As business becomes unreasonable, CEOs are ringleaders and clowns
Do you remember the first time you saw one of those scooters? You know, the ones you rent by the second. The Birds and the Limes, the Jumps and the Spins.
Maybe it was discarded in front of your neighbor’s house, as if a child was returning at any minute. Maybe it was in a pile, forming a tangled sculpture. Maybe in a tree.
Companies scattered them in cities without asking permission, and they came with no rules of the road. BirdGraveyard shows how riders took the No Instruction Manual approach beyond the initial questions — Sidewalk or road? One or two people? Helmets? — to another level — Do they float? Do they burn? What happens when you drop one from a six storey building?
These kind of disturbances, these performances, used to be the preserve of art, questioning how we are living now, and how we may live in the future. These days — when the height of radical artistic performance is eating a banana — it can feel businesses are doing a more provocative job: managing to disturb more people’s reality and encouraging us to think differently.
On November 19th 1971, in a Santa Ana gallery, the artist Chris Burden asked his friend and assistant — Bruce Dunlap — to shoot him from a distance of fifteen feet. The .22 bullet was meant to scratch Burden, but ended up going straight through his arm. Despite the very real blood that spurted from the wound, this was not an act of violence. This was Performance Art.
On November 21st 2019, in a Los Angeles theater, the entrepreneur Elon Musk asked his assistant — okay, design chief, Franz von Holzhausen- to lob a metal ball at the armor plated glass of his new SUV — the CyberTruck — to demonstrate it was bulletproof. The window smashed. Twice.
Neither of these stunts went exactly how their creators planned. Or how their audiences expected.
Burden had to go to hospital, but “Shoot” made him infamous. Fifty years later, it remains his best known work.
And despite headlines screaming “Flop”, “Fail”and “Fiasco”, claiming Musk had lost nearly $1bn as Tesla shares dropped overnight, two days later, Elon was claiming 200,000 pre-orders. With no advertising. Just a “failed” launch.
If you’re not familiar with Performance Art, it’s worth checking out this short (under 5 minutes) documentary to remind yourself how fucking crazy ambitious art can be. Other Burden performances included “spending five days and nights in the fetal position inside a locker, having a spectator push pins into his body, being ‘crucified’ to a Volkswagen Beetle, being kicked down two flights of stairs”.
Against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, Burden’s art was meant to portray the reality of pain to a desensitized audience, and to raise questions of responsibility and participation.
Performance Artists questioned the state of society, the role of art and the relationship between the artist and the audience. There was one main question: how far can an artist go?
A little different to the gilded age of Koons, Hirst and Vicari, where it can sometimes feel that the only question artists care about is: how much can I get paid?
Performance Art peaked in the seventies. These days businesses are taking its place, and in true capitalist fashion are asking both questions: how far can business go? And, how much can we get paid?
Companies have been performing for us for decades: from the Pepsi vs. Coke grudge match, to the annual beauty pageant that is the Super Bowl to a man falling out of a capsule 50,000 ft above Earth so that the world could drink more taurine.
This used to be called branding, or advertising: a fictional layer placed on top of a business to entertain and seduce its audience. We were in on the game. We understood that behind these frivolous performances, there were serious businesses.
Things are more fluid now; performance is not a thin marketing layer, it permeates the business. This is not a gradual migration; it’s a different behavior, a sharp turn.
The business model itself — the way the products are developed, distributed, launched, used, returned, hacked, destroyed — is always in motion, always learning and iterating, as we participate. It’s all performance.
When business is performance art, it takes us all to a more uncertain place, raising questions about the nature and reach of business, while raising the stakes for both businesses and audiences.
All familiar markers are off. All judgement — of objectives, of success, etc — is relative.
Business becomes unreasonable.
Performance art was originally defined as an antithesis to theatre. It implied “a productive disagreement with itself”.
Today it can seem as if the antitheses of today’s performative businesses are some combination of: boardrooms, business plans, profits, revenue, product, customers, growth, adherence to the law….all the serious stuff we thought we needed to be in business.
These logical underpinnings of business are being discarded. Not entirely or consistently, but more patchily, by companies who know better. Every business is wondering: which of these do I need, which of these can I get by without?
As the recent Vanity Fair expose puts it: “WeWork executives had long grown accustomed to Neumann’s belief that the laws of economics — even reality itself — didn’t apply to him. It was in the nature of unicorns that they bent reality, and that certainly had been true of WeWork.”
It’s not always easy to tell the rare Unicorns from the illusory ones. Ideas that seem bizarre or impossible succeed and are suddenly part of the everyday. Going from the fantastical to the familiar in the time it used to take to draw up a business plan for the board.
We have lived through two decades of disruption. We are used to outlandish ideas becoming billion dollar businesses that make the things we love and change the way we live. We expect flamboyant CEOs to describe the exciting futures they are building for us, while laughing at Luddite critics.
We expect every industry to be overturned by a brilliant upstart.
They said it couldn’t be done is the triumphant conclusion to many an entrepreneur’s founding story.
We are all part of the performance.
Using candy colored computers instead of beige boxes.
Smoking a pen not a cigarette.
Smoking cannabis (legally) from a more expensive pen.
Sitting in the back of a stranger’s car rather than taking a cab.
Sleeping in a stranger’s bed in a foreign country.
Letting a stranger walk your dog.
Folding a phone like a sheet of paper.
Drinking all of your meals.
Juicing packets of diced fruit.
Wearing glasses that record every second of your life.
Wearing a stranger’s designer dress. Once. Then sending it off so another stranger can wear it.
Taking pictures of yourself in the bathroom and letting millions of people watch.
Watching a whole series in a night. #bingeing.
Swiping, ghosting, vaping, fasting, benching, fizzling, optimizing.
Giving one drop of blood rather than several test-tubes.
Finding the love of your life by moving your fingers an inch to the right.
Speaking to a woman whose face you have never seen but who knows you more intimately than your partner/parents/friends. Telling her everything.
R&D has moved from the lab to the streets, with the pop-up store as theater: selling mattresses, matcha, weed, water bottles and all versions of wellness. But only for an instance: they have learnt the lessons of Macy’s, Barney’s and Forever21. They’ve watched Supreme. They don’t expect to be around for any longer than it takes to materialize an Internet brand.
There are often cryptic releases. Mysterious products appear. Unfamiliar services. New subscriptions.
It’s up to us to work out how to use them. There are no instruction manuals. TL;DR. We don’t always know what we’re getting into.
We are all part of the experiment.
This is exhilarating. Figuring products out together, tweeting suggestions direct to a young CEO. Joining in. Adopting early. Being part of the experience.
Performance Art keeps its audiences on their toes. You never know what to expect or when the fuzzy barrier between artist and audience is going to dissolve completely. Which is half the fun.
As Performance Art merged artist and audience, so performative business aims to bring its audiences — its communities — as close as it can. Brian Chesky often referred to Airbnb as one company, or community, made up of employees, hosts and guests. A smart move when your business owns few assets, and relies on the generosity and mutual respect of its community. Airbnb also encouraged its community to perform for each other.
At their annual Airbnb One conference, Super Hosts — the best performers — come together for an enthusiastic few days of sharing stories and tips with each other, and sharing suggestions with Airbnb. Their mission is to make each guests feel that their trip is unique and personal. Two million different homes and rooms offering discovery with an undercurrent of uncertainty; feedback welcome.
Tesla drivers share predictions as they await the next upgrade to their car’s performance. Oscillating between the useful — Sentry Mode — and the playful — Caroake — the stream of features keeps the car feeling fresh, and the driver feeling like they’re part of the dev team. And, like any good host, Musk takes requests.
While Steve Jobs set the bar for the CEO as ringmaster with his signature “one more thing”, the Mac Air magicked from an envelope, the products that seemed to defy logic, Musk commands the biggest stage today, and the tailcoat fits him well.
Shooting a Tesla-driving astronaut into space feels like the kind of stunt Chris Burden might have tried, if he could have afforded to, and they let him drive. This feels like pure performance, no business.
But this was Elon’s ultimate launch and, this time, a flawless product demo: a performance about performance, demonstrating the power of the Falcon Heavy, and ensuring that the Roadster will be the solar system’s fastest car for some time, as well as the best traveled. No range anxiety here.
Once again, we were part of the act. When someone suggested he pack a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Elon went one better: “Plus a towel and a sign saying “Don’t Panic”. The most expensive nerd joke in history.
Back in the seventies, we called these Happenings. Now we call them Events or Experiences. We have whole businesses built around providing them. Each one more outlandish, more unreasonable, more memorable than the last.
This is also terrifying.
It can feel like we’ve been brought in way too early, before important things have been figured out. We know that business moves faster than legislation, so we’re used to companies trying stuff out before asking. Test and learn. Always in beta. Move fast and break things.
This is a time when a semi-credible hypotheses is all you need to get to some funding and an MVP. Nobody’s got time for rehearsals or research. Why bother when the world’s out there, happy to get involved and give you immediate feedback?
That’s how you get to a company like Juul, replacing the stink and smoke of cigarettes with a silent pen, giving off the vibe of some futuristic health device.
The initial intention was to give adults a healthier way to smoke so they could smoke less.
Instead they invented a way that people could smoke inside again…all of the time. Replacing the cigarette break with the continual vape.
What happened to years of rigorous study to see whether vaping helped smokers smoke less? Or to researching the effects of breathing oil before letting everyone have at it?
What happened to considering the unintended consequences, like the fact that e-cigarettes are an easier first step for non-smokers, as demonstrated by the fact that a quarter of high school students claim to vape, a number that’s doubled in the last two years, offsetting the declines we’ve seen in tobacco smoking over the last decades?
Rather than a pain-free way to kick the habit, Juul seems to have discovered a more efficient way of introducing nicotine to the maximum number of people.
The Theranos documentary, The Inventor, stopped being just another tale of Silicon Valley hubris and misjudgment right around the time you realize that the fake equipment was experimenting with real people’s real blood and giving them false results to keep their story alive.
It’s not just the users who get burnt by these experiments. We Work’s recent performances have been well documented, from the barefoot stroll around Manhattan to the fashion shoot of an IPO submission to the rumors of enforced tequila shots, and hotboxing private planes. An essential audience for these performances was the employees, to maintain the low salaries they balanced with their dreams of future millions.
Apple, Airbnb and Tesla show how it can be done. What it can look like when there is no gap between product, brand and community. When a founder has a coherent and intentional narrative, supported by products and experiences that perform and capture people’s imagination.
So when companies like Theranos, Juul and WeWork show up, with their troubled performances, we are conditioned to believe in them. But these performances don’t demonstrate, they distract us. From the lack of an actual product, or from a realistic plan for growth, or from having any idea about, or interest in, the impact your company’s inventions are going to have on people.
It doesn’t take much for the ringleader to become the clown, or the magician the daredevil. For a performance to become a stunt.
With Shoot, Burden put himself in jeopardy. While Neumann or Bowen may suffer the humiliation of a few negative articles, the real pain is elsewhere. With these business experiments it’s the customers or even the employees who suffer from unexpected consequences.
We love performances; but when we are invited to take part we should expect a level of responsibility and care from the performers. We know things won’t always be perfect, but when there are glitches, we expect the performances to be fixed. We expect the show to go on and to get better.
A performance without accountability is anarchy not art.