Not long ago, I had a dream job of leading product at a little company called Code School. They were a smart bunch I hardly had the right to hang with, constantly impressing me with both talent and wit. By the time I started, the company had already been acquired by Pluralsight, a leading on-demand professional skills trainer. While on-boarding, I was told to “Be careful about joining companies after they’ve been acquired" by the CEO himself, Gregg Pollack, in his Founder’s Talk . “Sometimes there are layoffs, sometimes they make people move, sometimes the thought leadership leaves the company…” Gregg cites these as gotchas that may, and in the end actually did, happen to us. But at the time, I found this tip to be playfully ironic. In retrospect, however, it feels more fitting and foreshadow-y of futures told.
Foreboding aside, I was too thrilled at my new digs to be swayed. Not to mention, I knew full well that that’s what happens with most digital products. So long as there’s bigger fish that benefit from consuming smaller fish and no laws preventing the feeding frenzy, there will always be acquisitions. As for Gregg’s warning, I just knew to look out for those as symptoms of the merge that I presumed was already happening. Sure, we were all promised at Code School that a complete overtake was not the plan, but I assumed, at some higher pay grade than the worker bees, those conversations had to have at least been started. Mind you, this has nothing to do with Code Schools failure to exist as a small company or Pluralsight’s evil tyranny to dominate the 6 other start-ups they also acquired. It’s more systemic, coming from the bigger technology ecosystem and the laws that don’t exist to control them. It’s so common most start-ups aren’t even funded without a proper “exit strategy”. Plus, once you’ve gone full IPO, your stockholders aren’t looking for stability as much as they want growth. In other words, if your digital product has already hit it’s stride, can’t grow anymore or fast enough (AKA not line your investor’s pockets), the only thing left to do is to absorb your digestible competition.
Let’s back up a minute and talk about that bigger technological ecosystem that, I swear, I’m not just making up. If Facebook’s recent $119 billion drop in market value is any indication, this is not a sustainable ecosystem. The drop was blamed in large part to market saturation. Think about that. Basically, once every possible user in the world had a facebook account, investors bailed because there were literally no more users left! As Forbes states, “Wall Street demands a very different type of result — growth and profits at any cost — which forced not only Facebook’s hands, but other social media platform’s as well.” So now that Facebook has successfully hit this impossibly high metric, we are witnessing, according to CNN, the “worst-ever stock drop in market history”.
And this has been going on for decades. Whether it be advising founders on how to craft the perfect exit strategy to entice investors, or navigating exit routes in Private Equity Transactions (IPOs), this is a huge and lucrative topic. Jaime Novoa put it perfectly in his article that said,
“The main exit strategy for start-ups is to sell the company to a bigger one for a profit. The same goes for investors.”
Aside from the highly volatile buy-out nature of this, there’s also the more economical ramifications to consider. Douglas Rushkoff wrote a great book called Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus that dives deep into how technology is affecting the cities it breeds in. Incase you’re wondering, yes, people do actually throw rocks at Google Buses. At the rate and pay-scale the Googles and Facebooks need to hire in the tech cities like Seattle and Silicon Valley, it’s leaving the locals priced right out of their homes and the rest of the country with a bit of a brain-drain problem. This leads to gentrification at best and at worst, well, Donald Trump and people throwing rocks at Google buses.
This happened to a small degree with my friends at Code School, as well as Orlando as a whole. Though I had already left the company of my own volition prior, the Orlando office was eventually shut down leaving anyone left to work remote, or move to Pluralsight’s Utah office. In the same vain, a lot of the great minds of technology Orlando had to offer had already accepted jobs in other more fruitful digital lands like Dallas and Seattle. I can only hope they aren’t on the buses that rocks are being hurdled at.
You may suspect technology’s influence is even deeper, and you may be right. In Jaron Lanier’s book, Who Owns The Future, he (rather dryly) takes another step even further back to how the technology revolution isn’t sustainable. Today products derive value from you the consumer. When a market’s value isn’t compensated for (when was the last time Google sent you a check for all the ads you had to watch), it just isn’t sustainable. I ultimately decided that’s beyond the scope of this article, but definitely worth the read if you like getting all worked up about doomsday.
I Wish Heart Still Mattered
As the lead in all research efforts, I can tell you Code School’s conception wasn’t out of massive amounts of data collection and market research. It authentically grew from Gregg Pollack’s passion of both coding languages and theatre. We’re sad to lose companies like Code Schools not just because we lose our accounts and progress, but the loss of that rare human element embedded into technology. I mean, the human element was so real at Code School, I could take care of user compensation just by bribing them with a Carlos Souza meet and greet! Do you know any Facebook developers that loved by their users?
As a person who has had the honor to say I had any part in the design of a product like Code School, it pains me more than most to see her fade out into the technological horizon. I could think of better outcomes and even tried pushing some whilst on the team, but alas: it’s the way of the current digital jungle. So this is just a reminder to us, as the users, to mind the nature of our favorite app’s lifespans. Maybe it’s time to push for more regulation in this Wild West before this town’s only big enough for FAANG (Facebook Apple Amazon Netflix Google).
And now, a prayer for our latest dearly departed digital brethren:
Dearest Code School,
We are saddened the world may never see what wondrous things you could’ve bestowed upon us had it not been for your tragic fate. You’ve changed so many of our lives and sung a great many code theme songs. Though many questioned the accreditation of your badges, we will all wear them proudly, forever in our hearts and cyberspace. Despite the heartache we are left with now, we wouldn’t change one line of code we submitted… except the ones you so lovingly corrected to make us better developers. You were always ready with a fun theme for the latest languages, crafted and illustrated with the highest attention to detail. We’ll even miss “Soup to Bits”… though, no one ever understood it’s title or even watched it, we know it was just another way to show how much you cared about us. We are sending you off now in the same fit of glory you made us feel upon completing another chapter of your courses. Pluralsight is lucky to have consumed such a passionate company. We are now left to listen for beats of through Pluralsight as Code School will surely become the heart of it’s product.