Brian Armstrong said staff at cryptocurrency company Coinbase should not engage on ‘broader societal issues’ when those issues are ‘unrelated to our core mission’
Brian Armstrong said staff at cryptocurrency company Coinbase should not engage on ‘broader societal issues’ when those issues are ‘unrelated to our core mission’ © TechCrunch/Getty

Two bold disruptive ideas emerged this week from a Silicon Valley company: businesses exist to make money and employees are there to work.

These sentiments, expressed in a blog post by Brian Armstrong, the chief executive of cryptocurrency company Coinbase, have gone down in the tech sector like a bucket of warm kombucha.

The wildest response came from former Twitter chief executive Dick Costolo: “Me-first capitalists who think you can separate society from business are going to be the first people lined up against the wall and shot in the revolution. I’ll happily provide video commentary.”

His successor at Twitter, Jack Dorsey, weighed in too, insisting that since cryptocurrency was a response to an “exclusionary financial system” it was important to “at least acknowledge and connect the related societal issues your customers face daily”.

There are valid criticisms to be made of Mr Armstrong’s manifesto. At 2,000 words it is too long. It contains meaningless guff — “play as a championship team”. And it refers 31 times to Coinbase’s “mission”. This is apparently so important that it requires single-minded devotion but also disappointingly airy when it is eventually revealed: “creating an open financial system for the world”.

There is also the irony that Mr Armstrong’s public statement is itself a political act that distracts from Coinbase’s mission. 

And though it is written to “help others”, it seems like it might have been prompted by a specific incident at Coinbase. As Mr Armstrong acknowledges, his company has “had its own challenges here, including employee walkouts”. That appears to refer to an episode in May where some Coinbase engineers downed tools in protest at the company’s refusal to state its support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Mr Armstrong did eventually write a personal tweet in support of BLM. But he may also have resolved to rid his workplace of dissenters. After the blog post, Coinbase invited any employees who disagreed to take a severance package and leave.

Without that context, the statement itself would be perfectly anodyne. It should not be crazy to say: “We don’t engage [on ‘broader societal issues’] when issues are unrelated to our core mission, because we believe impact only comes with focus.”

Noting that “it has become common for Silicon Valley companies to engage in a wide variety of social activism, even those unrelated to what the company does” and this has “the potential to destroy a lot of value at most companies, both by being a distraction, and by creating internal division” is a statement of fact.

Mr Armstrong takes pains to say that part of his ambition to assemble a great team is to hire from a diverse pool and to fight against unconscious bias. It doesn’t sound like he’s trying to create one of those libertarian clans that happen to be filled with white men.

You might wonder why the Twitter executives are so exercised at these statements. Perhaps it is that the social media site has created a very different sort of company — one built on whipping up political outrage and one that in the five years that Mr Costolo ran it made no profits at all. 

It is, above all, a very specific spat. Normal companies around the world are not fortunate enough to have time to take political stands or indeed to speak out against taking political stands. They are just trying to keep the lights on.

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