7 years. The employees are squeezed because they need to “integrate” with other acquisitions and “synergies” need to be found, i.e. cutting costs, losing jobs. I’ve been in the middle of this process twice.
Speaking of ruthless employment practices, Netflix’s CEO Reed Hastings warns new staff that “adequate performance” will result in a “severance package”. How’s that for feeling safe and secure in your job?
Amazon’s warehouse and delivery staff are put under so much pressure to meet their daily quotas and meet our demand for next day or same day deliveries. In busy periods they are often so tired on their shifts that they fall asleep standing up. That’s dignity in employment.
How about the zero-hours contracts or rather, “self-employed” workers in the rest of the gig economy, e.g. Uber, Deliveroo, who have no employment rights such as holiday pay or sickness pay but, in all other respects, have to look like and behave like employees? I have clients in this space who can’t make their disruptive business models work unless they use zero-contract workers. Should they give the public a cheap, convenient and clever service, or pay employees decently? You choose.
Women and diversity
Have you ever hung out with a bunch of private equity or VC guys? And I mean guys, because the industry is still disgustingly phallocentric, not to mention a bastion of white, male privilege. My friend works for one where he is often invited to all-male weekends on yachts in the Mediterranean (all male except for the hostesses of course). Senior female managers are routinely excluded from lavish “client entertainment” outings so the boys can go and have their fun in private. And we all know how a group of rich, white, entitled men like to have fun when none of their female peers are looking.
Let’s talk about Spotify. The issue here isn’t about workers or diversity. Few can fail to see how the music business has been transformed ever since that cheeky Napster challenged the idea that we might need to buy and pay for music written and composed by actual people. The majority of revenue to music streaming apps comes from just a handful of artists. The majority of content on those apps is being produced by artists who can barely make ends meet. It is now common knowledge that an artist will make nothing on producing an album. The only way they can hope to have a music career is by promoting that music by constantly touring and playing live, but that is a pretty precarious existence, which isn’t really compatible with a regular job – the job they have to have in order to pay their bills.
Let’s talk about Facebook again. You’ve probably heard that they had to settle about $65m on the Winklevoss twins and Divya Narendra. These guys wanted a piece of the code that Zuckerberg wrote for THEIR social networking site, allegedly. But MZ kinda didn’t hand it over and instead started his OWN social network. Of course I wouldn’t feel too sorry for those guys as their settlement included Facebook stock so they’re not exactly hard done by, but this is just another example of shady dealings.
When you look at the tech company behemoths, the ones that have changed how we live in this millennia and from which we cannot escape without going off-grid, there is no such thing as a totally wholesome and ethical history. The nature of these giants is that they have needed such vast amounts of money to become the megaliths that they are, that they can’t be that fussy about where all that money comes from. They will also do almost anything to ensure that they do not lose their hegemony and will squash any little upstarts that threaten them, sometimes by using aggressive and shady PR tactics. That is the nature of capitalism in the 21st century. If you want to know whether a company has decent values, you have to ask all the stakeholders what their values are. Sometimes they will get things wrong but they deserve some credit of they are generally trying to do right by their employees and customers.
If you want be part of this inter-connected, fast-moving, convenient, low-cost capitalist world, you need to be informed of the whole picture. Don’t focus your moral outrage on just one tiny piece.
My personal choice that I make in light of a $500 billion beast that wants to censor my nipples and ban my lingerie hashtags is to look around, and I am happy to throw a bone to the underdog that is Vero.
NB: I do not work for Vero nor am I in any way associated with them, apart from being a registered user.