Not everyone who works at a spyware company agrees with the business model. Can we blame them unless we build alternative independent organisations they can work at?

The team working at Spyware 2.0 company Schnail Mail during the Indie Summit opening keynote.
People who work at spyware companies like Schnail Mail need alternatives too.
(Still from: Indie Summit Opening Keynote).

Recently, I wrote about why I’m working on

In summary, it’s because of selfish reasons: I want to live in a world where there are independent alternatives to Spyware 2.0. Alternatives that treat us like people, not like products to be sold. Moreover, I want to keep working with technology without contributing to a system of monopolies that spies on people.

I don’t just want to use alternative independent products, I also want to work somewhere I am proud of that makes independent products. That’s why we’re building and that’s why it’s so important that other people also build independent organisations that are not funded or sponsored by Silicon Valley.

Independent Technology is as much about creating alternative independent companies to build independent consumer products as it is about building the independent consumer products themselves. In fact, one is a prerequisite of the other. In the wise words of Whitney Hess, “You must design the organisation before you can design the product.”

Alternative business models

If we had to anthropomorphise Silicon Valley companies and startups today, they would be douchebags, if not downright psychopaths. If we are to compete with spyware companies for talent, we simply have to create for-profit companies that aren’t total and absolute asshats. It’s really not that hard to do better; we just need a little bit of imagination, a sprinkling of social consciousness, and alternative funding systems.

Building alternative organisations requires abandoning the myopic Silicon Valley model of venture capital and exits. It requires exploring alternative means of investment like bootstrapping, crowdfunding, and revenue-based financing. It requires having a social mission of respecting people’s fundamental human rights and selling products not people.

Sure, it might mean that you make millions instead of billions. Sure, it might mean that it takes you a bit longer to get there. But where’s the fire, Speedy Gonzales? Is your goal to make as much money as you can or to spend your life doing something that you love doing while making the world better for everyone, including yourself? If it’s the former, feel free to stop reading now. I have nothing for you.

If it’s the latter, welcome to the club.

Build an indie, not a startup

An independent organisation, an indie, is not a startup. An indie is the opposite of a startup. A startup is a Silicon Valley brand. It is a temporary organisation. It’s a business subsidised by venture capital. (If you’re not these things, don’t call yourself a startup, because you’re better than a startup and you don’t need to fuel their brand.)

A startup is a business that was sold even before it started (venture capitalists invest in the exit, not the businesses). Anything it does afterwards to attract both users and talent is a con laden with misdirection to get them to overlook that initial fact.

If you want to create a sustainable, long-term change in the world, a startup is not the place for you.

An indie is.

Working at a startup, you will ultimately be disappointed when you lose control of the very thing that you put your blood, sweat, and tears into. This will happen, if your startup is ‘successful’. In other words, when the sale closes some years after its conception (either to the public, via an IPO, or to a larger spyware company).

There is no question as to whether there will be a sale because there already has been a sale; it was the reason your startup got venture capital to begin with. The sale is what the founders pitched to their investors. And now your users feel conned and, quite possibly, you feel conned also. We have countless examples of this. In fact, it’s so common that it has become a meme.

Alternatives for consumers, alternatives for developers

For consumers, independent technology provides independent consumer products that are alternatives to spyware. For designers, developers, and others in our industry, independent technology provides places to work that are alternatives to spyware companies. At independent organisations, the work you’re doing treats people with respect both in the short term and in the long term. An indie is a whole-term organisation; its products and business model empower people in the whole term.

Now, don’t get me wrong, not everyone is looking for alternatives. There are definitely people who run or work at spyware companies today who know exactly what’s going on and either don’t care, or see nothing wrong with it, or feel that their stock options trump any other concerns. These are not the people I’m talking about.

There is also, however, a growing group of people who work at spyware companies because there are very few other places where they can do interesting work. Just as there are no convenient alternative products for consumers, there are also very few alternative work places for those of us who want to do impactful work in our industry.

That’s why it is essential that we create independent organisations. Not everyone who works at a spyware company today is a douchebag. Not by a long shot. I would argue that quite the opposite it true: Many of us began working on the web because we believed in its founding mission of creating an open, accessible, global repository of information that anyone could contribute to and benefit from. Unfortunately, the architecture of the web was at odds with its philosophy and that is why we have the monopolies of spyware that plague the web today.

All this to say that there are good folks who work at spyware companies today because of a lack of alternatives and they deserve better places to work.

A future without spyware

Last year, when I spoke to Eric Schmidt at a private gathering in Soho, he told me something that I initially dismissed as naïve. He said, “If we become too evil, we won’t find people to work for us.” I thought it was naïve at the time because, heck, Monsanto and Halliburton find people to work for them, right? Right! But not the best people.

And there’s the rub.

That’s what Eric meant.

For Google to keep doing what it’s doing (and for Facebook, etc., also), they have to keep attracting talent that’s the best of the best.

And you know what, a lot of the best of the best also have a conscience. They do what they do because they want to make a positive contribution to the world. And the veneer of respectability that companies like Google and Facebook work so hard to maintain is beginning to wear thin.

Here’s my prediction:

There will come a time when you’ll be able to work at Google and enjoy your fat pay check or you will be able to proudly tell people where you work. Not both.

We are also going to see a steady increase in regulatory oversight as policy-makers begin to understand exactly what the business of these companies is (selling people as products) and its ramifications on our human rights and democratic way of life.

That was the other thing Eric told me at that gathering. He said, ‘I spend every day fighting regulation… it could kill Google.’

Again, I thought that he was being naïve.

(How can we ‘kill’ Google? After all, we can’t even ‘kill’ companies that knowingly result in the deaths of people based on back-of-napkin calculations of profit-after-lawsuit-payouts.)

Again, of course, he wasn’t. (Needless to say, I can only assume you don’t get to run a multi-billion-dollar publicly-traded company if naïvety is one of your overriding characteristics.) He was simply honest about his intentions and confident enough that he doesn’t need to codify his comments.

What he meant to say, as I realised afterwards, was that it could kill what Google can become.

The combination of these will eventually spell the end of these companies as we know them. That’s not to say that they’re not going to be sticking around. Hey, IBM’s still here and people still code in COBOL. But it means that they won’t have the unfettered ability to disrupt — sorry, I mean fuck up — the hard earned human rights, freedoms, and democracy that we enjoy.

And we will have already built an ecosystem of independent alternatives that people can use instead.

And come that day, independent organisations like will be there. Happy to talk to you about your next job.

One that you can be proud of.