Don’t Make me Choose

It’s September 1997. You’re an employee at Apple and things aren’t looking good.

You’re hearing news left and right that Apple is less than a couple months away from bankruptcy and there are no signs of a turnaround anytime soon.

Just recently, BusinessWeek put a shiny Apple logo on its front cover, unfortunately accompanied by the title “The Fall of an American Icon” — a scathing illustration of public sentiment toward the company. Wired just ran an article suggesting a sale to IBM or Motorola to save the remnants of Apple before it’s too late.

All in all, times have been better.

Just yesterday, though, you heard the news that Steve Jobs is coming back to run the company, in a last-ditch effort to turn the ship around. Analysts and journalists seem all but enthused, though.

Fast forward one year.

Somehow, Apple’s still around. Half your friends and colleagues have been laid off, but you’re still holding on. Times are leaner, too. 5 of the 6 official Apple retailers have been dropped. Just last year, there were 15 different Apple computer models. Today, there’s one. There used to be a long list of handheld and portable devices under development. Now, there’s one single laptop.

Until now, customers would walk into an Apple distributor and ask a salesperson for advice on which computer best fit their specific needs. They’d spend time weighing up the tech specs of each model and evaluating options. Sometimes, a difficult process.

“A friend of the family asked me which Apple computer she should buy. She couldn’t figure out the differences among them and I couldn’t give her clear guidance either.”

Steve Jobs in Good Strategy / Bad Strategy

Today, they walk in and get offered a grand total of 1 solution: the Power Mac G3. Take it or leave it.

As it turns out, they took it.

Looking back

In hindsight, a move to cut back operations, product lines, and staff to mission-critical only, trimming the bloat, focusing on a niche core offering seems like an obvious move. If it was so obvious, though, why did it take the return of the previously-ousted founder to do it?

The simple response is inertia, though that’s a focus for another day (no, really, I’ll write about that soon, it’s so interesting!).

What we’re exploring today is what went wrong in the first place. What happened that left Apple so spread across numerous product lines, deviated from their core focus?

It seems obvious that giving more choices to consumers is almost always a good thing — but it turns out that more choice isn’t the solution itself.

The age of abundance

Almost all product or service merchants, be that today or 10,000 years ago, began with a single product. Only as agricultural technology and techniques developed did these initial product lines widen in lockstep with the capacity to cultivate, grow, and sell a wider variety of produce and livestock. Still, the offerings were largely constrained for thousands of years by geographical limitations.

Fast forward to 3,000 BC to the emergence of the first formalized interregional trade routes in the middle east and Asia. It’s at this stage that optionality in commerce truly reached new heights.

International maritime commerce and land-based trade routes redefined the landscape for choice in the marketplace across a number of verticals. The ongoing development and growth of international freight over the following millennia through the industrial revolution, combined with modern globalization and innovation in shipping logistics set the stage for the age of commercial abundance we consider standard today.

The dawn of the internet age supercharged that growth.

Suddenly, the incremental cost of commercializing an immense variety of SKUs dropped almost overnight. 

With the rise of the internet, new opportunities for choice in almost all commercial sectors boomed. The cost of developing, testing, and commercializing similar but new solutions plummeted.

This trend to increased optionality is a natural evolution of commerce and distribution thanks to technical and technological progress. The internet didn’t spawn this, but it augmented it.

If we characterize the last ~hundred~ years as an age of rapid growth in commercial and retail opportunity built on the innovation in international communication, logistics, and technical evolution, we can characterize the last ~5-10 years~ as a tipping point in that growth.

Increasingly, founders are building companies with a mission to make sense and sort the fruits of this age of abundance. These take the form of aggregators.

Others are building companies and strategies around a completely inverse vision of commerce. Rather than offer a wide array of products and variations, however niche they may remain, there will always be an alternative strategy in hyper-focus on a single line.

At the root of this view is a core philosophy: the perceived benefit of having a wide array of options to choose from is quickly illusory. We think we want more choices, but that’s not the whole story.

Beyond abundance

Everybody has heard the famous quote by Theodore Levitt that claims “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.”

Typically this quote is viewed through the lens of features vs. benefits. The quote can be applied to the framework of abundance, though. Through this lens, abundance, however plentiful, remains a means to an end, not the end itself.

Choice, then, is not the end goal it’s made out to be.

Choice is the means by which the consumer seeks to extract maximal value from a transaction, in the belief that their own decision making is the most rational means by which to ensure it.

To quote Scott Galloway:

Choice is a tax on your time and attention. Consumers don’t want more choice, but more confidence in the choices presented.

Consumers want more confidence in the choices presented. We make choices in the goal of picking the most favorable, rational outcome available, all else equal. The act of choosing in itself, of making a decision, is one committed only by necessity.

Aggregators are working their way towards negating this necessity of choice to a maximum extent.

In a first use case, let’s look at travel booking aggregator Kayak.com.

Booking aggregators are nothing new. Booking.com itself was founded in 1996, with a mission to reduce friction in discovering the range of offers available, and picking the apparent ‘best’. Kayak, while very similar, was founded with a slightly different principal vision.

Booking.com or Expedia were originally laser-focused on hotel reservations. With a destination in mind, the sites served to aggregate and compare offers from a number of hotel options at once. In booking a hotel stay, price is an important factor. Price alone, though, is not the (almost) singular factor in the decision-making process. Location, quality of the room, facilities, services, etc. are all important factors that can vary highly from hotel to hotel, all at similar price points.

This is where Kayak, with a leading focus on air travel, differs. In plane travel, the quality of services and amenities are almost identical at each incremental price point, regardless of which carrier you decide to go with. Price points can vary greatly over minor factors, but at each price, the offers are relatively identical.

Kayak, unlike its hotel-focused counterparts, aids in reducing the decision-making process entirely. When booking a hotel, there will often be a handful of attractive options at similar prices, but ultimately, location and amenities act as the deciding factor. This has been the case since the birth of travel agencies.

In flights, though, once you’ve filtered your search to the requirements you expect, there’s rarely more than 1 single option which makes the shortlist: the cheapest. Kayak and it’s numerous competitors serve to take away the need for choice entirely. They recognize that choice is simply the means to an end, and the faster the choice is made, the better.

Companies are best positioned to capture large value when, beyond offering more choice, they give us confidence in the choices presented to us.

Trust me, I know best

Meanwhile, other companies have been able to reduce this choice process by integrating vertical solutions directly.

AmazonBasics is a (ahem) prime example of this.

In product verticals where differentiation is entirely secondary to price, AmazonBasics has largely taken away the decision-making process within the aggregator feed entirely.

The Amazon Basics label, rightly or wrongly, represents a badge of quality, of certainty. For products with little room to differentiate, or for whom the delta between high quality and bare minimum is narrow, an AmazonBasics product is an attractive sell. Why bother wasting time hunting for something that Amazon, a trusted company, offers itself? Unless you’re a stapler aficionado, or have a more specific use-case, the AmazonBasics stapler instantly requires the least cognitive effort, is likely among the cheapest, and radiates a certainty of getting an at least pretty good product.

There are over 8,000 different staplers available on Amazon.com. Productive progress, technological innovation, and economies of scale mean that hundreds of these staplers offer better features than the AmazonBasics one. Some come with finger guards (???), some with champagne gold casings, others with sizing tools. But for the majority of consumers, the standard stapler is enough, no more, no less.

In the same vein, Steve Jobs wasn’t blind to the fact that many consumers loved the specific use-cases offered by their specific computer model. What he recognized, though, is that for many, many more, the standard Power Mac G3 was plenty for almost all use cases.

You don’t have to buy a Power Mac, but when you do, you buy the built-in peace of mind that you made the right decision.

Packaged Confidence

More and more brands are following the Apple playbook of either reducing or limiting the growth of their offer to a small, core set.

Nowhere is this more noticeable than DTC lifestyle brands.

Ironically, the entire DTC model, on the surface, appears perfectly structured to offer a wide catalog of products, with marginal additional costs — therefore expanding your total addressable market with little downside in terms of variable costs.

The largest DTC companies we know today, though, saw that model, and ignored it completely.

In a radical departure from traditional commerce, where horizontal expansion and product diversification at low costs seem a no-brainer in capturing additional value from new markets, the DTC model has so far thrived on a more restrained focus on individual core offerings. Just as Apple steered away from offering variations of a single product, the model has stayed true in top DTC brands today.

Allbirds, the sustainable shoe company lauded by VCs all over the US, launched with a single product, the Wool Runner. They’ve slowly expanded their offering since, but each new product is notably different in form and focus to the prior.

Casper, even today, limits its core product line of mattresses to just 3 SKUs.

Quip, the top dental care DTC brand started with an initial offer of only a toothbrush and has little deviated even into years of success. They offer a handful of other products, but each is a complementary addition to the other, none cannibalizing any other product — a combination perfectly crafted for cross-selling and upsells.

But a product line of one (or very few) products is a difficult one to sustain, leaving you little diversified in the event of consumer trends that work against you. To offset this risk in the DTC space, and owing to the nature of a distributorless sales model, a heavy investment in brand-building is required.

By leveraging a large focus on company values, core vision, and main mission, brands position themselves effectively against competitors otherwise engaged in a race to the bottom.

In reducing your core offering to a small line of products, there lies an inherent implication that “we spent a lot of time making the boring decisions so that you don’t have to”. When you purchase a Casper mattress, you can go to bed in full certainty that you opted for a high-quality solution from a human-oriented brand. You know you can engage with the creators easily on Twitter, you know your mattress was invented not in an opportunistic profit-capturing expansion, but in a mission to create a great sleeping experience.

Rather than testing a bunch of similar-feeling mattresses at Mattress Firm and wasting a day making a choice you really don’t know, nor care all that much about, Casper offers just 3 options, each for a slightly different type of consumer. They let you know the whole way through the purchase journey that they’re only happy if you’re happy — even offering a 100 nights trial period on each mattress.

Closing Thoughts

The age of abundance drove opportunities for product discovery and development previously impossible. This same abundance, though, has driven the side effect of increased anxiety across younger generations more than ever before.

Reducing choice appears limiting on first viewing, we hate ruling out options. Building out product lines for each different client use-case appears a tactical win in a strategy to grow your total addressable, and then addressed market, but as the saying goes, when you create for everybody, you create for nobody. Entropy and inertia eventually catch up and drive down profit potential across each line one by one.

Choice is only the means to an end, and Jobs understood that perfectly. Today, companies are refining and reducing the span of their niche, taking decision making off the table — taking a leaf out of that fabled Jobs playbook: here’s the offer, take it or leave it.

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Why did Neobanks become so boring?

What happened to the rebels of the financial revolution?

We’re starting this week with a quote from a piece by Ian Kar at Fintech Today:

In the first half of 2020, overhyped neobanks went from a contrarian opinion to a major industry talking point. 

What was just recently a contrarian opinion, is now stated as fact.

Just a couple of years ago, neobanks were spearheading the ‘financial revolution’, armed with a seemingly bottomless flow of venture capital.

Today, they’re largely out of the mainstream news cycle.

This week, we’re diving into the world of consumer fintech: Why did neobanks suddenly become so boring? What drove the hype cycle? Where did it go? 

From there, the harder question: with the initial boom out of the way, what’s the long game for these banks?

We have a bunch to cover, so best get started!

Cash Flows & Sleek Logos

Only about 2 years ago, every other week, news would break of a brand new neobank — seemingly out of nowhere — raising an 8 figure Series A, sending their CEO to speak at TechCrunch Disrupt to talk about their (very unique) company ‘values’, then hunkering down until it was Series B time.

Rinse, repeat.

Today, neobanks have reached almost meme status in tech and investing circles.

It quickly seemed like anyone and everyone could start a neobank. The space is extremely interesting. To get picky, almost none of the (US) neobanks are actual “banks” so to speak — they don’t store and insure client funds themselves, rather partnering with an FDIC licensed incumbent, serving as an intermediary.

The apparent relative ease to launch a neobank was an attractive sell for many new founders.

522,000 results!

While launching a mobile bank — especially in the US — involves an immense roll of red tape, regulation, and high bars to entry, it is far less complicated than launching a “traditional” financial institution.

Rapidly looking to ride the trend, card issuers — namely Visa and Mastercard — scrambled to be first pick to serve these new banks in offering debit cards. In the US neobank space today, Visa fights to hold its lead.

As such, it quickly became a relatively smooth process to issue debit card services once your online bank was established. To add to that, several other fintech infrastructure companies quickly popped up to supplement the growth of the space. 

These ranged from the complex field of compliance (eg. Alloy), interbank connections (eg. Plaid), and a bunch of under-the-hood services that were previously handled in-house by large banks, now being commoditized in the form of competing startups. 

All of this came together to form a space perfectly ripe for creating new challenger banks with attractive brand values, all aimed at “making your finances more transparent”, “dethroning the big banks”, etc.

To go with the shiny mission statement, you need a shiny product — and neobanks nailed the mark.

Hype Cycles & Making Banking Cool

I’m a brand strategy guy at heart, so seeing Starling Bank’s announcement of one of the first-ever vertical debit cards was a masterclass in brand differentiation. It had been tried before, but nothing had quite reached the mainstream.

Once Starling Bank made it ‘cool’, the vertical debit card and minimalistic design became the representation of mobile banks, quickly adopted by Venmo, N26, Revolut, and so many more.

This widespread aesthetic adoption, though, did little to help with the copycat, meme status beginning to plague banking startups.

Business strategy aside, you have to admit they look sleek…

In a space not exactly known for its innovative creativity, neobanks brought a fresh coat of (bold, matte) paint, both through the physical product, and user experience.

Brick and mortar banks have immense resources to outperform on features and depth, but this comes at the expense of simplicity. From design to product experience, neobanks solidified simplicity and minimalism as a top priority, with a heavy sprinkle of customer experience.

Armed with a beautiful product, a mission to make a boring field exciting and accessible, and a target market of mobile-first digital natives, the next step was to ramp up marketing spend. This was the not-so-secret sauce in bringing hype to the banking space.

Tejas Raut Dessai put it best:

The menu is simple — a checking account, a debit card, and a few other adjacent services. The modus operandi is somewhat simpler too, raise a ton of cash, hit the gas on marketing, grow deposits, and leverage the spread on income to fuel more marketing.

Neobanks quickly took a page out of the DTC playbook and ran up paid social spend, with a focus balanced between brand building and user acquisition.

My Instagram Stories ads are the perfect proof of this, as is the London Underground.

If you’re a neobank, the hype train is now smoothly in motion.

User count is skyrocketing, all seems well. In fact, ARPU is even slowly rising as your neobank is slowly moving along the adoption cycle from early-adopters to the mainstream.

But now the problems are beginning to creep in.

Hypergrowth is brilliant, required, even, in the months fresh off a funding round. The issue, though, is that hypergrowth is seldom sustainable — especially when it’s largely tied to ad spend.

That’s not to say that sustainable growth can’t be built on paid channels, rather that it’s a much more expensive and risky long-term play, relative to building out alternative, less expensive, and organic acquisition channels.

Neobanks have begun to fall out of the Silicon Valley spotlight as they now begin to build out more sustainable paths to growth — or profitability.

It’s the end of the beginning. Next step, prepare for the future.

The Long Game

The rise of the neobank in the US has been a relatively recent one, compared to the rest of the western world.

That doesn’t come as a huge surprise though. America has long lagged Europe in terms of consumer financial infrastructure and product innovation. Corporate finance knows no better land, but consumer tech has fallen by the wayside.

While the rest of the world quickly adopted chip and pin, contactless payments, and instantaneous bank transfers, the US kept mailing cheques, swiping magnetic strips, and waiting 3-4 days for transfers.

This failure (refusal?) to modernize is largely why, until recently, almost all top neobanks were Europe-based.

US entrants are finally changing that, though. Chime, Varo, and SoFi are among the most recognizable neobank leaders today in the US, and quickly caught VC attention in the Bay Area.

Fast forward a couple of years to today, the widespread hype in tech and VC circles for neobanking is much more subdued.

This doesn’t mean neobanking itself has slowed down, though.

Beyond offering checking accounts and debit card services, fintech companies and neobanks are making moves up, and across the value chain. 

Going Up

As we touched on earlier, until very recently, there have been no US-based neobanks that hold an actual banking license, with regards to FDIC coverage. This means that no neobank had been approved to have client deposits insured by the US government.

For this reason, as we saw before, neobanks, upon launching, partner with a sponsor banking institution, one that does hold an FDIC license, and operates via their services.

This all changed when US-based neobank Varo, recently announced approval by the US government to be the first mobile bank to be granted FDIC approval. This marks a watershed moment in the fintech space, allowing the company to decouple from their sponsor bank (Bancorp) and vertically integrate a significant part of their value chain.

In offering independence from a partner institution, Varo will be able to bring all customer data in-house, and regain control over the cut of profits the partner bank would have otherwise claimed.

Though license integration is nothing new for neobanks on the international scene (lead competitors such as N26, Monzo, or Revolut all already hold EU-wide banking licenses), the move up the value chain is exciting news for US-based neobanks.

This brings me to a prediction: within the next 2 years, we’ll have seen the first US neobank IPO.

Through this lens, a bank charter is an attractive line item in an S-1.

And Across

Integrating operations away from a partner bank to in-house, though, brings with it a need for significant resource allocation to regulatory compliance. This is the expensive downside of integration, representing costs to the tune of 6-10% of revenue.

For the many neobanks already hemorrhaging money, engaged in a vicious race to the bottom, working hard to avoid death by a thousand Instagram mid-rolls, the extra costs vertical integration brings makes little financial sense.

So, instead of looking up the value chain, as in the Varo example, many neobanks are exploring lateral moves.

We saw earlier how most of today’s neobanks began as online checking accounts. They then expanded to offering debit card services. Now, many players are looking further afield.

Source: Invyo

This takes both the form of geographical expansion and product expansion.

Many established companies are now looking to expand operations horizontally to lending, insurance, and robo-advisory roles.

Upgrade is a leading example of this, bundling a credit-focused service with a card service all at once. To the difference of ‘traditional’ neobanks, credit-focused mobile banks operate on a revenue model built primarily on transaction fees, and interest.

Meanwhile, companies such as SoFi are deepening the focus on robo-advisory products and expanding quickly.

Already offering debit card, checking account, and loan services, the company is now moving further into the investment space, both with brokerage access, and a hands-off automated financial advisory service which sets goals, auto-rebalances and diversifies investments.

Further afield

Many of the top established neobanks, now comfortable with stabilized CAC/LTV ratios, streamlined checking/debit card services, and sustained growth, are setting sails for foreign lands.

Revolut, already established in 30+ countries, announced the success of a $500M funding round to fuel a global hiring spree, aiming to grow from 1,800 employees to 5,000 by the end of 2020.

The story for competitor N26 is a similar one, already in 30+ markets, with eyes set abroad. 

Both companies are making rapid moves to dominate the US market share while the competition is so fragmented.

It’s this same fragmentation that today makes the space anything but boring.

The neobank sector is perfectly ripe for consolidation. The established top-dogs in the space, primarily Revolut, N26, Monzo, and Monese have all seen YoY user growth rates upwards of 150% in the last 24 months.

Neobank2018 no. of Customers2019 no. of Customers% Increase
Revolut3,000,0008,000,000167%
Monese700,0001,400,000100%
Starling400,000800,000100%
Yolt500,000900,00080%

Currently, though, the majority of the top neobanks do little in the way of product or brand differentiation.

To call back to what we saw earlier, the neobank playbook has been to offer checking, then debit cards, then expand to brokerage services, with a sprinkling of robo-advisor features.

Over the coming years, the primary differentiator in the neobank space will be the ability to overcome regulatory hurdles and rapidly expand to new markets.

Through this lens, Varo zigged while the others zagged.

The move to focus on FDIC/banking charter approval relatively early on slowed down front-row product innovation, but now positions the company extremely strongly on the US market, relative to other home-grown opponents, and more pressingly, the incoming foreign threat by the British and German incumbents.

Within the coming years, I believe we’ll begin to see the first rounds of neobank M&A deals as EU-based neobanks set their sights on the New World.

The moves would serve the EU-based players well, largely circumventing the regulatory nightmares of acquiring banking charters in the US as a foreign entity, and integrating an existing client base, partially forgoing the need for a shiny Instagram ads bidding war to drive user growth.

Opposition Far and Near

While “normal” neobanks launch from the ground up, competition is slowly coming out of the woodwork in the form of the tech giants.

Google Pay and Apple Pay are nothing new.

For a few years now we’ve been able to digitize our existing debit and credit cards and use them via our phones.

Apple went one step further last year, launching its first physical finance product: the Apple Card. Sponsored by Goldman Sachs, Apple, similar to the neobank strategy we’ve talked about, looked to integrate the physical payments interaction.

Already used by more than 3M+ Americans, the majority of whom use it as their primary credit card, the strategy has been a strong opening for Apple’s financial ambitions.

But they’re soon going to have company.

In April this year, TechCrunch broke the news that Google has been exploring possibilities in launching a card of their own.

Google Pay was Google’s first entry into the finance space, already on track to hit over 100M users in 2020.

For both Apple and Google, though, the core ambition within their finance verticals is — at least for now — very different to that of full-fledged neobanks.

While “traditional” neobanks seek a path to dethroning the incumbent brick and mortar banking institutions, Google and Apple look at banking as a means to an — unrelated — end.

Google

For Google, this takes the form of advertising data. The transaction data granted to Google through using a Google Card makes their existing colossal ad network even more powerful by “closing the loop”.

Advertising attribution is an impressively tricky field. If you’ve been shown 7 ads for the same brand/product on Google, but you end up buying the product physically in-store, Google has very little knowledge that the ads it served you worked.

The Google Card changes that.

In closing the loop, gaining visibility into the offline purchase journey is a goldmine of advertising data for Google (all while claiming their x% of transaction fees).

Apple

For Apple, this takes the form of ecosystem empowerment.

Apple’s fundamental product strategy has always been one focused on interconnected, inter-device, seamless experiences. 

If you own a MacBook as your daily driver, there’s a strong chance you also own an iPhone. If you own an iPhone, there’s a strong chance you own Apple EarPods, or better yet, AirPods.

Now, when you next look to upgrade your laptop or phone, each individual Apple device you own acts as a weight on your decision, pushing you towards not straying from their walled garden.

The Apple Card is no different — and it does an even better job of extending the ecosystem beyond “attractive” consumer tech, into moments of daily life that would otherwise have very little connection to Apple.

Apple Card fights off other phone brands. Google Card fights off other ad networks. Neobank cards fight off other neobanks.

Neither of the two is likely to make huge ripples in vertical integration in the finance space anytime soon. That said, the immense resources available to both companies and their enormous existing userbase does pose a significant threat — by platform power alone — to neobank entrants, local, and incoming.

In this view, neobanks, our rebels of the financial revolution, are fighting a battle they’re racing to finance, fighting on a landscape they’re racing to expand, and fighting a range of opponents growing faster than ever.

We watched as the first act of the neobank tale unfolded, a chapter ripe with VC cash, sleek logos, and extraordinary advertising budgets.

Today, competition is growing on all sides, free flows of venture capital are growing harder to come by, but the need for hypergrowth at all costs has never been more pressing.

The neobank story never became boring, it’s just gearing up for the second act.

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The Silicon Office

The Office is a TV series about a seemingly mundane workplace.

This mundane workplace, though, is counterbalanced by the anything-but-mundane situations that happen there — the situations that get us hooked on following it.

Beyond those situations, it’s the workers of the office that we truly fall in love with. Each character has their own distinct personality — lots of them extremely polarising, but we love them (almost) all.

Their workplace, the Scranton branch of a paper sales company becomes a set, the stage on which we follow each story as each episode unfolds. 

If you’re anything like me, you get super invested in each character in their own particular way. We can’t help but root for Jim or Pam, just as we can’t help but feel schadenfreude when DeAngelo leaves for the last time.

Right now Fanny and I are rewatching the series (for the 8th time). And as we watch, I’m noticing more and more parallels with the emotional investment we business/tech lovers feel as we follow the day to day developments of the biggest companies in the world.

We watch their ups and downs, we clap for each big unveiling and grab our popcorn at each scandal that ripples through the Silicon Valley and the tech world at large.

While we sat and cringed at Michael Scott’s constant social incompetence, an idea emerged and became this week’s newsletter: each different character of The Office brilliantly represents each different ‘character’ of Silicon Valley. 

The Silicon Office

In The Office, many of the characters don’t particularly like each other — often getting into petty feuds with each other. Others get on well, forming partnerships against other coworkers. Rivalries, cliques, alliances — this workplace has it all.

Each character is very different. A large part of reality TV is based on putting a bunch of incompatible personalities together and watching the inevitable mess that ensues. Through this lens, The Office follows the same format. 

From an outside perspective, though, so does Silicon Valley.

If there’s one location known for its rivalries and cliques, its polarising personalities and daily intriguing adventures, it’s the Bay Area. 

Today, then, we’re going lighter-hearted. Welcome to Silicon Valley, its top players, and personalities, as represented by characters in The Office.

Michael Scott – Tesla

Michael is as polarising a leader as it gets. Remind you of anyone?

He thrives on getting attention by any means necessary. Sometimes, though, his tactics are questionable, and it often gets him in hot water. 

When he’s not getting the attention he wants, Dunder Mifflin Scranton’s leader might yell incoherently, maybe tell you a relative of yours has died.

Tesla’s leader follows a similar playbook. When his Twitter feed is looking slow, Musk might commit a little securities fraud, or, if you’re a British diver, maybe accuse you of being a pedophile.

When they’re not doing that, they both begin to explore other projects. Just as Elon splits his time between leading Tesla, SpaceX, OpenAI, or tunneling under LA, Michael spreads his interests across his screenplay, working on new characters like Prison Mike, or Michael Klump. He even founded a company, in the form of the Michael Scott Paper Co.

Elon and Michael are both unique leaders.

Dwight Schrute – Facebook

Dwight is largely disliked throughout the workplace.

His social skills are seen as, well… lacking — with a very flexible moral code.

He tends to thrive in chaos. Always plotting new stratagems and sly ideas. Even in the rare times he thinks he’s doing something good for the others, he’s decried for it.

This one wasn’t difficult. Come on, they both even launched their own currency!

Kelly Kapoor – Basecamp / HEY!

Similar to Michael, outside of her actual job, Kelly’s mission statement is to get attention, however she possibly can.

DHH & Jason Fried are renowned through the tech world for their skill in beef-as-marketing. It’s even a staple of Fried’s book!

Just as Basecamp and HEY! are actually good products, Kelly’s seemingly actually good at her job. Beyond their work though, their real skill lies in being the loudest people in the room.

Jim Halpert – Dominos

Okay, in fairness this one isn’t even a Silicon Valley company, but the parallels were too solid to ignore. Just roll with it.

Jim is a consistently good performer. Everyone he comes into contact with loves him. Can you say any different for pizza?

Both Jim and Dominos rarely make the headlines for huge moves. They’re not much known for their drive for innovation or novel ideas. That said, they maintain solid numbers, deliver on time, and always keep us smiling.

Stanley Hudson – eBay

A top-in-class salesman all around.

Stanley isn’t the youngest or most creative of the salespeople in the office. The younger players run circles around him when it comes to innovation, experimentation, and new-school techniques — and yet, Stanley, just like eBay, has remained a solid player from the start.

He isn’t known for surfing on the latest trend, nor is he seen as the most ambitious of the salespeople, but he stays consistent, a known entity.

With that said, the rare times Stanley or eBay make headlines, they’re about as out of left field as they come. While Stanley’s scandals tend to take the form of his (multiple) affairs, eBay’s take the form of cyberstalking, harassment, and “psychological terrorism”.

They rarely make the news, but when they do…

Phyllis Lapin – Tinder

Right, hear me out on this one.

If there’s any one character in The Office who best personifies an app best known for its naughty reputation, it’s Phyllis.

Just as Tinder is known for being a place to find love in the 21st century, or at very least a place to help spend a night, Phyllis has alluded multiple times to her promiscuous reputation dating as far back as High School.

Phyllis, many years into her relationship with Bob Vance, has a burning passion for him — and had to fight to win him in the first place, waiting “naked in his office”.

She’s also been at least curious about one night stands…

Angela Martin – LinkedIn

Here we reach the opposite end of the spectrum, and I think this one needs little explanation.

Angela, just like LinkedIn, puts status at the core of her self-worth, never referring to her husband in any manner less formal than “The Senator”, and aggrandising her and the (state) senator’s positions when talking to well… pretty much anybody.

The LinkedIn parallels are clear. What initially was supposed to be a job description quickly became an open space to brag and flex when —quite literally— nobody asked.

Angela is a hyper-professional, no-nonsense, serious woman in the workplace. LinkedIn is about as vanilla as social networks get — devoid of any potentially sensitive humor. 

A match made in heaven.

Oscar Martinez – Netflix

Oscar is a wise man. While others fight over the latest heated debate of the day, Oscar remains (almost always) calm and collected.

In the same way, just as the streaming war continues to rage, Netflix can hold its crown high above the heads of its challengers with a deserved air of superiority, watching from the sidelines.

Netflix and Oscar are serious, composed workers. Nonetheless, when it comes to the casual break room chats, their inner drama addict comes out.

For Netflix, this takes the form of their Twitter account, regularly engaging in random discussions that, at first view, seem unexpected from a Fortune 500 media company, but quickly become totally on-brand.

Kevin Malone – Robinhood

Kevin doesn’t much resemble the company itself, but rather its userbase, and the comparisons are clear.

Kevin and the average Robinhood user are huge gamblers.

Constantly confused as to what’s going on is a description fitting our favourite fictional accountant just as much as the average Robinhood user? Kevin thinks he’s playing in the same league as the other office workers. To anyone else, though, he looks to be living in a world of his own.

His tendency to gamble dangerously, not really understanding what’s happening, fits quite perfectly in line with the stereotypical Robinhood user.

Somehow, against all odds, Kevin manages to snatch a big win when you least expect it. Unfortunately, on these rare occasions, he seems to stumble ass-backward into luck more often than purposely setting himself up for a win.

Creed Bratton – Roam Research

Nobody is entirely quite sure what Creed… is?

The guy has 100% been in a cult — in fact, we’re not certain he wasn’t the leader of it.

Creed seems ready at any moment to lead a strange Creed-style revolution. @Conaw too is growing his cult with each passing day — though seemingly with less criminal undertones.

Meredith Palmer – WeWork

Meredith’s character, to put it bluntly, is a mess.

With questionable morals, a (until recently) seemingly perpetual loop of bad news and worse decisions, Meredith is surprisingly in-line with the WeWork / SoftBank global strategy.

Pam Halpert – Adobe

Pam is an artist at heart.

Similar to Jim and his pizza counterpart, Pam rarely makes groundbreaking news and announcements, but performs consistently well.

She’s ambitious nonetheless. Just as Pam began as a receptionist and worked her way to being a saleswoman, then office administrator, Adobe’s talents have grown from graphics software to being top players in the VR & technical graphics innovation space.

Competitors come and go, but we’ll always have a soft spot for Pam and her creations, just as we do Adobe and its iconic creative cloud.

Andy Bernard – Uber

Andy never quite shook the reputation of being prone to anger outbursts, scandals, and questionable decisions. The former proved enough to send Andy away for a few months on anger management training.

It’s these same anger outbursts that marked the end of Uber CEO, Travis Kalanick’s reign at the helm of the company.

Despite the turbulent ups and downs that have plagued the company, just as they have Andy, both quickly became staples of the community — either to get us around or to entertain.

Toby Flenderson – GoPro

Toby is actually good at his job.

Over the years though, never quite seemed to get the respect or attention he felt he deserved. 

He’s not much known for being a huge innovator, rather staying in his lane, and struggling to break out of it. For GoPro, this took the form of a subscription services revenue model, for Toby, his crime thriller Chad Flenderman novels.

Ryan Howard – Theranos

Ryan was a young, quickly rising star in his sector. Theranos was being hailed as a revolution in healthcare, led by a strong, young leader.

Ryan climbed the ranks quickly within Dunder Mifflin, going from a temp job at the office, to an executive corporate role in New York within a year.

In his words, a “wunderkind”.

Theranos was being talked about as an era-defining breakthrough in blood analysis, with seemingly nowhere to go but up.

Unfortunately, they went kind of… down.

Both were indicted for lying about their innovations and revenue, defrauding investors. Ryan did a stint in jail, and Elizabeth Holmes is facing similar charges.

Honorable mention has to be given to Wirecard on that front!

And finally…

Nellie Bertram – Nikola

Nobody really knows where Nellie came from.

She has no discernable talents, particular management skills, or past results to lean on, and yet this seemed to do little to hinder her progress.

Somehow, her boss decided to take a gamble, and run with her, as she weaselled her way into the role of manager at Dunder Mifflin Scranton.

Similarly, the market decided to take a gamble, and run with Nikola, pretending it’s a company worth even close to its valuation.

This, kids, is what we call “healthy market activity”.

What do you mean a company with… 0 revenue likely isn’t really worth $30B — more than the entire Ford Motor company?

Just as Nellie somehow won the heart and mind of Robert California and got the job, Nikola somehow won the heart and mind (read: disposable income) of the Nasdaq.

Final Thoughts

Let’s bring this all back around to our story of the characters we follow in Silicon Valley.

We watch from the sidelines as each player carves their tale into the Bay Area and world stage history books.

All the major players, the main characters in the Silicon Valley story coexist in a home they all share. Sometimes they’re at each other’s throats, sometimes they win, sometimes they lose. They gang up on each other to form the tech company clique of the week, just as our favorite characters do in Scranton.

Day after day, just as the Dunder Mifflin team shows up to the office, fueled with new stories, new ideas, and new pranks against each other, the players in the tech world, day after day, plot, make moves and surprise us in a quest for growth.

We watch in earnest as our favorite company makes strides forward, and take to Twitter to voice our schadenfreude as others face new hurdles. 

Regardless of who we root for, the characters keep us on the edge of our seat, eagerly awaiting what tomorrow’s episode will bring.

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