Meet the kooky, quirky startup hero we need

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, and in ego-bloated Silicon Valley, a curious eccentric is a breath of fresh air

mad scientist
Credit: flickr/Glen Edelson

I was recently forwarded a link to an article in a rag (that shall remain nameless) about Rony Abovitz, CEO and founder of an “augmented reality” spectacles startup called Magic Leap. Apparently Google is dropping more than $500 million on this concoction in a move to match similar acquisitions made by the now Chinese-chattering ZuckMonster.

That’s not the gist of the article. Instead, the piece aims to portray Abovitz as a highly eccentric wingnut who combines Liberace’s fashion sense with Kim Jong-un’s social skills, in a manner above and beyond the standards of the Silicon Valley Adderall-snorting elite. Conventional wisdom says Google is taking a huge risk on Abrovitz, though in truth, it's shelling out what amounts to Sergey’s lunch money for the deal.

I object.

Not because I’m defending Abovitz, but because the original writer obviously hasn’t done much research on the batcrap craziness currently infesting the greater San Francisco area. That troubles me because the world needs to know Armageddon is brewing there and could boil over and destroy us all any second.

Call me crazy

In trying to paint Abovitz as a dangerous hobgoblin, he listed the man’s supposed idiosyncrasies thusly:

  • He attended the University of Miami, where he had a regular, badly drawn cartoon feature in the school paper. The only oddity is the realization we’re now harvesting startup pinheads from schools other than Harvard and Stanford.
  • His first company was a medical device manufacturer called Mako Surgical that he managed to pawn for the paltry sum of $1.65 billion. OK, he named doctor gadgets after a shark; that could happen to anyone. At least the company made tangible objects, not merely startup smoke. I see not the eccentricity.
  • He plays in an indie rock group called Sparky Dog and Friends. Hello? How is that above and beyond Silicon Valley behavior? Every geek and VC-eneur in that town plays in some kind of ear-bleeding garage band or DJ "outfit." It’s the only way to get dates if you lack startup stock options to cash out.
  • In 2005 he forced a CNN exec to resign because he blogged about something or other and broke an off-the-record promise. If that’s crazy, then I should be locked in a padded room with a rubber mouth guard duct-taped to my head and soothing electrodes strapped permanently to my gibblets. Welcome to my world, buddy. I don’t even live in SF.

They're all tepid examples of Abovitz behaviors cited mainly to lend weight to the next two points in the article, which are justifiably weird, but don’t by themselves amount to much of a story.

Weird science

First, the guy once took the stage at TEDxSarasota, which turns out to be a narcissistic networking event where attendees refer to themselves as “leading thinkers” and claim to be melding their big brains for the betterment of mankind while really spending millions in VC money on wiener candy and freelance exorcisms. During the show, Abovitz made his entrance wearing a space suit and gave what this journalist described as “a bizarre speech,” while two furry cartoon characters danced around a box labeled “Thwaxo’s Strangely Demented Space Fudge.”

To fulfill my minimum duties as a journalist, I took the time to watch this train wreck on YouTube. I don’t think it was crazy at all. It was performance art gone awry, not a speech, and I know this because in about 6 minutes of stage time he uttered two sentences. The rest was movie snippets of clouds, space, green bugs, a smiling woman he probably keeps chained in his basement, and other miscellaneous visuals. He then uttered his two sentences to introduce a live musical number inflicted by a shrieking alternative rock group that sounded like a cat-flensing orgy. [Curtain.]

Weird, sure – but above and beyond what San Franciscans must witness on Market Street for any given Saturday night? Not even close.

The article also condemns him as unbalanced because he used to blog about any subject that popped into his pointy, space-helmeted head, whether or not he knew anything about the topic. Sure, much of it is a waste of pixels and it reads like pot poetry, but unlike most of the fringe blogosphere, Abovitz occasionally addresses the same concerns that are driving me to drink (er, drink more): the Internet’s effect on government; how our constantly connected children will evolve; personal data published on the Web that will never be deleted no matter how hard you try or how many of Google’s data centers you burn down, and more.

Before you get excited, none of these points have much in the way of conclusions or depth; instead, he raises these issues and stands back waiting on readers to applause his brilliance. That’s no different than the rest of the Valley's self-declared royalty so berserk with self-love and indulgence that they’re convinced every thought oozing from their Google Glassed minds puts Einstein to shame.

Based on this so-called evidence, I agree Abovitz certainly has moments when he’s out where Charlie Sheen roams, but compared to people who give press interviews while smoking dope, conduct wedding ceremonies on ecologically protected land, believe racism and misogyny are smart business tactics, demand tax-subsidized island fortresses, promote digital laundromats and online maid requests as brilliant ideas, and still don’t think we’re in a dot-com bubble 2.0 -- in the shadow of those Caligula clones, Abovitz is almost mainstream.

My opinion? Rock on, Rony. Maybe your acid antics will act as a warning beacon so that all the muggles who think the worst they need to worry about are the Seahawks’ loss record and Renee Zellweger’s face will finally become aware of San Francisco’s growing demon population and the effect those psychos will have on our economy and collective self-respect in the near future.

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