Silicon Valley Episode Five: In Praise of Failing Up
Big Head is one of my favorite characters throughout the entire run of Silicon Valley.
Unlike, well…. everyone, you can’t hate him, or blame him. Even his ineptitude is OK. Because unlike Richard or Erlich, he doesn’t pretend to be competent. He’s never outraged when something is taken from him. And so more and more seems to accrue to him, for doing absolutely no work.
And, he’s loyal even when it’s difficult, unlike most everyone on the show. This past week, he was happy to tell a reporter about Gavin scrubbing Hooli’s search results in order to get Richard out of one of his most absurd self-created jams that would get any founder this incompetent fired yet. Big Head doesn’t do it to get back at Gavin. Nor does he care about the future career-limiting options of exposing him. He just helps his friend.
The plot line of Big Head “partnering up” with Erlich veers on disturbing, because Erlich is so thoroughly trying to take advantage of him. But even here, Big Head passes the contract to his business manager and lets him be the bad guy, shrugging away.
Just as Big Head -- the character-- is a little noticed constant in the vernacular of the show, so too is what he represents a little noticed thing in the Valley: The guy who constantly fails up. The guy who happens to be in the right place at the right time with the right roommate or friend and constantly gets fired or edged out or alienates people or simply never achieves anything on his own, or even achieves anything when an opportunity is handed to him, and yet, continues to build his resume until a veneer of success actually becomes success.
This is not only a place that tolerates failure, if you happen to have failed next to the right people, and managed the spin well, failure can actually be a career.
I hesitate to name names, but the Valley is full of them, and most of them are decently nice like Big Head. I guarantee everyone reading this is thinking of a guy they know right now. And I guarantee he’s worth a few million despite not being that smart, that hard-working or being able to articulate in a sentence what he’s actually done.
It sounds mean, but there’s skill to “Failing up.” You knew the right people, you talked a good enough game, you made the right bets at the right points. It’s basically the right place/right time/just don’t fuck it up lottery.
An oft-cited example of failing up is Joe Green. He was roommates with Mark Zuckerberg, and declined to join Facebook as a founder. Then he started Causes with Sean Parker, which also failed. But to be fair on both counts, few people could see how big Facebook could become and startups fail all the time.
More galling was Green-- despite little experience-- being tapped to lead FWD.us, Zuckerberg’s industry coalition $100 million lobbying group to fight for immigration reform. Green so rapidly turned off the other moguls involved, that David Sacks, Elon Musk, and others publicly pulled out. Many others wouldn’t lend their name to it in the first place because of Green’s tactics. But he was unfireable-- at least during the scandal. Later he was quietly removed. And I’m sure his career will only continue to climb.
A more extreme -- on both ends of failure and flukey success-- may be Chris Sacca, a man who was in such crippling debt when he moved to Silicon Valley from day trading, he spent years working to pay it off. He translated a mid-level exec job at Google and a friendship with Evan Williams into effectively controlling Twitter’s secondary trading pre-IPO. He hoped to do the same with Uber, before an epic falling out between Sacca and Travis Kalanick thwarted that plan. But he’s still got Uber stock. And as it does in the Valley, money and logos on a Website beget more money and logos on a Web site. Voila! A guy who has never built a company, worked for an established venture fund, and is disliked by insiders at the two companies who have made him the most money is a billionaire, is on Shark Tank, and is throwing tantrums on Broadway.
In the case of Green, Sacca, and Big Head friendships were the entire key to their success, opportunities, and riches. Which I don’t have a problem with. But this is why people still move to Silicon Valley. You don’t have to be good. Sometimes you can just be lucky and opportunistic or in the extreme case of Big Head be a living, breathing person standing in the right place at the right time.
Clearly from the tantrums, Sacca doesn’t have Big Head’s “I don’t deserve any of this” bedside manner. And that’s part of what makes Big Head so charming.
Also, he probably would make a better CEO of Pied Piper than Richard. He’s affable, doesn’t have Richard’s misplaced entitlement (“It’s my job and I deserve it” says the guy who continually endangers the company), he has a no-nonsense approach to confrontation that he doesn’t seem to realize is even a confrontation versus Richard’s inability to ever have a hard conversation (“You want me to go in and tell her right to her face… no fucking way”), and a lot of Big Head’s success is simply keeping his mouth shut and letting others fill in what he isn’t saying. He can also probably manage to sit in a chair, unlike Richard at the end of this episode.
What’s that old saying? Better to keep quiet and have people assume you are an idiot, than open your mouth and remove all doubt.