How "Build" Became The Worst Word In Tech

Stepping into Silicon Valley's construction zone.

A minor scandal erupted after Sarah Lacy, editor-in-chief of tech site PandoDaily, weighed in on the Bay Area Rapid Transit strike last week. She told Marketplace Tech:

If I had more friends who were BART drivers, I would probably be very sympathetic to their cause, and if they had more friends who were building companies they would probably realize we're not all millionaires, and we're actually working pretty hard to build something.

She then made the following characterization:

People in the tech industry feel like life is a meritocracy. You work really hard, you build something and you create something, which is sort of directly opposite to unions.

The response was harsh and righteous, ostensibly focusing on what, honestly, is a fairly standard conservative, or "pro-business," attitude about unionization. But what animated the response had little to do with unions or politics, and everything to do with the word "build."

Had to literally get up and walk away from my computer at the second Sarah Lacy quote.

Kevin Roose


Had to literally get up and walk away from my computer at the second Sarah Lacy quote.

The b-word has been in the business and tech lexicon for decades, but merely as a synonym — there are only so many ways to credit someone with the creation and growth of a company. And besides, in many cases, the expansion of a company involves literal, physical building.

But today it has infected the language of tech completely: there is no incorporation in Silicon Valley, just "building." Northern California, to hear the tech elite tell it, is more like a cluster of tech-focused kibbutzim than a spaced-out suburb dotted with office parks.

The infection has reached into tech's oldest territories too. In 2011, Microsoft's Professional Developers Conference, which started in 1992, merged with another Microsoft conference and renamed "BUILD." It is still attended by "developers," however, as it was two decades ago. Today, in an announcement that it would shut down MSN TV, also known as WebTV, Microsoft posthumously baptized the product as something it had "built."

But it's in the startup world that the infection is most severe, and where the word's meaning is most heavily freighted. What seems to have started as a subtle reaction to an outdated idea that apps, services, and websites aren't really real has become a default label. (Anxiety about the value and permanence of software and apps and digital advertising optimization strategies would explain the similarly grating "launch," which is intended to evoke a rocket shooting into space but more often brings to mind a ship slowly sliding from a dock.)

Like Silicon Valley entrepreneurs' borderline pathological identification as "founders," "building" is meant to set its subjects apart from the rest of the world. Medium's "On Startups" category is a useful primer on the word's various usages, starting with its subtitle.

Mainly, to say you're "building" something is to say you're part of an exceptional breed. It's an instant signifier that your company isn't just a company, but a "disruptive" force; that you are ahead of and above companies that were merely "incorporated," and that you intend to "disrupt"; that your breed of entrepreneurship is more like a duty or a calling than a job choice, and that you're no stodgy businessperson, but a visionary, a maker, a capitalistic superhero with the incredible powers of "pivoting" and "raising rounds." You're someone who is changing things with big ideas and yet, somehow, also with your own two hands.

It says, in a word, that you buy into Silicon Valley exceptionalism, and that you're a reason to believe in it.

Which, of course, can be fine! Silicon Valley produces a lot of unique and unprecedented companies, and there are industries out there just waiting for rapid and total change at the hands of a twentysomething Stanford grad. You may want to tell others, without really telling others, that you're part of a force that can accomplish that kind of thing, and you may be right.

But in doing so you're also suggesting membership in a egotistical club, where the regular rules of commerce apply neither to businesses nor the "builders" that "built" them; a place where money flows in massive, overwhelming torrents toward good ideas and good people, but also toward ideas that are merely shaped like other good ideas, or to ideas that are in fact terrible ideas but which might pass as good ideas for just long enough to make someone rich.

So, go ahead: Talk about building your company. But just know how it might sound.

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