Believing The Technology Startup Hype And Refusing See Anything Else

I’ve been in numerous discussions with defenders of the Instructure Canvas platform after posting the Instructure LMS data points. These folks are blindly and passionately defending Instructure as a force for good, founded by good people, and being offended that I would see beyond the static representation of the startup they are demanding that everyone see and believe. I find it endlessly fascinating how we as a society continue to believe the storytelling around startups, and receive the marketing they put out as some sort of truth that will play out forever into the future. Even more dangerously these people don’t just believe, they actively police the front-line of critics who are shining a light on what is really going on, doing the bidding of not just startups, and their investors, but the capitalist machine.

First, let me quickly disarm some of the standard tactics folks will use to come back at me on this piece. No, I am not anti-startup. I work for one, and have worked for many others. No, I am not anti-investor, I know lots of investors, advise them regularly, and derive most of my income from venture capital. This does not mean I am always walking the line and curbing my criticism of the bad that perpetuated by startups and investors across the landscape. People who feel the need to blindly defend technology is one of the reasons why there are so many bad actors on the stage, and why people are able to get away with the shenanigans they are pulling. Critics and whistleblowers are one of the forces that helps keep exploitative companies in the shadows, and minimize the damage they cause. I’m not saying all critique is constructive or helpful, but I’m saying that if you are actively pushing back on the critics and not listening to what they are saying, you are most likely part of the problem.

To recap for those who are just jumping in--Instructure, a popular API-driven LMS systems was acquired by a private equity group after going public, producing a wave of concern about the student data Instructure possesses. The wave of concern also produced a responding wave of people defending Instructure as being a force for good, and expressing shock that anyone would think otherwise. The point of my story was to highlight the data-driven view investors and private equity firms have of the landscape, and jumpstart discussion around the lack of policy addressing data privacy and ownership in general, but more specifically, the lack of protections for students who are just beginning their journey in this data exploitative world we’ve created for ourselves. The point of my storytelling on this subject was not to talk badly of the Instructure founders who I have met personally, but to shine a light on lack of policy and the ignorance that exists around what technology startups are all about, and how they are viewed and wielded by (some) investors.

Technology startups can be a force for good, and can be run ethically by people who wish to make a positive change. I work for one now, and have worked for them in the past. This does not mean all startups are good. This does not mean the marketing and storytelling coming out of startups is always true. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be regularly critical of startup practices, and the investors behind them. We should be critical of all investors and startups, especially the ones we operate, work within, and do business with. This also means that even good startups can change leadership at any point in the future, and that a startups ethics and beliefs will not transfer to whoever acquires them down the road. There is no technology or business practice that will bake in the “good” of the original co-founders into the fabric of a startup's operations and guarantee it will always play out in the future. No matter how much we believe in the technology we are building or applying, we should always be skeptical and critical of how it can be used for exploitation at any point in the future.

I do not doubt that the Instructure founders are good people. I do not doubt that Instructure employees are good people. I do not doubt that people who made the decision to use Instructure in schools, implement and manage the LMS are good people. If you are one of these people and feel attacked by what I’m saying then I am guessing you are insecure because deep down you know there is a bigger picture out there, and you are willfully naive or ignorant of what is happening. I strongly believe the co-founders of the startup I work for right now. I strongly believe in the employees of the startup I work for right now. I actually strongly believe in the investors behind the startup. This does not mean I won’t be regularly critical of our practices, and concerned for what the future holds when investment grows, and business exits that wiull happen. I also believe that my leadership supports my ability to influence minds and policy when it comes to data access, privacy, governance, and the other forces which are the only things that will protect us from having our data exploited for profit.

I am not saying Instructure has done anything wrong. But you can’t tell me the value of students data isn’t a big part of the reason the private equity firm is buying the company. And you can’t tell me that this data will not be used for doing bad down the road—do you really want to die on this hill? If you are passionately defending the credibility of a publicly traded technology company that was acquired by a private equity firm against people who are concerned for the privacy of students, and people arguing for strongly policy defending students rights—you are part of the problem. You are either believing that data is valuable and it is the right of companies to profit off student data, or you are isolated and missing the bigger picture when it comes to how data is the new oil, and the majority of technology startups are looking to profit from the creation, enrichment, and selling of data. I am hoping that it is the latter, but I also come across a lot of people who are actively in the know, and still police the front lines, and repeat the marketing message that startups are good.

This blind belief of startup storytelling and hype is why private equity firms buy beloved brands. This is why new waves of startups are founded, grown, and then harvest by industry leading firms. Because people blindly believe that the goodness that exists within the early days of a startup, and the goodwill they create will always be baked into the DNA of the startup—even once it is acquired. Instagram is still that amazing bootstrapped startup despite being part of Facebook, and Ben & Jerry’s is still owned by those two quirky founders despite being owned by Unilever. Now don’t DM, email, or Tweet at people declaring I’m anti-startup—that is a weak sauce argument. Or try to say I”m saying we should do startups at all. I still believe we should do them. I still believe that startups can be a force for good. I still believe that venture capital can be necessary. What I am saying is we should always be skeptical and critical of the constant flow of feel good messaging out of startups, and we should always be mindful of what can happen in the future. We should all work hard to make sure there is strong policies in place at the state and federal levels protecting the rights of end-users, and not just the interests of corporations and their investors.