Being trusted is a huge advantage for any company that can pull it off. But is it even possible for people to trust a tech company right now?
Union Square Ventures is one of the best-known and most respected venture capital firms in the world. Every year, they get together all of the CEOs of all the companies they've invested in to talk about Big Ideas. And this year, they shared one of the ideas they're focusing on most: Trust.
The whole presentation is worth reading over, as I think it outlines the business argument for the importance of trustworthy companies extremely well. In short, being trusted provides enormous value to a company. It protects against competition, increases customer loyalty, helps improve recruiting and retention, and has many other less visible benefits. Trust is a massive strategic advantage. You want your company to be trusted.
Of course, this is a slide deck from a company that makes tons of money investing in giant tech startups, so it's entirely grounded in that perspective. For example, take this slide, talking about how companies break their core promises:
I'd of course take issue with, for example, the Uber line item here. The core promise of Uber depends deeply on the community you're in. Maybe for wealthy white tech insiders in San Francisco, Uber's core promise is about convenience. But for black passengers, Uber's core promise is reliability, in contrast to trying to hail cabs whose drivers can't be trusted to stop, or transit systems that don't serve every neighborhood equally. For South Asian drivers, the core promise Uber made was control over making a living, in contrast to being dependent on extractive medallion programs or coercive fleet owners.
What's not obvious is that trust relies on social signaling, so even though Susan Fowler, who became the voice of Uber's workers speaking up against hostile working conditions, is a white woman, her unjust treatment provided a valuable and credible way of judging the trustworthiness of the organization even for people who were seeking a different core promise from the company. Uber profiting off of the protests against Trump's travel ban catalyzed the #DeleteUber movement, and though it was centered on protecting Muslim travelers, it again provided useful signal of trustworthiness to people in other communities.
This is because trust is based in an ethical context, and on values. People do not simply evaluate companies based on the economic value they provide, they decide to trust companies based on a moral framework.
And in this moment, when the biggest, most visible tech companies have betrayed so many people so completely, almost no company can earn trust. This is especially true because so few tech leaders are willing to speak to the core social issues that have undermined trust — concerns like pervasive surveillance, abuse of privacy, economic inequality, systemic racial discrimination, persistent harassment and abuse on platforms and in the workplace, and complicity in systems of violence and persecution. Compared to those challenges, conventional worries like system downtime or app performance shrink into relative irrelevance.
So why even bother?
If the situation is so dire, why am I even bothering to share this view on the value of trust? Well, the simple answer is that I'm the CEO of a tech company. And I'm trying my damnedest to make sure Glitch is a company that can be trusted — by its employees, by its industry, by its community, and by the world. Honestly, it's hard as hell these days because most of tech isn't even aligned to trustworthiness as a goal, and even those who still believe in that ideal have (understandably!) become so cynical and jaded that they've either preemptively given up on trying, or mock efforts to be trustworthy as hopelessly naive.
I don't know if it means I'm stubborn, or still just overly optimistic, but we do keep trying.
When people join Glitch, I generally give them a short presentation explaining what we're trying to do and how we run our company, and I went back and looked at one of the slides that shows up early in the presentation.
Usually at this point in the conversation, I explain to the person who's new to the company that right now, people like us and trust us. Right now, they do. I then mention that every other company I've ever been at, and really, nearly every company I've ever seen, screws this up. They break the trust of the people who were willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. And most of the time, it's for no reason at all. (Sometimes, it's just so the company can make money. Which is shitty, but at least makes sense, as compared to betraying trust simply through incompetence.)
What's interesting is, once I was reflecting on trust, I realized that a lot of the things that I talk to our team about are about building trust, maintaining trust, being worthy of trust.
For example, we recently had the whole team in at our headquarters in NYC, and I looked over a few of the presentations that we did to talk about goals and vision and strategy, and some of these slides jumped out at me.
This message jumped out at me, not because it's particularly unique, but because of the emphasis we put on making sure our story is true. So many companies just say things, without regard to whether they're real, and it always bends my brain to realize that they don't even seem to care about the validity or veracity of their messages.
The part about being meaningful also seemed important, because trust has to be about things that matter — it's easy to trust a company about minor things that aren't very important. It's a lot tougher when it comes to issues that are vitally important.
The inside and outside have to match
These next few slides came from a conversation about how we should run our company, and centered on the ugly reality that most companies talk about ideas to the outside world that have no bearing on the actual practices within their organizations.
The extraordinary thing here is that companies don't seem to realize that it's impossible to trust anyone if you know they don't practice what they preach. Even if a company is secretive enough (or obscure enough) that outsiders don't know whether its internal processes are aligned with its public statements, its employees know, and they can sense whether they work at a trustworthy organization or not. If the employees know, then almost certainly its partners know, and if partners know, then any hypocrisy or disconnect is rotting away at their credibility every day, whether it's acknowledged or not.
Closing the gap
Originally, this slide came from a presentation that was focused on company culture, but it speaks to the moral grounding that underpins being a trusted company. These days, pretty much every company knows the "right" thing to say to the world. And almost none of the major tech companies follow through on those words into changing how they operate.
This is an especially acute concern for a company like ours, both because we're a tiny company competing with giants, and also because we have a company handbook (see below) where our values are publicly stated for anyone to read and share and remix for their own use.
The truth is, almost every person of conscience has grave concerns and deep worries about the effect that tech companies are having on civil society and culture overall. They're right to. Add to that the well-justified skepticism and critique about the extractive and abusive practices of most industries, and even a lot of the most well-intentioned companies basically just give up and decide it's not worth trying to fight a battle that (seemingly) can't be won.
But I've seen some signs that this is still a fight worth engaging, that being worthy of people's trust is still possible. Inside Glitch, our colleagues take a lot of pride in being part of an organization that's still idealistic in this way. In our community, users and partners feel good about getting to work with a company that doesn't leave them feeling dirtied or used by the interaction. And in our industry, people seem delighted by the reminder that there was an optimistic, idealistic view of the future that attracted so many of us to technology in the first place.
Even despite all the failures, and all the failings, and the countless, heartless betrayals of trust, we're still going to try. Yes, there are great business reasons to do it, and we're seeing the benefits of those business opportunities. But most importantly, there's a satisfaction in proving that a group of people can collectively put in so much care and investment in the old-fashioned idea of simply being worthy of people's trust.