Are All Disruptor Execs Dirt Bags?

A few months back, I found out I’m probably going to hell. Well, I probably am anyway, but hear me out. With my love of smart digital brands, I have long been an enthusiastic fan of Rev, the online transcription service that miraculously turned my tedious interviews into perfect transcripts for just $1 a minute. Even better, the company says its mission -- right there on its “About” page -- is “to create great work from home jobs, powered by AI.”

I wasn’t lazy, I was helping my fellow freelancers! As journalism jobs keep vanishing, I pictured Rev folks diligently doing my grunt work, maybe between their own writing assignments or after putting their kids to bed.

So when a social-media storm hit my newsfeeds in November, I was mortified to learn how wrong I was. Rev had slashed its rates to these freelancers by a third, making those “great jobs” closer to slave labor.

I’m naïve to be shocked, I know, given all the abuses we’ve read about in the gig economy. But this felt different and deeply personal. Freelance journalists are my people, and I was hurting them.

Still shamefacedly using Rev’s automated transcription, which I rationalize isn’t hurting my human comrades even if it puts pennies in the pockets of an exploitative employer, I cringed when I read The Verge’s expose of Away.

Turns out the widely praised suitcase company has turned Slack into an implement of torture, enabling cruel bullying and dishonest practices. Within days, Away announced that CEO Steph Korey, the Cruella De Vil of rolly bags, was stepping back to a more behind-the-scenes role. (Alas, she’ll likely still have access to her preferred method of humiliation.)

Of course, the specter of Adam Neumann is still floating about the entire category: the ex-CEO of WeWork who got a $1.7 billion  payday for creating a company that burned through investor cash almost as fast as it terrorized various employees.  It operates with a management team that reportedly celebrates wide-scale layoffs with tequila shots and rap concerts. (Since we’re talking about WeWork, can we also give kudos to The Wall Street Journal for calling that company a “$20 billion startup fueled by Silicon Valley pixie dust” way back in 2017?)

And in case anyone had forgotten about him, disgraced Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick jumped back in the headlines this week, announcing that he would leave its board and sever all ties with the company.

That company’s treatment of its employees was so troubling it inspired California to pass AB5, a law to protect employees from its abusive practices. And the legislation is spreading to other states.

It’s enough to make a D2C reporter wonder: Are all disruptors dirtbags?

Of course, I don’t believe that. Among the tens of thousands of new companies -- and despite the relentless bad press about the frat-boy mentality that surrounds startups -- I’m willing to wager that most are more-or-less average employers. Some are likely even downright exceptional.

But D2C brands must start paying closer attention to their image as employers. As the revolt of the gig worker continues, more startup geniuses are unmasked as lousy human beings  -- and positive employee experience emerges as a powerful recruiting tool. Being better bosses matters.

That means more transparency. Balancing workforce welfare against the crusade for cash. And it means rooting out the corporate bullies before Verge has to write an expose.

So in this -- our last column of the decade -- let’s toast the D2C brands that strive to be more than mere disruptors, but actual good corporate citizens.

And to the rest? You don’t have to strive for sainthood. Just stop being assholes.

1 comment about "Are All Disruptor Execs Dirt Bags?".
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  1. pj bednarski from Media business freelancer, December 31, 2019 at 10:58 a.m.

    There's something telling about these times that we celebrate "disruptors" where once we celebrated "creators." 
    A really great commentary with the best walk-off line of the year, for sure. 

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