Justin Zhu, chief executive officer of digital marketing startup Iterable Inc., was walking down Broadway in San Francisco on April 26 when he was summoned to a surprise conference call and abruptly fired. His co-founder, Andrew Boni, and the company’s entire board told him he was losing his job, primarily because he had taken LSD before a meeting in 2019.
The incident had indeed happened—Zhu says he was trying to take a small dose to improve his focus and accidentally took too much—but he also was being fired for other reasons. For the previous 10 months, Zhu had been talking with a reporter from Bloomberg Businessweek about his experience as CEO, the challenges of being Chinese in Silicon Valley, and his disputes with two of Iterable’s key investors. He hadn’t cut off the conversations when investors asked him to, the final straw in a long-running feud.
Zhu’s firing has blossomed into a bizarre saga that hits on many of the classic Silicon Valley cultural touchpoints: founders who don’t act like conventional businessmen, the search for additional productivity through drug use, and the risks of talking openly about the pressures of the job. It’s also a story steeped in the tense ethnic politics that are roiling the tech community and American society at large.
“In the early days, they’re looking for weird,” Zhu, 31, says now about venture capital investors. He’d taken Iterable from an idea to a company valued at about $2 billion, a stunning success by most measures. But when a company reaches that stage, he says, the new mantra becomes: Reduce the risk.
Zhu started his career as a software engineer at Twitter in 2011. After two years, he and Boni, who’s now 32, poured their life savings into a startup, Iterable, that created marketing campaigns and notifications that target consumers in highly tailored ways, such as via email or text alerts telling customers the status of their food delivery orders. Before long, it started winning clients, and investors clamored to sign on. By the end of 2016, Iterable was valued at $125 million.
In person, Zhu exudes quirkiness in a way that fits with the freethinking ethos of Silicon Valley. At a recent business lunch, he wore a planet- and star-emblazoned teal velour sweatshirt that he says he bought because it reminded him of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. He likes to discuss the amorality of capitalism, the principle of cosmic debt, and the need for more love in the world.
Even as Iterable thrived, Zhu says he sometimes felt alienated and sad. He believed that he and the company were too focused on sales and money at the expense of altruistic goals. When he attended the 2019 wedding of one of his investors in Lebanon, Zhu met an entrepreneur who suggested he take small quantities of LSD to improve his concentration and overall well-being. Zhu researched the idea and found studies that linked microdosing with improved focus and lower stress.
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