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Buy or Sell: Which Tech CEOs Will Bounce Back After a Tumultuous 2017?

Russia infiltrated our News Feed, Uber endured a car crash of a year, and Snap sunk after soaring. Comebacks are inevitable. But whose?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Travis Kalanick did us all a favor in July when he reportedly told multiple people he was “Steve Jobs–ing” his way back to Uber. Kalanick had been ousted from the company he founded just a month before due to a poisonous cocktail of workplace indiscretions, ethically questionable growth strategies, and a poorly conceived alliance with Donald Trump. After all of it, though, Kalanick was still convinced he could reclaim his throne in heroic fashion, like Jobs did.

Unfortunately for Kalanick, the reality distortion field has run out of juice. His misguided comparison to Jobs exposed how the mythology built around Apple’s (co!)founder has become a farce. For decades, Silicon Valley has held up Jobs’s bold, brash leadership style as beyond reproach. The press, the government, and the general public have more or less agreed. Successful startup founders and the companies they dreamed up were rare jewels that had to be protected and valorized, lest we miss out on the opportunity to witness the genius of the next Steve Jobs.

That paradigm was irreparably scrambled this year, and not only at Uber. Facebook had to acknowledge it was asleep at the computer screen while Russian trolls loaded people’s News Feeds with propaganda. Snapchat’s nudes-to-riches story went off the rails as its user growth stalled out and its stock tanked. Google’s YouTube lured children with creepy, inappropriate videos, while Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods kicked off calls for an antitrust investigation. Even startups that would have sparked a round of feel-good profiles in the past, like quiz app HQ Trivia, instead fed people’s anxiety that the world is careening toward a constantly connected dystopia.

Society is taking a deeply skeptical view of Silicon Valley’s innovations for the first time, which is bad news for the leaders who have been treated as heroic underdogs for so long. Which leaders have been permanently hobbled by the events of 2017 and which are likely to gain even more power in 2018? Here, we reflect on the prospects of tech’s most famous CEOs to assess whose influence is still on the rise and whose has already peaked.

Sell

Travis Kalanick, former CEO of Uber

Best Moment: I guess this January picture he took with Amit Singhal, the former head of Google Search and briefly an engineering executive at Uber, just days before the #deleteUber campaign. Singhal was quickly forced out at Uber because he failed to disclose a sexual harassment claim filed against him. That controversy was not even among the 10 worst things that happened at Uber this year.

Worst Moment: Kalanick’s resignation occurred just hours after he was hand-delivered a letter from five major Uber investors that essentially said “Retire, bitch.”

Quote of the Year: The aforementioned “Jobs-ing it” line

2018 Prospects: All of Uber’s PR rhetoric now is about moving on from its bullying past, and by implication, the man who spearheaded it. Behind the scenes, Kalanick is losing a bitter fight to maintain influence over Uber’s board. Though he unilaterally appointed two allies to the board in September, a reworked governance structure announced in October significantly diminishes the clout of his company shares, making it difficult for him to vote himself back into power. Looks like Kalanick will be Wozniak-ing it for the foreseeable future. Maybe he should pick up Segway polo?

Marissa Mayer, former CEO of Yahoo

Best Moment: Getting a $23 million severance package to go along with her $236 million in Yahoo stock when she was pushed out of the company

Worst Moment: Being forced to testify before Congress over the 2013 data breach that affected 3 billion accounts

Quote of the Year: “I look forward to using Gmail again.”

2018 Forecast: Though Mayer vowed she would stay with Yahoo through its acquisition by Verizon, she ultimately departed the fading web giant over the summer. Yet she’s still being forced to answer for some of the problems that occurred on her watch, most notably the 2013 data breach which seems to become way worse than we thought every six months or so. She’s probably hoping to be less visible next year, not moreso.

Evan Spiegel, CEO of Snap Inc.

Best Moment: The day of Snap’s IPO in March, when Spiegel rang the opening bell of the New York Stock Exchange in the company of his supermodel fiancée and instantly attained a net worth of $5.2 billion

Worst Moment: The company’s August earnings report, when slowing growth and missed revenue targets sent Snap’s stock to an all-time low. On that day, Spiegel was worth only $3.1 billion.

Quote of the Year: “The personalized news feed revolutionized the way people share and consume content. But let’s be honest: This came at a huge cost to facts, our minds, and the entire media industry.”

2018 Prospects: I’ll be honest—I want Spiegel and Snapchat to win. Unlike his counterparts at Facebook and Twitter, he’s focused on using human gatekeepers to curate content. Communication on his app is not dictated by impenetrable algorithms or overrun with hateful trolls. He’s backed up his rhetoric with a redesigned Snapchat app that does a better job of separating convos between friends from media content by publishers and brands. He’s created the only social app that might not become a partisan fake-news hellscape in the near future. But he’s also seen his app’s core features regularly swiped by Instagram, and he’s trying to create a sustainable business amid a digital-advertising duopoly controlled by Facebook and Google. Snap was supposed to be the Next Great American Tech Story. Instead it will likely be acquired or wither on the vine once Facebook finishes sucking the life out of it.

Rus Yusupov, CEO of HQ Trivia

Best Moment: This staid portrait of Yusupov and HQ cofounder Colin Kroll in a New York Times profile

Worst Moment: This hilarious account of Yusupov trying to strong-arm The Daily Beast into not publishing an interview with HQ host Scott Rogowsky by threatening to fire the guy

Quote of the Year: “We have ambitions to essentially build the future of TV.”

2018 Prospects: Vine creators Yusupov and Kroll struck gold again with HQ Trivia, the app-based trivia show that taps into the internet’s craving for communal events (and cash money). The game has been featured on Good Morning America and attracted nearly 700,000 players in one mid-December session. But the product itself is extremely glitchy, its monetization strategy is unknown, and the backlash against what amounts to a venture-capital-backed lottery has already started. I’m guessing interest fizzles or an innovative new product called Facebook Live Trivia emerges to eat HQ’s lunch.

Buy

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon

Best Moment: Acquiring Whole Foods, a surprise flex that proved that Amazon is coming for the throat of every consumer-goods sector in existence

Worst Moment: The resignation of Amazon Studios Chairman Roy Price, who was accused of sexual harassment by producer Isa Hackett and reportedly made unprofessional behavior a habit while working for Bezos

Quote of the Year: This picture is worth a thousand words.

2018 Prospects: With an ever-more-efficient delivery logistics system, a booming cloud business, and a popular living room Trojan horse, the only thing that could stop Amazon is government intervention. While Donald Trump has accused Amazon of being a monopoly, the president’s gripes are unlikely to evolve into actionable antitrust policy anytime soon. Amazon will probably have to get a lot bigger before the feds think about stepping in.

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla

Best Moment: The splashy launch event for Tesla’s Model 3, which is supposed to be the first mass-market car in the company’s line of electric vehicles

Worst Moment: Yelling “SHAME” at journalists on an earnings call after Tesla posted a record loss, cut staff, and failed to meet its Model 3 production goals

Quote of the Year: “The reality is great highs, terrible lows, and unrelenting stress. Don’t think people want to hear about the last two.”

2018 Prospects: Musk has simply got his fingers in too many high-upside businesses for his stock to not keep rising. The ramp-up in Model 3 production should finally happen in Q1 of next year. His rocket company SpaceX is slated to send two private citizens on a trip around the moon. And the Boring Company is no longer just a dad-joke tweet; it’s an actual business that’s digging tunnels for high-speed transportation in cities around America. It’s still not clear which of Musk’s ambitious bets will pay off, but until we find out, he’ll remain a captivating figure.

Bob Iger, Chairman and CEO of Disney

Best Moment: Smoking up with Desus and Mero, according to highly unreliable source Mero

Worst Moment: The ongoing series of layoffs and tumult at ESPN, a bad sign for one of the most important brands in Disney’s sprawling media empire

Quote of the Year: “I am honored to have been asked to continue serving as CEO through July 2, 2019.”

2018 Prospects: Why is the head of Disney on a list of tech CEOs? Because he’s about to have a pretty drastic impact on the way we stream television. Disney is planning a pair of important digital services in the near future: an ESPN streaming service in 2018 and an unnamed product that will compete head-on with Netflix in 2019. Thanks to its acquisition of Fox’s film and TV studios, the company’s entertainment library is now unparalleled. Disney content is likely to be yanked from Netflix once its own competitor is up and running. The Fox acquisition also gives Disney majority control of Hulu, putting the future of that service in question. No matter which platforms you use for streaming, Iger’s decisions are going to drastically affect the type of content you find available at your fingertips.

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook

Best Moment: Releasing a 6,000-word manifesto about the positive role Facebook could have reshaping global society

Worst Moment: Sending his head lawyer to answer questions from Congress about the negative role Facebook is having reshaping global society

Quote of the Year: “For those I hurt this year, I ask forgiveness and I will try to be better. For the ways my work was used to divide people rather than bring us together, I ask forgiveness and I will work to do better.”

2018 Prospects: After Uber, Facebook was probably the major tech company that took the most heat this year. In addition to the Congressional inquiry on Russian propaganda, there were the privacy headaches in Europe, the fake-news fixes that didn’t seem to work, and the long line of former executives ready to criticize the monster they helped create. Zuckerberg went from filming cute home videos with his personal Jarvis AI to having pundits question whether he should be tried for human-rights violations. But here’s the thing—Facebook is still growing, as are its properties Instagram and WhatsApp. And given the conciliatory tone Zuck has struck to address his company’s myriad issues, there’s no doubt he’ll be angling for more power in 2018, not less. Zuckerberg still believes he has the solutions to the world’s problems, and we’re all so strung out on Likes that we’re going to at least hear him out.

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