Mahbod Moghadam: Founder of Genius

Mahbod Moghadam

“In brain surgery, there are no winners, there are only survivors. I didn’t die, and I’m grateful. As far as I’m concerned I’m supposed to be dead.”

Mahbod Moghadam is a founder of Genius, a platform for annotating the web.

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“Genius was originally an art project. Then it got traction. We did Y-Combinator and raised money from Andreeson-Horowitz. I was the first full-time employee.”

“Then I had health problems. I had a brain tumor and I had to have brain surgery a year and a half ago. After that, it started to be too much to me. Then I got in trouble for writing annotations on Elliot Rodgers’ manifesto, and I decided to resign.”

Mahbod’s humorous, distinctive personality is not always understood or well-received.

“I’m always trying to be funny. In tech especially, there are a lot of people who have never been funny in their entire lives–and they’ve never even tried. It’s kind of tricky–you have to put stuff on the line. In Czarist Russia, the czar would kill his court jester every couple of months. It was the most dangerous job you could have.”

“I’m not the only one who suffers from this.” Mahbod referred to Trevor Noah, the new host of The Daily Show, who has been raked against the coals for vaguely antisemitic joke tweets.

In a TechCrunch interview a few years ago, the Genius founders joked about taking prescription stimulants. I asked him whether drugs were significant at Genius, and about the acceptance of drugs in the wider technology culture.

“This is more of jokes and rhetoric taken seriously. Everyone keeps quoting our TechCrunch Disrupt interview. We weren’t even taking it seriously. We wore sunglasses onstage as a joke. Nobody in the audience was listening, nobody was paying attention. We made some jokes about Vyvanse, it’s not indicative of anything in the culture.”

“Everyone got carried away about our jokes and three and a half years later people are still talking about it.”

“Here’s a thing about tech culture. It’s supposed to be about challenging hierarchies and disruption. Tech has turned into dinosaur worship and nepotism. We’re all sitting around worshiping these rich old guys. To keep up the facade of disruption, we talk about drugs. Doing drugs doesn’t make you rebellious, it makes you part of the system.”

Mahbod told the story of his brain tumor.

“I started getting the serious symptoms in April 2013. The brain surgery happened in October 2013. That whole summer I was a mess. My left hand was shaking uncontrollably. The left side of my face was paralyzed. I had a full batch of interns to manage. The shaking of my hand made it really hard to type.”

“The week before I finally went to the doctor, I was a mess. I was sleeping 14 hours a day, had dark circles under my eyes.”

“They had to try the MRI 3 or 4 times because I was shaking so much. Immediately they said to go to the emergency room right now. I was such a mess I didn’t even have my cell phone. They let me use the hospital phone to call my co-founders. The first thing I said was ‘hey guys, can you bring my cell phone?'”

“At that point the tumor had deteriorated my mind so much that I didn’t know what was going on. When the anesthesiologist was explaining to me how the anesthesia was going to work, I was on Tinder.”

“They said the tumor could blow up at any moment.”

“In brain surgery, there are no winners, there are only survivors. I didn’t die, and I’m grateful. As far as I’m concerned I’m supposed to be dead.”

We talked about a variety of other topics–venture capital, streaming music services, and whether musical innovation has stagnated. In closing, Mahbod provided some wisdom, and lamented that many of the people tech are misguided.

“Don’t sit there and quote your heroes. Let’s get rid of this gerontocracy, this kissing-old-person-ass in tech. I’m a huge fan of technology, but I’m hoping that the tech bubble crashes just to get rid of all these fakers. I think it’s going to be really good for the Internet when the current bubble crashes.”

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