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How status is marked in Silicon Valley

LiveMint logoLiveMint 06-04-2017 Radha Chadha

I am spending some time in Mountain View, California, which is home to Google, LinkedIn and many other tech companies, although my mission is a somewhat different kind of start-up: a new, and absolutely adorable, granddaughter. Strolling her pram along the quaint streets of this sunny little town—an activity guaranteed to promptly put her to sleep—it slowly dawns on me that this is a special kind of place, an alternate slice of America if you will, where people are younger, smarter, richer, and interestingly, seem to be living by a different rulebook.

The rules are not immediately apparent to me, except, of course, the very visibly casual dress code, which ranges from a college-campus look (think fresh-faced Mark Zuckerberg in trademark grey T-shirt and hoodie) all the way to a studied slovenliness (I met a young techie, a couple of start-ups sold, who I thought could do with a shower). We will unpack the dress code shortly, but the broader question that intrigues me is: How is status marked in Silicon Valley? What codes do these disproportionately affluent bunch of dreamers and rule-breakers conform to? What do they value? What do they diss? What are their symbols? In short, what makes this tribe tick?

I have to confess I have not visited parts of the valley inhabited by the tech A-listers—towns like Atherton, which topped the Forbes 2015 list of most expensive zip codes in the US with a median home price of $10.6 million (around Rs70 crore)—so my observations are about relatively “average” folks whose annual income, I estimate, is a few hundred thousand dollars. Keep in mind that even at that income, their wealth may be several million dollars as they may hold substantial stock options.

If there is one overarching rule, it is that status is communicated more by what you have done than by what you wear. Traditional symbols of success don’t count. You don’t see fancy cars zipping by or logo bags strolled around. The focus seemingly is on the inner meaningful stuff than the outer superficial doodads. Needless to say, if you have managed to change the world through your work, you are next to god, and even if you have pulled off some minor innovation, you are respectfully looked up to. Money matters, it matters a lot—how much you raised, how much your company sold at, how much your stock options are worth—but that money has to be a result of some breakthrough idea.

The dress code follows from that mindset. When you are busy changing the world, you don’t have time to waste on clothes, hence the laidback uniform of jeans, T-shirts (often with the company logo), casual shirts, sneakers, hoodies. So when Zuckerberg (in picture above) wears only grey hoodies—the late Steve Jobs wore only black polo necks—it is about simplifying clothing to the level where you don’t have to spend an extra split second getting ready. The fact that most techies are male may have added to the unkempt look: the got-out-of-bed hair, didn’t-shave-today beard, showers-optional attitude. And now this look has been written into code, leading to a delicious irony—you may be out to change the world, but you are toeing the dress code.

Concern for the “inner meaningful stuff” finds expression in many ways. For example, the aspirational car is Tesla thanks to its rechargeable battery. Now, Tesla isn’t exactly cheap, but the point is that many of these men can afford a fancier car. Or take vegetables—almost all the veggies at the nearby supermarket are organic and locally grown; prices are high, but it does brisk business. Small family-owned restaurants with alfresco dining line the streets, and many of them find mention in the Michelin guide. Surprisingly, there is a high presence of Asian cuisines, perhaps representative of the fact that 26% of Mountain View’s population is Asian (the comparative figure for the US is 5%). I don’t know what percentage Indians are, but I exchanged smiles with a lot of them, thanks to my little bundle in the pram.

So what sort of brands speak to the valley mindset? Philz Coffee is an example—its fans include, you guessed it, Zuckerberg, who had it served at his surprise wedding. It is not made from the usual espresso shots—instead, each cup of coffee is individually filtered for you from a range of 20 coffee blends created by founder Phil Jaber. Aromas are called out like they are for wine; for example, Tesora, the blend I tried, is described as “caramel, nuts, butter”—I found it smooth, rounded and very soul-satisfying. Tesora, incidentally, is the first blend Jaber made, spending seven years perfecting it.

I asked Karan Bedi, chief executive officer of Eros Now (think of it as India’s answer to Netflix), who graduated from Stanford and continues to visit the valley frequently on work, if he can give me an example of another valley-friendly brand. He tells me about Allbirds, a new brand of sneakers made from Merino wool in New Zealand. The shoes apparently keep your feet warm in winter and cool in summer. He finds them extremely comfortable, possibly the most comfortable shoes he has ever worn. They come in five-six colours, don’t have a logo, and are sold online for $95 (around Rs6,000). Unlike synthetic sneakers, Allbirds’ carbon footprint is pretty low, as the wool is biodegradable. I checked it out and it looks like a shoe Apple might have designed, clean, minimalist, beautiful. I want them.

Bedi believes the Silicon Valley ethos is percolating to Indian tech companies. Dress codes are very casual, and for him, personally, comfort and ease trumps everything else—in summer, he wears shorts, T-shirt and flip flops to work. The same “what you do” rather than “what you wear” mindset reigns here too. “What you do” is, of course, code for “change the world”.

Luxury brands beware.

Radha Chadha is one of Asia’s leading marketing and consumer insight experts. She is the author of the best-selling book The Cult of the Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair With Luxury.

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