Here’s to the Misfits
How Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are trying to create technology that makes you more human.
There are plenty of Silicon Valley, California, stories that are worth telling. You can tell a story that goes back a generation, about Silicon Valley as the land of the engineers, the people who tinker and hack and iterate and refactor. There may be no place on the planet where smarts can take you farther than on this little peninsula—especially technical smarts, the ability to harness physics and math to human needs and desires. Technology at its best seems friction-free, and Silicon Valley is a place where the world seems pliable beyond our ancestors' wildest imaginations.
You can go further back and talk about the '49ers, the ones who converged on northern California during the first Gold Rush, leaving everything behind in hopes of striking a seam of abundance—a story that still seems relevant more than 160 years later. The gold is gone, but the sudden and arbitrary lightning strikes of riches are still here—neighbors in identical houses with similar jobs who end up with three or six zeroes of difference in their wealth. You may have to be fantastically hardworking and absurdly gifted to enter this lottery, but it's a game of chance all the same.
“We're not a Christian company. I'm not sure such a thing exists.”
I'm here partly to listen for the echoes of these stories—but I'm also here for a different reason. I'm wondering what it's like to be fully immersed in technology and possibility and fortunes dangling within reach—all while following a first-century rabbi who lived the fullest human life ever lived, without a single piece of technological magic. If you have a dream, Silicon Valley is the place where you come to build it. I'm wondering what you build if the gospel has shaped your dreams.
Driving south from San Francisco, at the narrowest part of the peninsula, there's a gritty industrial interlude before the 280 freeway levels out on the way en route to the affluent municipalities beyond. Here in South San Francisco and Daly City, tired service-industry workers trudge home from the bus stop to boxy houses on crowded side streets.
In a white-walled room tucked behind the garage in one of those unremarkable houses, Sonny Vu sits at a folding-leg table, the kind you might see in a church basement. He's convincing a banker he doesn't need any money.
The banker is dressed in northern California business attire—tailored suit, no tie, a nice watch peeking out from beneath his sleeve. Vu is dressed in a black knit T-shirt, jeans, and indoor flip-flops. He opens a MacBook Pro and talks through a presentation about the company he founded, Misfit Wearables.
There's no watch on Vu's wrist. Instead he wears a thin wristband that holds a tapered, dark-gray aluminum disk about the size of a quarter. This is Misfit's first product, Shine. It's a device that attracted 127 online articles about Misfit in the tech press, everywhere from Wired to Mashable to TechCrunch—"without anyone knowing what it did," Vu says, grinning. He pops it out of its holder and sets it on the screen of his iPhone. "This has been tracking my activity for the past week. I just set it here, and it uploads all my data. No cable, no Bluetooth," he explains as tiny lights blink around the circumference of the disk.
Shine is an activity tracker, a device to record how often and how far you walk, bike, or swim. It's hardly the first to market—products from Nike, Jawbone, and Fitbit have already arrived—but Vu is betting that there is a place for great design in the geeky space of "wearable technology." Apple's iPod was a late arrival in the personal music player market in 2001, but soon dominated the category thanks to its elegant design. In the same way, Vu aims to make technology you actually want to use—and wear.
Vu hands the disk to the banker, then to me. Its surface is perfectly machined, the blank beauty we've come to associate with high-end technology. It's strangely alluring. "We showed this to women, who are the hardest group to get to accept wearable technology," Vu says. "We didn't tell them what it did. We just asked, 'Would you wear this?' And 20 percent said yes. They would wear it just as jewelry even if it had no function."
Vu runs down the list of investors who are already committed to Misfit: former Apple CEO John Sculley, Vinod Khosla, one of the most renowned venture capitalists in the Valley, and a host of other firms. They've invested millions. A campaign on the crowdsourcing site Indiegogo, where customers could reserve one of the first Shine devices for $79, raised nearly $850,000.
All this for an activity tracker? Part of my agreement with Vu is that I won't write about Misfit's future product plans, but by the end of the day it's clear that Shine is just the beginning, and that I'm not going to find out any more about Misfit's future anyway. Later I will walk up to the second floor to get a snack, past what would normally be the house's two bedrooms. Each room now hosts half a dozen engineers and their computers around a large common table. Within a few minutes of my coming upstairs, the doors quietly close.
Vu's meeting wraps up. The folder the banker has brought with him, pitching his global firm's ability to help startups raise capital, is never opened. As he leaves, it's pretty clear he has made the transition a lot of people seem to make when they spend time with Sonny Vu—from thinking he has something to offer Vu, to hoping he can convince Vu to let him in on the next big thing.
On the down low
You discover two things pretty quickly when scouting stories in this part of the world. First, how many Christians there are. This is not the Bible Belt by a long stretch—pastors, church planters, and ordinary Christians describe the kind of cosmopolitan secularity that's familiar to residents of London or New York. But in the past decade the San Francisco Bay Area has seen a resurgence of vital churches, such as Reality SF, the church Sonny and his wife, Christy, attend with 1,200 others. Ask about Christians at the top of major Bay Area companies, and you get a far longer list than you would in, say, New York City.
The second thing you discover is how few of these Christians want to be identified by name in a story for Christianity Today, all the more so the younger and the more recently successful they are. In no other place we've reported for This Is Our City, even the far more secular city of Portland, Oregon, did we encounter such diffidence about being publicly identified as a Christian.
For now, many of those influential people want to stay on the down low, even as they curate their social media platforms with unsurpassed skill and dedication. But a few founders have taken a different approach.
On the wall at Fig's subleased offices, located in a small Palo Alto office building, are four large cards: "Affirming human worth." "Pursuing truth." "Cultivating authentic community." "Becoming and achieving." Tacked to each card are corporate logos—new-economy darlings like Zappos and FedEx—companies that set the pace for Fig's core values.
On the bookshelf in the conference room where I meet with Fig cofounders Kevon (pronounced KAY-von) Saber and Bart Munro, you can find New York pastor Pete Scazzero's bestseller The Emotionally Healthy Church and The Complete Personalized Promise Bible sharing space with The Product Manager's Desk Reference and Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard's alterna-business manifesto, Let My People Go Surfing.
Like the other Christians profiled in this story, Saber and Munro are not in the least interested in starting or running a "Christian company." And also like the others, they relentlessly ask how their Christian faith shapes the company they have founded and run.
For Saber and Munro, it's about flourishing. We end up in a full-on whiteboard-assisted discussion about the meaning of the word—these are the kind of Stanford Business School grads who think with a marker in their hands and draw four-quadrant diagrams at the drop of a metaphor. Where Misfit makes devices, Fig makes apps, designed to harness smartphones to help people pursue wholeness of soul, spirit, and body.
Fig helps its users set clear goals for physical and spiritual growth and follow through with the help of friends. The idea came straight from Saber's own experience. "In my early 20s while building my first startup, my health took a rapid decline. Over nine months I watched my health decline to the point where I had trouble getting out of bed due to chronic fatigue. That's when I realized that wellness is not something that is nice to have—it's a core lever in my own fruitfulness."
Saber and Munro had been prayer partners and close friends for four years before they started Fig. When they set up the company, they took a different route to compensating their employees. Most Silicon Valley startups pay their early employees peanuts ("rent and Ramen money" is how Sonny Vu put it at one point), keeping them on the hook with stock options. But these options usually must be exercised within 90 days of leaving the company—meaning that getting fired or simply taking a new job before the company goes public can result in no reward at all. Saber and Munro overruled their doubtful lawyers to extend that period to several years—essentially, redistributing their investors' and their own gains, should the company succeed, to the employees.
This leads to some awkward conversations. "Many investors are simply looking for financial returns—as much and as quickly as possible," Saber tells me. "But we strive to ensure that there is strong alignment between our mission, our culture, and our investors." Translated, this means a much smaller pool to raise money from, something Saber and Munro seem willing to accept.
Fig's commitment to "pursuing truth" involves a lot of experimenting—launching and relaunching versions of their product, seeking to figure out what actually works to foster healthy physical and spiritual habits. "We didn't want to go down the usual path to building a wellness business: get people really excited with a powerful hype engine, but fail to empower long-term results." Instead, they have embraced "incremental learning" and a long view—"we are in the second inning of Fig," Saber tells me.
After an hour of conversation, Saber and Munro invite me to join them as they add their wives and a few trusted counselors by speakerphone and spend the better part of the next hour in prayer. Even in spiritually experimental northern California, it must be an odd sight for their employees to see their bosses in a glass-walled conference room talking to God and asking for guidance. But this is all part of Fig's pursuit of truth. "We need to pursue the adventure of growing intimate with God," Munro says. "Growing in this is worth trial and error."
What do nonbelieving employees think of bosses who spend part of the workday seeking intimacy with God? "Team members can get paid like professional athletes at Google or Facebook," Saber says. "We disclose to them that we try to make decisions based on God's leading. They join Fig because of our mission and culture."
Still, "We're not a Christian company," Saber says. "I'm not sure such a thing exists. We're trying to build a world-class company where God is the senior partner, more so than a place for Christians to work. We see business as a powerful instrument for aligning the human experience with its original design.
"Poverty, sickness, environmental degradation—we think God cares about these things and wants to be involved. So we believe he will be present when we ask."
Misfit is building devices that track your every step; Fig is crowdsourcing the tasks of staying fit and pursuing personal and spiritual disciplines. Kevin Adler is trying to get people to host potlucks. The founder of inthis.co (whose website describes him as "captain + chief stargazer") did graduate work in the United Kingdom on how natural disasters and collective traumas affect community life. He left academia and entered the tech world to address one of technology's great paradoxes: the way technologies of connection lead to an increasing sense of isolation.
"The average number of friends that a user has on Facebook has gone from about 150 to about 300 in only about two years," Adler tells my colleague Katelyn Beaty in an interview. "We're losing all sense of what a friendship actually means. We are more connected than ever before, yet all these people feel completely disconnected from the very communities where they met, the context of the relationships."
So Adler is aiming to roll out technology that reconnects people to actual communities of shared experience. "Ninety percent of our social life right now is not being captured on any social network. It's based on actual experiences with people. We're developing a platform that takes your experiences from other sources like Google Calendar, and lets you see who else was part of this experience. Over time, as we go to different events and activities, get-togethers, we'll see our relationship emerge as a byproduct of what we've done together."
That's the big technological vision—but inthis is starting with something much simpler, the online potluck app. Adler himself has started hosting potluck dinners that break down the anonymity of fast-paced urban life. Over dinner, he poses a question like, "What's a resolution you've made that you haven't followed through on?"
"We've ended up having people who are tearful or sharing very personal things in a group of 40 or 45 people. It's nice to actually engage people and say, 'These are my beliefs. What are yours? Here's why I do what I do.' "
Misfit Wearables, Fig, and inthis are offering very different products, and I found my way to their founders through completely different connections. But the three startups have one odd and interesting feature in common. They all are trying to solve problems that technology has helped create—our sedentary lifestyles, our isolation from one another—with more technology.
There are two ways to look at this. One is to say that we might all be better off shutting off our devices, walking over to our neighbors', and inviting them to dinner, rather than syncing our Google Calendars with a new experience layer while checking our personal wellness app and tracking our steps with a fancy pedometer. The first time I met Adler and heard his passion for restoring real human community in a virtual world, I wondered, Then why are you building a web app?
But there is a less cynical, and more realistic, alternative. Cultures don't change by rolling back the clock. They change when people create more culture, cultural artifacts, and institutions that account for the deficiencies of existing culture. In their own way, each of these startups is identifying a real need and offering something new, with its own unique possibilities, that would never be created if we simply stood athwart history yelling, "Stop!" Spend even a little time with folks like this, and you sense your cynicism diminishing, and appreciation growing for the depth of their vision for human flourishing, and their willingness to do something about it.
It wasn't hard to see that each of these ventures was risky. Every one of the founders we interviewed for this story had been part of a startup that didn't succeed, as well as startups that succeeded on a modest level but didn't deliver the gold rush that investors require. "My first two ventures reached millions—but neither achieved massive commercial success," Saber told me. In most other parts of the world, that would be laughably false humility. In Silicon Valley it is perfectly appropriate modesty.
It also wasn't hard to see that the venture that was furthest along—Vu's Misfit—is the one that slots most neatly into consumer culture, with its personal, private device that helps individuals achieve basic fitness goals. Fig's vision of the pursuit of wellness cheered on by friends and family, let alone inthis's goal of reconstituting community in a fragmented virtual world, are much more daunting and far less certain.
But Silicon Valley is highly tolerant of failure, and entrepreneurs by definition are energized by risk. What was inspiring about meeting Vu, Saber, Munro, and Adler was the way they are risking everything for their convictions about flourishing and faithfulness, casting their nets out into unfamiliar waters, building something that is good—not just for Christians but for the world.
Here's to the misfits
Vu's Misfit Wearables was named after a famous television advertisement written and narrated by Apple founder Steve Jobs. "Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes." Interestingly, the word misfit came up in our conversation with Adler. "As human beings we have a thirst for belonging. But Silicon Valley is renowned as a valley of misfits," he said. "People here never quite felt like they fit in their communities and their institutions."
As a Christian with a knack for making money, Vu was a misfit in his own way. He spent years looking for models of Christians in business before he encountered the work of Seattle Pacific University's Jeff Van Duzer at an Urbana student missions conference. Vu has now attended four of the triennial conferences.
"Is there a creational, redemptive view of business?" Vu asked me the first time we talked. "How about if we make the purpose of business to make communities to flourish, and to create opportunities for people to express their God-given capacities in meaningful and purposeful ways? We actually incorporated that language into the legal fabric of our company. It was surprisingly difficult to get that into the corporate charter. But eventually we got it in."
Can wearable technology be part of human flourishing? Vu sees it as answering fundamental human longings. "People want superpowers. We aspire to extend our capacities, to be better—wearable technology can help us achieve that. We also want to account for our weaknesses, to correct bad habits. Wearable technology can help do that, too."
That's who we humans are, indeed—yearning for superpowers but dragged down by our own weakness. In fact, you could say we are all misfits. Technology has both given us powers we could never have imagined, and exposed weaknesses we never knew we had. Could it also be part of the redemption of both sides of our image-bearing, image-breaking nature? If entrepreneurs like Vu succeed, maybe Silicon Valley will be known not just for silicon or gold, but for a better way of being human—a place where even misfits, or especially misfits, can flourish.