Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Juul, The Box, and Your Choice

A few years ago, I got a call from a recruiter. I always take calls from recruiters. You should, too. You never know what they're going to be offering, and it is a chance to learn something and make a good impression.

But right away, I was suspicious. The cheery caller was asking me if I was "EXCITED TO WORK ON THE FASTEST-GROWING PERSONAL ELECTRONIC DEVICE IN HISTORY!!"

The combination of vagueness and hype kicked my cynicism and skepticism into high gear. Eventually the recruiter indicated the company was, in fact, Juul, and the "device" was their electronic cigarette/vape system. 

They were looking for a fairly senior product person. Unsurprisingly, they were having difficulty finding someone. For what I thought were obvious reasons.

This was a few years ago. Juul is back in the news today because they've just been hit with a $40 million fine. For a company that had been valued at $38 billion, this is nothing. It's a parking ticket. 

Read this great article from The Verge and you will understand what kind of company Juul was and is. The kind of company that brazenly ignores not just existing law (like, say, AirBnB, Uber, or the scooter goons), but the kind of company that ignores explicit directives from regulatory agencies, using the calculus of "we probably won't get caught, and we might get big enough that it won't matter if we do, and if we don't, we're probably out of business. So fuck it."

The kind of company that, it is alleged, knew its pods might be tainted, and sold them anyway.  

And then Juul decided to take money from the cigarette industry! Any notions of "we're the good guys" were cast to the wind as they aligned themselves with an industry that pioneered the kind of disinformation which will likely doom humanity to a climate apocalypse, and absolutely knew their business model included use by kids.

For their part, Big Cigarette (represented here by Altria), did about what you'd expect. In typical old, big, dumb, slow fashion, they underestimated the market, failed to compete effectively, and then just took the lazy approach of "let's just buy 'em!". And they somehow managed to screw that up, buying Juul's problems, but not keeping the people, signing a desperate, thirsty deal.

It has not gone well.

That story -- of an old, big, dumb, slow company whiffing an acquisition -- is hardly new. Nor is the story of a company selling out.

I'd rather focus on Juul itself, and the kind of people who went to work there. Everybody knew what their business model was: getting people, including kids, addicted to their proprietary nicotine delivery system.

Who thinks "yeah, I'm OK with that, as long as I get paid"? It turns out a lot of people were. They did well for themselves, and then split, cash in hand.

Those people can tell themselves they aren't actively contributing to the problem anymore. But they helped create a barely-regulated industry that has spawned a legion of bad actor companies. Coupled with the current "ignore the law" mindset in corporate American and the public at large, we now live in a time where it seems anything goes.

As for me, I told the recruiter there was no way I was going to go work for a company like Juul, whose business model was fostering addiction.

The recruiter told me the "real mission of the company was to help people quit!" I managed not to laugh, but I asked the recruiter if Juul's board of directors was really steering the company with the intention of seeing market size decrease quarter over quarter, year over year. If that was their guidance and their KPIs. If I would be rewarded for reducing usage.

I didn't have to listen for their answer. I already knew the truth: Of course not. All the investors and all the board members (and perhaps the employees) were banking on plenty of people including kids getting hooked, and monetizing the tar out of it. At every step where they could have done the right thing, they went for the money instead.

One wonders how they would feel if it were their spouses or children ripping hits of this garbage, unable to stop.

Juul is just one company, and between Altria's cluelessness and the exodus of talent, they will likely survive as an empty brand (perhaps for traditional cigarettes! Or flavored booze!), if at all. 

But their legacy and impact linger, like a ghastly cloud.

One day, it may be your phone or doorbell ringing. Maybe it will be a social media company. Or some kind of mobile gaming gambling venture. Or a new wirehead start-up. They'll offer you lots of money. An equity stake. A juicy title. Everything you want. You just have to overlook a few things, like how you feel, or your sense of right and wrong, or the people you will be hurting.

How will you respond?

Yeah, we all have to make a living. Is it OK to do it at the expense of everyone else?

I am reminded of the short story "Button, Button", its adaptation into a Twilight Zone episode and later, the great movie "The Box". Maybe you can make a million by painlessly, effortlessly killing someone you don't know, but inevitably, the shadowy man leaves, looking to find someone who doesn't know you. 

Image by Casey Chin, for WIRED magazine