Chaos Monkeys, written by former Facebooker and current houseboater Antonio Garcia Martinez, is a book about the human side of the Valley. Rich in anecdote, detail, and memory, it tells the story of a little startup sailing between the twin tankers of Twitter and Facebook and, in the end, floundering for a moment before being swept up in their wake. It’s a book every founder should read, if only to learn how inept most big companies we admire really are.
Why should you read it? First, Garcia Martinez is a real writer. He uses rich detail to paint a real picture of a place and time that we all know well – 2008, a year marked by recession, financial collapse, and the destruction of Wall Street. But, like so many, Garcia Martinez saw a blue light go on in San Francisco. He abandoned a sinking job at Goldman Sachs to join Y Combinator with a few friends and he created AdGrok, a bidding system for Google Adwords. Curing cancer these guys weren’t, but it was a noble effort.
AdGrok grew little by little and, in that heady time, little guys were being snapped up by bigger whales like plankton. Without spoiling the story, Garcia Martinez ended up being bought by Twitter but working for Facebook. And that’s when his troubles began.
So the first reason you should read it is because Garcia Martinez was inside Facebook at a very specific time and place. He learned that women Facebookers were expected to wear non-revealing clothing and that the managers were in constant battle with each other over perceived slights. He watched Facebookers deface their office with crude cave drawings when employees were handed spray cans and told by Zuck to create something authentic on the walls. He worked hard to bring modern AdTech to Facebook but was quickly rebuffed by folks with seniority or a bit more anger. He resorted to brewing beer in an office closet.
Why else should you read it? Because Garcia Martinez doesn’t pull punches. Like Dan Lyons in Disrupted Garcia Martinez is an optimist turned cynic by the vagaries of startup life. Where he once simply wanted to help small companies navigate the opaque ad-buying markets at Facebook he wanted to brew beer and make out in closets. Where he once saw the Valley as a meritocracy he learned quickly that it was an idiocracy and that, true to Peter, everyone rose to their level of incompetence.
It wasn’t all bad. Garcia Martinez built and sold a company and bought a houseboat. He had kids, he met wonderful women, he enjoyed fine beers. But he was also at the fields of the Zuck and found it lacking.
There are plenty of lessons here, too, provided you care to learn them. You learn what it takes for a startup to make it – luck, a great pitch man, and more luck. You learn there can only be one boss at a startup and the more cooks at the stove, the worse the stew. And you learn that things aren’t actually all that great at Facebook and Twitter. Even though Garcia Martinez’s experiences are a little dated by now I think a few truths stay the same and the first truth could be “Don’t quit your day job and if you do make something people will pay for.” It’s a classic tale, told well, and one of the best business books I’ve read this year.