“What is best in life? Is it to crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women? Well, that’s a pretty good start. But at Kixeye, we want more than that.” So says Will Harbin, the blazer-clad CEO of the social gaming startup Kixeye, in a new viral ad that tech bloggers have called “hilarious” and “awesome.”
The video, which also features a profanity-spewing young boy, an old man hollering “hot buttered beans!” before dying onscreen, and a scene in which Harbin waves around what appear to be a light-saber and a dildo, is a recruiting tool. Its goal, Kixeye vice president of marketing Brandon Barber told me in a phone interview, is to reach as many people in the company’s target employee demographic as possible, so that Kixeye can lure “high-quality hires” to its San Francisco offices. In particular, the fast-growing company is after talented developers—computer programmers—a scarce and valuable commodity in Silicon Valley today.
The ad certainly leaves an impression. And its skewering of Kixeye’s more established rivals—presumably Zynga (the foul-mouthed young boy) and Electronic Arts (the dotty old man), among others—is funny and effective, if crude. But Kixeye’s approach to marketing also represents a cultural wager of sorts. While its competitors are talking about changing tech-startup culture to be more professional and inclusive, Kixeye is betting that boys will continue being boys.
Silicon Valley, often held up as the shining future of the American economy, has had its luster tarnished of late by complaints of endemic male chauvinism and misogyny—what Mother Jones in April called the “brogrammer problem.” The problem isn’t new, but many in the industry were embarrassed by fresh examples such as the Klout ad that asked, “Wanna bro down and crush some code?” and the Path executive who bragged of winning a job by submitting pictures from a “nudie calendar” he’d created. If that’s the path to Silicon Valley stardom, critics reasoned, it’s no wonder that Newsweek’s list of the 100 most powerful people in tech was 92-percent male.
Considering all the recent hand-wringing, I asked Barber if anyone at Kixeye worried that its testosterone-driven approach—for example, Harbin’s gleeful recitation of the “lamentation of their women” line, a Conan the Barbarian reference—might turn off as many recruits as it attracts. Sure, Barber said—and if so, all the better. “That really is the secondary objective of this video, which is to weed out people that wouldn’t fit in, that wouldn’t fit in to our culture. … There are certain people that are going to respond negatively to that video, and frankly we wouldn’t want ’em around anyway.”
By “people that wouldn’t fit in,” Barber says he doesn’t mean women. In fact, the company is somewhat unusual among startups of its kind for having a number of women in senior leadership positions, including CFO and VP of Engineering. He just means people who lack a sense of humor, an appreciation of the absurd. “We seek out talent, whether you’re male or female, gay or straight or black or white or from Mars or China,” Barber said. “If you’re a female who happens to be an extraordinary talent in your category and loves games, we have a place for you.”