Nick Bilton on Silicon Valley Startups and the Silk Road

AmericanKingpin200After reading Nick Bilton's book, American Kingpin, about the wild west entrepreneur Ross Ulbricht, the man behind the Dark Net site Silk Road, I was inspired to download the Audible version of The Upstarts, Brad Stone's account of the visionaries who started two other companies that have changed the way we live and travel--Uber and Airbnb. 

I'd previously asked Bilton if he would write something for The Amazon Book Review, and the morning I received his piece below, I had just finished The Upstarts and was struck by the connection between the personalities in that book, and that of Ross Ulbricht.  As you'll see below, I was not alone in these thoughts, as Bilton himself ponders the "what if" of Ulbricht's choice of a startup that changed our world in unexpected ways...

When reporting the book American Kingpin, about the rise and fall of the Silk Road drug and guns website, I encountered so many twists and turns that the story almost seemed completely unbelievable. Yet for me, a journalist who has covered Silicon Valley and tech culture for over a decade, the similarities with the way the Silk Road and traditional startups are run was astounding.

For example, I could show you a quote from Ross Ulbricht, the creator of the Silk Road, and another statement from Travis Kalanik, the CEO of Uber, and you wouldn't be able to tell who had said (or written) which passage. I could do the same with discussions between the Dread Pirates Roberts, the secret moniker Ulbricht used while running his drug and guns empire, and his underlining, and those between Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs, and their respective employees, and those too would be indistinguishable. Ulbricht ran his website with the same ambition, authority and hunger as the CEOs in Silicon Valley who run the world we live in today. They have all read the same libertarian books, cited the same anti-big government stance, and have used their smarts and coding ability to "disrupt" industries they all see as over-regulated and unfair to consumers.

The big difference, of course, is that the CEO of Uber chose to disrupt the taxi cartels, the founders of Airbnb chose hotels, and Ross Ulbricht decided he was going to disrupt the illegal drug and guns industry.

In the end though, the ambition of both almost always seems to come at a cost. For traditional startups in The Valley, overly aggressive CEOs end up getting fired, sued, or, more often than not, investigated by a government entity. In Ross Ulbricht's case, he ended up getting arrested and sentenced to two life sentences in jail. You have to wonder, though, what would have happened had he decided to go after the taxi or hotel industry, instead.


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