Dead Unicorns? A Burst Bubble? How I’d Fix It: Take My Money, Please

This one bit of advice can fix everything.

Dead Unicorns? A Burst Bubble? How I’d Fix It: Take My Money, Please
[Illustration: Kirsten Ulve]

Business leaders of the future and future funders of those leaders, I have one request: Please take my money.

I insist. I want to offer you my money in exchange for your services. Maybe you’ve heard of this: It’s called capitalism. I’m tired of you telling me my money is no good. Of you refusing to entertain the possibility that I might explicitly value your service. Mostly I’m talking to you, Internet businesses.

For too long, people have embraced the compromised notion that free is not just an acceptable price but also the optimal one. Investors have clamored that user growth, not revenue, is what matters. Because why monetize now when you can figure it out later? And we, the people—readers, viewers, members, and users—have thought we were getting a great deal.

We’ve paid—with information and tracking and invasive interruptions. (I’m shaking my fist at you, Ethan Zuckerman, inventor of the pop-up ad.) We’ve paid with delayed service updates and poor communications and ignored pleas. We’ve paid with services vaporizing because they wanted to build an audience before building a business.

We’ve paid by failing to notice that we are not the customers. The customer is the advertiser, the data miner, the bigger fish to come along and acquire the assets of a promising young company that cashed out, offering us as the asset.

By refusing to turn users into customers, many of these companies have a confused loyalty. Paying customers can demand refunds. They can organize their money with that of other customers and demand improvements. It’s called accountability. I want your incentives to grow to be aligned with me, not some third party paying you to snitch on me.

Private company valuations are so chimerical in part because there’s rarely a financial relationship between the business and its users. We invent these proxies for value such as time spent on a site or the number of sunset photos uploaded. Do you know what’s easier to count than all that? Money. I value those great sunset pictures, but can I exchange them for online photo-storage space? Does Amazon accept hugs as payment?

Not every service should be delivered solely on the basis of a person’s ability to pay. Health care is one example. Some types of education and housing qualify too. For certain classes of services, we are all customers and we should all contribute. It’s called taxation, and we are living another myth in thinking that we can stop paying that money and still maintain the relative quality of communal services that sustain our society. Even Donald Trump understands that. We’ve been sold a false sense of “free” in both business and government.

I implore you, experimental entities masquerading as financially sound businesses: Take my money. I don’t just want to be your user, a term that implies subservience and substance abuse. I want to be your customer. I want to be your primary source of funding rather than a series of investment rounds.

You may think me old-fashioned to bring up this idea of money and customers in a business discussion, but lots of things are making comebacks these days: mohawks and neon-colored clothing and nationalism and vinyl records. Let’s bring customers back too.