Business Management

Chaos Monkeys: A mud-slinging guide to Silicon Valley life

In his new book, Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley [Harper], Antonio Garcia Martinez has given one of the most honest, unflinching, and bitter accounts of how startups live and die in Silicon Valley.

Chaos Monkeys is part gossip-come-revenge rag, part memoir, and part startup guide. Documenting Martínez’s time at Wall Street as a quant, the move to a budding startup (Adchemy) and his own startup’s (AdGrok) funding and acquisition, and finally life on the ads team inside the monolith that is Facebook.

This is not a book filled with grand theories of business philosophies or scientific insights into relationships on social media. It’s a dirty, unfiltered view from the trenches of Silicon Valley tech scene. Martínez is not very likeable as a person; much of his writing is nihilistic, pretentious, and often arrogantly self-serving. If you believe everything he says, you’d get the impression he is the main architect behind most of Facebook’s profit.

However, he is unflinchingly honest. The hardships and sacrifices of startup life aren’t sugar-coated; relationships with his love interests and children come second, his boats are left to rust (get the violins), and co-founders worry if they’ll be able to pay the mortgage. Working in a tech company is likened to both dictatorships and religious cults due to the dedication they demand from their flock and the iron fist with which they control what happens both internally and how news is managed externally.

As well as admitting most of his own flaws, he is quick to point out the details – both good and bad – of major characters in and around the tech industry. There are insights into the lives of many a big name; various Facebook alumni, including Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, YC Combinator’s main players, and especially Adchemy CEO Murthy Nukala are given a literary dressing down throughout.  At one point he compares the leadership of the FB ads team to a scene from Lord of the Flies, Sandberg is likened to Oprah, while Zuckerberg is apparently akin to both Napoleon and Alexander the Great (i.e., he’s an online conqueror who ‘will weep when there are no more users to monetize.’)

Life inside the behemoth Facebook – just before and after its IPO – make up the crux of the writing. The ins and outs of company culture – the dedication demanded of its workers, the moneyed shareholders versus the merely well-paid,  how products are developed and the internal power struggle – offer the most interesting insights, even for those already knee-deep in the world of entrepreneurship. And it’s safe to say – and something readily admitted at the end – this book will have burned many a bridge.

While the gossipy side of Chaos Monkeys may well rile people up the wrong way, Martínez also provides rare insight into the machinations of the startup world, both on the business side and the human aspect. He explains the nitty gritty details of incubators, pivots, funding, IPOs, and how modern advertising works, but also the schoozming of investors, the back-scratching, and internal politics of how it all works behind the scenes.

It also provides a range of different frontline views; how the pressure changes when you go from merely working at a trendy startup to actually running one, and the change from the hustle and bustle to the bureaucracy and inertia of big companies.

Aside from being a hefty 500 pages (complete with numerous footnotes), the book does often feel like it’s lacking an overall narrative. Much of it comes across as more of a series of life phases and vignettes rather than a unified story.

Judging from the description of a drunken fumble with a fellow Facebooker, Martínez is no sex writer. But he does, however, paint vivid pictures and include nice turns of phrase throughout. The comparison of driving on racetracks against quiet suburban roads as a metaphor for startup life versus multi-billion dollar companies is particularly nice.

While Martinez is a wholly unlikable narrator, he’s written a compelling insight into Silicon Valley life. Well worth a read for anyone in, around, or entering this realm.


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Dan Swinhoe

Dan is a journalist at CSO Online. Previously he was Senior Staff Writer at IDG Connect.

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