They grew up with the internet, spent their teens blogging and are changing the way Silicon Valley operates. Meet the new generation of tech CEOs
Daily deals. Social networks. Online air mattress rentals. A technology boom is cannonballing through Silicon Valley and out towards the mainstream. This new generation of companies is headed by a new generation of leaders, young men and women whose childhood experiences and youth itself are shaping the evolution of gadgets and computer programs and shifting the way business gets done in the tech sector.
The number of CEOs aged 30 and under is growing in Silicon Valley, as the so-called Net Generation comes of age. This demographic shift is as much about the personality of these young leaders as it is about changing technology. Rather than the bulky, expensive computer hardware of the past, most companies today are internet software companies that can be – and often were – built on a laptop in a dorm room.
“I’m pretty sure every generation had ideas of cool products they wanted to build, but turning that into reality was hard,” says Harj Taggar, a partner at Y Combinator, which invests in entrepreneurs. “But today if you’re 20-something and have an idea of what you want to build, you can go out and build it.”
For this generation, computers were as familiar a childhood plaything as toy trucks and Lego sets, there to be dissected and inspected and bent to their will. They don’t remember a world without the internet and social networking was a natural part of their adolescence. Sharing one’s innermost thoughts on public blogs, chatrooms and eventually Facebook is default behaviour.
As teenagers, they watched the 20-somethings before them start Google and PayPal, then YouTube, and figured that they could do that too. Maybe even better. In college, they saw their peer, Mark Zuckerberg, now 27, set a new tone for technology and leadership innovation. He built Facebook according to his instincts, then held fast to his power as the company exploded into a multibillion-dollar sensation.
Now, his contemporaries, simultaneously building their own businesses, also see themselves as leaders for life. They don’t plan to be ousted and replaced with “an adult”, if their company gets big, even if managing an office, firing employees and coping with setbacks doesn’t come as naturally to them as writing code.
These young CEOs root themselves in their companies from the very beginning, raising money only from investors and venture capitalists who are willing to cede control, according to Taggar. “When negotiating these deals, more important than the valuation they get, is whether they keep control of the company,” he says. Now that more and more investors are on the hunt for the next Facebook, funding even teenagers in the hopes of finding it, most of them are happy to give in.
And members of this new generation are applying their own brand of leadership to the tech sector as liberally as they’re filling the iPhone and Android stores with mobile apps.
Top-down hierarchy is out. Collaboration and equality is in. Open-floor plans that facilitate teamwork have replaced closed offices. Social networks that encourage communication in all directions on the organisational chart have replaced the chain of command. Business priorities are focused on growth and creating tools that can make the world a better, more efficient place. Business models are shaped around the belief that profits will somehow follow good ideas.
Here the FT introduces 10 CEOs aged 30 or under. These are the people that top Silicon Valley investors (from Y Combinator to Benchmark Capital to Sequoia Capital) have bet their money on. They are also the minds whose tech-laden childhoods and trial-and-error leadership style are helping to revolutionise how we use the technology on our desks and in our pockets.
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