In which someone dares you (but who?)

Rob Reid
Rob Reid
Jul 10, 2017 · 25 min read

“After On:” Excerpt 1 of 12

Some people think all great books should start with a dare. And those folks can’t be big readers — because really, when was the last time you read a book that began with a dare? Well, this one does. And that’s not some ham-fisted gambit to position it as “great” because we just established that only half literates conflate opening dares with greatness. So it’s, truly, just a simple dare. And it’s this: I dare you to finish the fucker.

And let’s be real — you probably won’t. It’s 547 pages printed, after all. Which is to say, any number of “locations,” “sections,” or “litnodes” on your eReader. And its obnoxious length is nothing compared to the disquieting truths it reveals about a popular social/messaging/hookup platform that humanity already spends 11.2 percent of its online time engaged with. About who really built all that, and why. About who’s listening, and what they’re recording. And (here’s the part that may smart a bit) how terribly uninteresting they almost certainly find you. There’s also some truly scary stuff you just don’t need to know. About the February bombing in San Francisco. About how it actually saved lives (lots of them — and quite possibly, your own). And about how moronically close we came to nuclear war with China on a recent winter’s day (spoiler alert: not my fault).

You don’t have to know any of this. And ignoring the hidden ugliness we can’t do much about makes life easier. So if you tend to avoid facts like the age of the kid who stitched your favorite blazer just outside of Phnom Penh; or how athletically a certain ex once cheated on you; or how painful and scary the last few days of most human lives are; then for God’s sake: Put. The book. Down. Then do yourself a big favor and catch a movie. A numbered sequel, say starring cartoon-men invented to distract tots during the Roosevelt era. You’ll find that plenty challenging, and much more fun. It’ll also be over sooner, leaving you free for more numbered sequels, or maybe some lite sci fi written for the bright teens and dim grown-ups we euphemistically call “Young Adults.”

Are you still there?

If so, sorry if that sounded a bit mean. But we’re better off without whoever just stomped off. Those people offend easily and are always whining about how they feel “unsafe,” or undercherished if their every clumsy kick, catch, and volley isn’t commemorated with trophies. I can’t stand those people. I’ll bet you can’t stand them either. So getting rid of them was worth feigning contempt for some of my own favorite things (pssst: two of the best movies, ever, in my view are Iron Man 1 and 2. Also: I read “Y.A.” stuff constantly. I’ll bet you didn’t know that).

Now that it’s just us, I applaud you for at least attempting to see this thing through. Even you probably won’t get there (those 547 pages, again). But if you do, I can make you three promises. One: I will never talk down to you. Yes, certain facts herein are hard to confront and accept. Certain others are plenty hard to understand. But I think you’re man enough, woman enough, or young adult enough to handle it all. So. No sugarcoating, and no dumbing down. Two: I’ll never lie to you. Everything that follows — however fantastical and hard to believe — is entirely true and precisely depicts the underpinnings of the world you inhabit. And finally: at the very, very end of all this, you will find a glittering prize. Books that end with glittering prizes are even rarer than those that start with dares, so lucky you. But please. No peeksies.

With that, I’m almost done with you. And that may be welcome news! My tone can grate a bit, I know. It’s probably just a phase I’m going through. But I’ll give you your space now. That said, I will check in every so often. Sometimes when you least expect it, as the hit men say. And, of course, I’ll be back at the end, with that glittering prize of yours (and you thought I’d already forgotten).

But for now, let’s begin our story with some quick opening praise for the women and men of Silicon Valley. Yes, yes; I know — “but those fuckers gave us FarmVille!” It’s true. And everyone’s awfully sorry about that. But at its best, the Valley remains an inspiring land, almost bewitchingly so. I mean, where else can a handful of misfits meet up in a garage, share mad bolts of inspiration, then mainline Red Bull, sleep under desks, and code on bleeding fingers until they hack together an agenda-setting product that will rock the world? And then register their millionth user in just weeks? Their ten millionth in mere months? And forge friendships and talents that will last a lifetime — all while getting vastly, shamelessly, pornographically rich?

The answer, of course, is Austin, Seattle, Beijing, London, Oslo, Bangalore, Seoul, Nairobi, Dubai, Buenos Aires, and quite possibly Perth, Australia, among countless other places. But this sort of thing happens on a grander scale in Silicon Valley than anywhere else. And the cliché is dead accurate: we’re designing the future here. We also designed the present, and you’re much better off for that. Snort at this if you must. But do you really want to go back to six broadcast channels, CB radios, typewriters, dominoes and checkers, rotary phones, and thermostats that don’t even speak a single word of English? Didn’t think so.

So, yes. Silicon Valley did give us FarmVille. But across the decades, its countless startups have also rebuilt our world’s foundations. Some relentlessly advanced the microprocessor, enabling the digital wonders of our era. Others honed DNA sequencing, which cracked the human genome and will one day help to cure cancer. Still others pioneered wireless technologies that are finally patching the world’s poorest sectors into a global superplex of information. Literally thousands of Silicon Valley startups in these and countless fields have advanced humanity in palpable ways. And no matter how you cut it — however imaginatively, generously, even schizophrenically you look at things — Giftish.ly was never, ever one of them. Nope! Not even close.

Giftish.ly was an unremembered startup in the wholly forgotten realm of “social gifting.” Even the most obsessive tech historian would struggle to name the year when this concept briefly infatuated a luckless handful of able but misguided entrepreneurs. “Twenty-something-teen” is close enough. So what is social gifting? Or rather, what was (or, really, what wasn’t) it? Well, its boosters reckoned that billions of people neurally lashed to their Facebook newsfeeds would eventually develop an uncontrollable urge to buy shit for each other. Having done so, they’d want to brag about their purchases. The joyous recipients would want to brag right along with them, and a social gifting service would enable all of this. Imagine an inbox clogged with posts like “SAMANTHA just bought GEOFFREY a Giftish.ly Certificate for a MOCHACHINO!” and you’ve glimpsed the daring vision. Only time will tell if social gifting’s pioneers were dead wrong about everything, or merely (and this is a huuuuuuuge badge of honor for Valley also-rans) too early.

Mitchell Prentice is considering this question as he anxiously awaits a response from the squawk box of the blank door at 501 Jones Street. Though he scrupulously keeps the opinion to himself, he now believes the prognosis is grim across the board. Almost as grim as his immediate surroundings — which is saying something. This may not be the city’s single most crime-ridden corner. But it’s a contender. And with every passing month, this whole putrid neighborhood sticks out ever more in the striving hive of hyperachievement that is San Francisco. Just blocks away, tech outfits have been drawing gaggles of six-figure youngsters ever since Twitter first colonized Market Street’s fringes (later followed by Uber, Thumbtack, and countless others). Yet here at O’Farrell and Jones, drunks sleep it off on piss-stained sidewalks, migrants mortgage wee paychecks at bulletproof windows, and gruff panhandlers ply their trade with menace. And then you have Mitchell. Mitchell Prentice.

Ring, ring, ring squawks the box.

“Answer the door,” Mitchell urges, eyeing a sullen clutch of hooded faces midway up the block. A shadowed figure mutters something to the others, triggering laughter. Deep, sinister, and . . . mocking? He feels spooked and kind of shamed, and just then, a cop siren kicks in. Though a half block away, it sounds like an air horn in his inner ear. And this makes the perfect trifecta: frustration, embarrassment, plus a sensory jolt. So in an instant, Mitchell’s face numbs, and his fingers start to tingle. The timing couldn’t suck more. But on blocks this blighted, Murphy’s Law applies as strongly as that of, say, gravity.

The neighborhood is called the Tenderloin — a word that once evoked rare nights at a cozy steak restaurant for Mitchell. These days it makes him think of a gory sore, raw and pus-filled, marking an otherwise hale civic body. Primal collisions of unlimited dollars with scant real estate are physically contorting every other neighborhood (here, a fifty-story co-op erupts from the earth; there, thickets of cranes sprout in a once-vacant lot). But the Tenderloin defies all gentrification. It’s like a superbug that stubbornly evolved in a hypersanitized ward until it could whup any antibiotic. Or maybe it’s more like a . . . native reservation? Yes, Mitchell could imagine the city council’s Maoists creating such a thing. The Tenderloin’s folkways and customs shall be preserved, they’d decree, so as to enlighten the spawn of the liberal elite on field trips — as when his own grade school visited Colonial Williamsburg.

The squawk box continues to ring. And the hoods, to chortle. More menacing, more mocking! Frustration and shame spike, and the tingling spreads to Mitchell’s neck, chest, and forearms. And then, to his mouth. He doesn’t need this. Not now, and certainly not here! Ten more seconds, and his tongue will be buzzing, humming with the tingle — impairing speech until he talks like a cartoon dullard; then good luck getting past this door. The menacing, mocking knot is now drifting his way (or is it?) and the tingling rockets to his legs. Great. Maybe they’ll fold again, then sprawl him in the doorway like some spat-out Tenderloin junkie!

And so, The Blur begins. This is Mitchell’s term — you won’t find it in the clinical literature. His best analogy is a symphony’s preconcert din, when everyone’s tuning instruments at once (a sound he knows strictly from public TV). Everything in his purview chimes in simultaneously — every photon, scent, sound wave, and nerve ending. Each element is crystal clear. But as it’s all concurrent, the whole is diffuse behind comprehension. A few more seconds of Blur, and he’ll pass out, collapse into carrion for the chortling hoods. He strains against this, rallying the stray wisps of attention he can muster toward the squawk box.

Ring, ring, ring! then finally, “Password?”

“Knickerbocker.” Mitchell over-enunciates methodically, and a miraculous combination of his careful diction and the pre-war intercom’s crap AM-radio acoustics makes him sound normal (or at least acceptable) on the far side, and he’s buzzed in.

Special Field Operative Brock Hogan hated having to drag that tightly muscled, six-foot-three-inch frame of his across countless time zones back to headquarters. Yet he always came when summoned. Not because any Langley pencil pusher had the first thing to teach him about spycraft, close-in combat, geopolitics . . . nor indeed, ABOUT PUSHING PENCILS!Wasn’t it he, after all, who had covertly kiboshed the blood-spattered career of a certain rabble-rousing mullah by pressing a graphite No.2 stylus right into his Carotid Artery mere moments before he was to incite a region-wide conflagration by broadcasting a scripture-twisting fatwa from that notorious jihadi radio station deep in darkest Iran? Unarmed and stark naked after escaping sadistic interrogation in a nearby Terrorist Bunker, Agent Hogan had coolly canvassed the benign offerings of an office-supply closet for repurposable matériel, then wordlessly waylaid his unexpectant foe in an empty hallway en route to the control room. “Mightier than the sword after all, wouldn’t you say?” he uttered ironically as he withdrew the dripping shaft from the fallen fedayeen, who could respond only by moaning and writhing through the climax of his death throes!So, no: not even the most decorated Langley bureaucrat could ever dream of “pushing a pencil” with half his aplomb! Yet Agent Hogan dutifully returned to HQ whenever summoned by those cringing desk jockeys because he was, above all, a loyal warrior; and loyal warriors respect the chain of command; however contemptible and backstabbing certain so-called “superiors” might be.As usual, a veritable grand powwow was convened to debrief him! And so every leather-bound swivel chair in the agency’s largest conference room was hoisting some panjandrum’s posterior when Hogan arrived several dozen minutes late, as was his devil-may-care habit. His piercing, blue, wide-set eyes took instant mental inventory of those present, lingering perhaps an extra picosecond on the fecund curves of a certain Chinese-featured female assassin with whom he enjoyed occasional Sexual Congress; then perhaps twice that duration upon one most-unexpected attendee.“Dr. Phillips,” he intoned, his left brow arched with a muted irony, which divulged that; beneath its playful, almost mocking surface; he in fact held a deep (if not ungrudging) well of respect for the portly, gray-headed, and wizened brown-eyed gentleman whom he addressed. “This is . . . most unexpected!”

The door buzzes, admitting Mitchell into a hushed yet bustling sanctuary. Its dirty, blank, street-side exterior honors the local quarter’s historic scuzziness — but inside, Bourbon & Branch is a sleek jewel box.

“You’re Mr. Prentice,” the drinks-list-clutching hostess states. She knows this from his password. Each guest has a unique one (most with a Prohibition-era echo), which keeps the reservations straight and the neighborhood junkies out.

Mitchell nods. The tingling is fading quickly. But it’s still present, and he doesn’t (quite) trust himself to talk properly.

“You’re the second to arrive,” she says. “Walk this way.”

She leads him down narrow aisles, past swank ranks of sophisticated drinkers. The aesthetic is Capone-era speakeasy with faint Old West hints. The single malt, bourbon, and tequila lists are encyclopedic here, and it’s rumored that ordering a vodka drink will get you drop-kicked to Jones Street. “Hey, boss,” Danna says as the hostess seats him at their plank of a table. It’s set within a steakhouse-like booth that’s much contracted to accommodate tumblers rather than platters. This puts patrons shoulder to shoulder and knee to knee — but without quite realizing it, as those booth-y visual cues signal spacious seating. Congeniality and conspiratoriality are thereby subtly abetted, along with any number of unintended hookups. “I got you the yoozh,” Danna adds, handing him a chilled Imperial Eagle (an ancient bourbon, plus magical ingredients including Averna, ginger syrup, and egg white). They clink glasses.

Danna’s a Giftish.ly old-timer. Mitchell recruited her as a barely paid intern right out of Berkeley through the sheerest and dumbest of luck. She quickly blossomed as a designer and a leader, and now has enough internal credibility to qualify as a de facto co-founder of the company. She’s become one of precisely two reasons why Giftish.ly matters at all (the other being Mitchell’s actual co-founder), and the third person in the room for all important conversations. Like tonight’s. After a quick sip, she adds, “Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but can the company really afford this?” She again raises her glass (WhistlePig on a big-ass cube, he knows without asking).

Mitchell shakes his head. “Not to worry; tonight’s on me.” Not that he’s any more flush than Giftish.ly. He stopped paying his own a salary a month back (and also stopped servicing his six-figure medical debt). But Danna doesn’t know this. Not even his co-founder knows, and they go clear back to high school. Because as CEO, it’s his job to sacrifice. The general eats last or something, right? “Besides,” he adds, ambushing her with an upbeat note. “We have something to celebrate. Ten thousand Likes, right?” Danna just posted mock-ups of Giftish.ly’s mobile redesign to Dribbble.com, a peer-review site where designers critique each other’s work with ruthless candor. There’s no grade inflation on Dribbble, and her new user interface has been received rapturously.

“Onyx’s redesign got twelve thousand Likes last quarter,” she sniffs, citing another startup’s Dribbble posting.

Mitchell smiles despite his grimness. The girl just can’t take a compliment! Not even from him, despite how comfortable she’s come to feel around him, and his co-founder, too. She’ll smile, joke, and even be playful when it’s just the two or the three of them. Otherwise, she’s cool and aloof at work, while exuding an otherworldly competence. Unless something pisses her off, then look out. Seeing he’ll have to sell her a bit harder on her own Dribbble triumph, he notes, “But it took them three months to rack that up. You got to ten thousand Likes in just days.”

Danna shrugs indifferently. But she can’t keep a glimmer of pride from her face — a truly illuminating one, in that any hint of animation makes her stunning. She can pass under the radar when she stays scrupulously neutral (as she almost always does). This is surely why she’s always so nonplussed at work: it cuts down on unwanted gazes in the tech world’s boy-choked corridors. She’s also forever hoodied, her ebony Bettie Page bangs and dark, solemn eyes under wraps. All this stems from a certain deep-seated paranoia. She calls this her “Achilles bicep,” as it’s both a strength and a vulnerability (yes, it keeps her out of trouble, but it can also drive her to be more isolated than she should be).

Just then, Mitchell’s phone hums a staccato pattern that feels like a complex secret handshake. This signals a money-saving opportunity, and he’s broke, so he checks it despite himself. On the screen, a photorealistic five-dollar bill dissolves to a swank Bond-like avatar in a tuxedo. “For her next round, give her a Deep one,” the ad urges in a lurid red font beside a sparkling Deep Rye logo. Below, a bar chart brags that Deep Rye contains 30 percent more alcohol than WhistlePig — the booze in Danna’s hand at this very instant. A caption reads, “More BANG for the Buck!” And in case anyone could possibly fail to catch the drift here, a naked hussy’s silhouette sprawls beneath this.

“Ewww!” he says, flipping the screen to Danna.

Examining it, she rolls her eyes. “Works every time. A slug of Deep Rye, and I’m countin’ ceiling tiles.”

“Their tag line should be ‘Roofie in a Bottle.’ ”

“What’s the offer?”

“Five bucks off.”

“Take it!” she commands, only half-playful.

“And support this mindset?”

“Austerity, remember? We’re broke!”

Mitchell puts the phone back in his pocket, shaking his head. “I can’t believe Bourbon & Branch would work with them.” Them being Phluttr — makers of the sketchy app that just hijacked their conversation. Ostensibly a social network, Phluttr peppers its users with coupons, recommendations, breaking news, handy info, and jaw-dropping bits of hyperlocal gossip, all of it surgically targeted to the user’s interests, location, and/or state of mind.

“These guys?” As she gestures at the snug bar, Danna’s face lights up with a pained, you-dumb-shit look. And just like that, she’s again gorgeous. “No way would Bourbon & Branch work with Phluttr. It would ruin their name.”

“Then how does Phluttr . . . do that?”

“One of their engineers actually posted a teardown of their coupon-targeting process on Medium awhile back. Anonymously, of course. And the company got it snuffed within an hour. But it’s cached on a bunch of hacker sites. Anyway, start with the fact that Phluttr knows we know each other.”

“Of course.” Exactly how Phluttr knows this is a matter of widespread speculation, but Phluttr is fully aware of who everyone knows.

“Next, your GPS tells it where you are, and that you got here a few minutes after me. We’re closely connected. So it figures, we’re meeting each other. Your accelerometer tells it you sat down, so now it figures you’re about to order a drink. Phluttr’s working with Deep Rye, so they know it’s stocked here. It probably knows I’m drinking WhistlePig because I mentioned it in an @reply to a friend on Twitter right after I ordered. And knowing that neither of us are in relationships, its dirty little mind thought ‘hookup’ — because no one’s perfect, not even Phluttr.”



“And since the Deep Rye people are running a couponing campaign . . .”

Danna nods. “Ta-da! Five bucks off. If you’re sober enough to send them a photo of the tab at the end of the night to prove you took them up on their generous offer. And so, Deep Rye starts moving lotsa booze.”

“And Phluttr’s running hundreds of other campaigns just like this right now, making a pile on each.”

“You got it. Which is why they were just valued at — what?” Danna instinctively pulls up her phone to dig for the news.

“Four point two billion dollars,” Mitchell says, saving her the trouble. Word about this broke a few days back, and everyone’s buzzing about it. With fewer than a thousand employees, Phluttr is growing twice as fast as Facebook did at this stage of its history and ringing up huge revenue. Any investor who missed out on the last few monster startups is panicked at the thought of looking stupid again. So although the NASDAQ’s been mighty queasy lately, Phluttr’s financing was a food fight of a bidding war.

And no one can shut the damned thing off! When Phluttr first launched, its little interruptions were so irrelevant, people installed the app just to chuckle at them, and #TryAgainPhluttr was a hot hashtag. Later, it felt more like a fortune cookie: still very random, but at times weirdly topical, in fun, coincidental ways. These days, Phluttr’s accuracy makes Mitchell’s skin crawl daily. But those deals and coupons save him a bundle. And the app wakes up and barks “Slow down!” whenever the car he’s in approaches a speed trap. And it’ll remind him of the names of any half-forgotten classmates entering the room. It’s just so handy! But then, there’s the dark side. When those randoms arrive, Phluttr might also say, “Ahem: I’m pretty sure these two are screwing.” Or distract you with dumb videos when you should be working. Or coupon you for Dove Bars at your weakest moment. Then you hate yourself a little, and Phluttr quite a lot. But good luck turning it off.

Phluttr’s other massive draw is “pseudonymity mode.” The company maintains that people are most authentic with their five closest friends — and, with perfect strangers. The draw of strangers has forever fueled vast anonymous forums online. But anonymity also breeds awful behavior, one-off interactions rather than budding relationships, and endless lying about traits and backgrounds. So who really knows if you’re communing with a caring priest, a fellow AIDS sufferer, or a medical expert? Or an actual acquaintance of Person X? An employee of Company Y? Or a fellow closeted gay person of an age, weight, and social background that attracts you? Well, Phluttr knows. And Phluttr can attest that this is a real, well-regarded person who authentically shares your affliction, secret, or curiosity, without exposing actual identities (unless both sides request it). Wrap this up in NSA-grade encryption, and there’s no better place to buy sketchy substances, seek sketchy advice, cheat on lovers, or cathartically confess to the above. Phluttr has now cornered the market in id fulfillment, rumor spreading, and confidential gut spilling — and it’s just getting started!

Mitchell soon gets Danna talking about her redesign. He needs to rally her optimism, and this is the surest way. He’s also selfishly eager to discuss her work, as it’s simply brilliant! He finds her new interface ingeniously, even adamantly intuitive, all but grabbing his fingers and planting them on the pixels that will draw him to the precise feature that’s most relevant to him, even as other features cry out just as keenly to other users. It does this slyly and playfully. Buttons glint and bulge, and are made almost tactile by the bass-heavy thunks and teeny vibrations that re when they’re touched. Danna would win awards for this work if anyone actually used their service.

But, of course, they don’t. This is Giftish.ly, remember?

She’s starting to discuss color palettes when something strange happens. Well — two things, really. The first is that a dude in chunky hipster glasses walks by, peering intently, as if he’s lost something. Only he’s gazing at people rather than floors and seat cushions. And it’s not a zippy “where are my friends” scan. No, he’s looking much more . . . methodically. Perceptibly locking onto each face, then moving on to the next one. The second odd thing is that Mitchell notices this, but Danna does not — even though her “Achilles bicep” of paranoia is Schwarzenegger-grade! But she sometimes drops her guard when discussing her loftiest passions, and color palettes are really up there.

Mitchell’s about to point out the oddball when Phluttr taps them both. It isn’t the coupon rhythm this time but the “helpful info” vibration pattern. Their screens read, “Heeeeeeeee’s HERE!” And this time, the guess is spot-on, but not weirdly so. When the third employee of a tiny company shows up at a smallish bar, it’s a safe bet he’s here to meet the first two.

“And so begins another Staples High School reunion,” Danna says as Mitchell’s co-founder Kuba (rhymes with “scuba”) trails the hostess to their table. “Class of . . .’01?”

“Hey, we’re not that ancient! We were ’03,” Mitchell says with mock indignation, though, of course, the difference is meaningless to one born as deep into the nineties as Danna.

“Hi, guys, sorry I’m late.” This sounds like your basic youngish male voice with some kazoo mixed in. Save for the H, which is so harsh, so jagged, it’s a wonder it doesn’t dislodge the guy’s larynx. Kuba first left Poland years ago, but that accent just won’t quit. And somehow, it’s fitting. Spindly, with deep-set eyes, pallid skin, and muddy hair that mats like a skullcap, he looks like a medieval monk celebrated on the banknotes of some backwater for deriving a theorem.

After quick greetings and some chair-shuffling, Mitchell gets down to business. “You guys know the situation. We have a huge board meeting tomorrow. And it’s gonna suck.” Well, probably. He also thinks there’s an OK-ish chance it’ll go OK-ishly, but he keeps that to himself. This is a tactical choice. If he doesn’t open on a deeply negative note, these two strident realists will take them there soon enough. So it’s best to start the discussion with a good wallow. He’ll subtly nudge things in an optimistic direction later, so that they’ll adjourn on an upward trajectory. “We need money real bad, just to state the obvious.”

Kuba (whose strident realism stems from the last eight generations of Polish history), piles right on. “And our only live conversations are with two third-rate VCs. And neither has answered our emails in days.”

Mitchell nods grimly. “So if we have a path forward, it’s in raising a bit more cash from our main investor tomorrow. And as we all know, micro-VCs just aren’t known for coughing up emergency capital.” This is in contrast to “real” venture capitalists, who do sometimes rescue troubled companies. But real VCs rarely back startups as nascent as Giftish.ly. There was a time — entire decades, actually — when they did. But as the world grew progressively more tech-addled, those big funds graduated from managing tens of millions, to hundreds of millions, to even billions of dollars. And you just can’t deploy that kind of capital with measly little million-dollar bets. Not with a partnership of just four or five guys (and yes, they’re almost all guys). So the big names in venture largely washed their hands of seeding infant startups. Purists argue that in this, they all but stopped doing venture capital. But the management fees on giant funds have crack-like properties. So as big-fund habits became full-blown addictions, seed-stage investing became someone else’s problem.

Enter the “micro-VCs,” circa 2010 or so. Most are half-successful entrepreneurs, or quite-successful startup execs, who pool some of their own capital with funds from friends and contacts who won huge in the tech sweepstakes. They’ll typically fund a startup with a quarter- or half-million-dollar check (sometimes more), then use that to rally another million or two from other micro-VCs or angel investors. Giftish.ly landed its micro-VC round a bit more than a year ago. Led by a “firm” (which was really just a guy) doing business under the preposterous name of #GreenSprout C@pital, it let them hire a dozen-ish people and make the most of their dismal product concept. But the money’s now gone — and as Mitchell pointed out, micro-VCs aren’t big into bailouts.

After allowing his team some cathartically gloomy chatter, Mitchell asks, “So is there anything we can point to to get our one serious backer excited at the board meeting tomorrow? Revenue’s not gonna do it. Because for now, it looks like there’s only so many coffees and MP3s people want to buy their friends.”

“Well, let’s start with Animotion,” Danna offers. This is their gift-recommendation engine, which is based on some audaciously original research Kuba’s wife is doing in UCSF’s Department of Neuroscience. It’s a key element of the service, as you’re far more likely to make a purchase if Giftish.ly can suggest the perfect little something for Person X. “It’s really starting to kick ass!”

Mitchell mentally gives himself a pat on the back. The surest way to fire up either of these two is to get them gushing about the other’s amazing work. “True,” he says neutrally. “The numbers have spoken.”

Actually, they’re bellowing. Animotion scarcely worked for months, until Kuba coded up a seemingly minor new insight six weeks ago. Somehow, this caused things to turn the corner. Violently! The recommendations suddenly feel right, even wise, while being completely unobvious. The company regularly asks users to rate its gift suggestions on a scale of 1 (“more random than roulette!”) to 5 (“OMG you’re psychic!”). Their average rating instantly soared from 1.4 to 4.6. This is like turning a third-string high school quarterback into a Super Bowl champ overnight, and they have no idea what caused it (and if they did, it would scare the bejesus out of them).

Discussing this, everyone’s spirit starts to rally. When he figures the effect is peaking, Mitchell brings up Danna’s new design. Kuba responds rapturously, and team Giftish.ly is soon awash with renewed hope and ambition. Yes, it’s probably misplaced. But if they’re to have any chance at all tomorrow, they need to bring some optimism to the board meeting. Whether you cynically call this sort of thing manipulation, or charitably call it leadership, Mitchell’s good at it. Of course, he better be good at something because he’s usually the dumbest guy in the room.

And please don’t call me harsh for saying that, because it’s his own term. In fact, it’s practically his rallying cry! And it’s not self-hating although I know it sounds that way. It can actually be weirdly empowering. Mitchell also chiefly means it metaphorically. But due to the company he keeps, it’s often an objectively accurate phrase. He sure is the dumbest person at the table right now! But despite that, he’s doing his job rather well.

That is, until Kuba partly derails things (by trying to be reassuring, in that bumbling way of his). “Look,” he says, eyes aglitter. “No matter what, the ideas will live on. Maybe even in an academic setting!” This is classic Kuba. He’s been about the ideas first and foremost since grade school. So if their technology finds shelter in some ivory tower, it’ll be more than just fine with him! Not that universities are in the business of providing soft landings to failed startups. But Kuba could set up his own damn think tank if he wants. His brilliance as an ideas-smitten developer led to a long and immaculately timed stint at Google, and the upside on his stock options could let him coast forever more. “Because really, maybe Giftish.ly’s taken this as far as it can,” he muses. “I mean, we’re down to three engineers.”

“And a quarter,” Danna adds, raising her hand — a playful allusion to the help she occasionally gives his team.

“It’s more like ten engineers when I can get your time,” Kuba tells her, exaggerating politely (though only slightly). “But you need to focus on the redesign!”

With the conversation now shifting from what’s going right to what’s going wrong, Danna soon harrumphs, “I guess we could always do an acquihire.”

Arrrgh, the A-word! Mitchell thinks, nodding reluctantly. Far more about hiring than acquiring, acquihires happen when a big company with desperately thin engineering ranks encounters a doomed startup with some technical talent. If the sparks fly, and the price is real cheap, the small fry is “bought” for a trivial sum; its engineers remain employed; its investors redeem pennies on the dollar; and its founders spend the next decade telling babes they just sold their startup to Google.

Phluttr buzzes Kuba’s phone just as the waitress looms over his shoulder. Glancing at its screen, he lights up, and says, “I’ll have a Deep Rye!”

Though as repulsed by icky marketing as anyone, the guy just can’t resist a coupon. Stifling a groan, Mitchell uses the break in the action to cut out to the restroom — allegedly to do the usual but really to have a quick think about the acquihire topic on his own.

“Dr. Phillips. This is . . . most unexpected!” Special Agent Hogan uttered this wryly, yet not unseriously.“Yes I know, Agent Hogan,” Dr. Phillips replied brusquely. “I’ll wager that you never expected to see me on this side of Kingdom Come.”“Not after I brow-beated the Joint Chiefs of Staff into shutting down the ill-advised scientific program that you were championing, and for all intents and purposes running like a veritable fiefdom inside The Military almost fifteen years ago,” Hogan stated flatly.“I suppose you’re speaking of Project Maximum,” Dr. Phillips surmised, in the sonorous cadences that regularly mesmerized auditoria full of Ivy League Scientists.Agent Hogan curtly nodded his head in agreement, and with it the densely packed red tresses that had made many an enemy she-agent swoon. “Yes, Project Maximum. Your top secret and well-funded attempt to create an Artificial Superintelligence. After I revealed the voluminous risks that such an entity would pose to Human Society, I suspected you’d never willingly enter my presence again!” And with that, the rapt bystanders shifted awkwardly; and a resulting rustle; not unlike that made by an errant flock of hawks in a twilit field; swept the room.“I’ll confess, there were dark times when I roundly cursed your name upon settling down to a wee dram of Single-Malted Scotch in some book-lined faculty study,” Dr. Phillips conceded ruefully. “But I have long since realized that you were correct to argue that a Super AI could pose an existential threat to humanity, which made it a not unreckless ambition to pursue, even for Science!”Agent Hogan nodded matter-of-factly, pleased to hear this long-overdue concession from an erstwhile rival. “So given that we’ve at last landed upon the same page in this most-deadly-serious of tomes, to what do I owe the pleasure of this urgently convened summit?” he queried.Dr. Phillips looked grimly toward a turret-like video camera that skillful workmen had secured tightly to the ceiling. “Activate the DigiScreen!” he tersely commanded its unseen operator.

This is the first excerpt of twelve from AFTER ON: A Novel of Silicon Valley, which will be published August 1st. The second excerpt is right here. To be notified of all future excerpts in your Medium feed, follow author Rob Reid.

And for God’s sake, don’t miss our next installment, wherein our heroes will meet a new-model “glasshole;” stentorian phallocrat Brock Hogan will continue to astound; and a certain mystery will arise around that diabolical social media leviathan Phluttr. Again: it’s right here.

Rob Reid

Written by

Rob Reid

Podcast host at after-on.com Author (“After On,” “Year Zero,” etc). Founder, of Listen (which created the Rhapsody music service). Tech investor. TED Talk-er.

After On
After On
After On

About this Collection

After On

Meet Phluttr — a diabolically addictive new social network, and a villainess, heroine, enemy, and/or bestie to millions. Phluttr has ingested every fact and message ever generated by, to, from, or about her innumerable users. Her capabilities astound her deeply secretive makers — and they don’t know the tenth of it! Phluttr could easily become the greatest gossip, flirt, or matchmaker in history. Or she could cure cancer, bring back Seinfeld, then start a nuclear war. Whatever she does, it’s not up to us. But a motley band of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, VC’s, and engineers might be able to influence her. ‘After On’ is the latest novel by New York Times bestselling author Rob Reid. It tackles matters including privacy and government intrusion, post-Tinder romance, nihilistic terrorism, artificial consciousness, synthetic biology, with both playfulness and authority. Twelve lengthy excerpts will precede the book’s August 1st publication here. As will eight audiocasts exploring the real-world science, tech, and sociological issues connected to the novel. Cohosted by author Rob Reid and tech newscaster Tom Merritt, these programs will feature extensive interviews with top scientists, investors, technologists, and public intellectuals.

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