Wary as I am of hyperbole, I reckon that Jeremy Stoppelman deserves five stars.
Stoppelman is the CEO of Yelp, the popular online rating website and app. As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, Stoppelman appeared on a panel last week alongside Sonja Trauss, of YIMBY group S.F. Bay Area Renters Federation, and State Senator Scott Wiener, still on the speaking circuit after the demise of his Senate Bill 827. Stoppelman was there to explicitly support SB 827 and to reaffirm his support for the YIMBY movement.
Stoppelman, whose company is based in San Francisco, knows that their wages have to correspond with their employees’ cost of living. If YIMBYs can get more housing built, companies like Yelp will indirectly benefit.
“You end up paying [employees] more,” said Stoppelman, as reported in the Chronicle. "That’s the most straightforward solution.”
Last year, Stoppelman wrote a $100,000 check to SF-BARF. This donation got Trauss in trouble with some of her anticapitalist critics, who complained that she was just doing the bidding of big business. I’d like to think, though, that it’s the other way around: this is one instance in which business is doing the bidding of — or at least supporting — the common good.
Frustratingly, when it comes to housing, Bay Area Tech companies have a long, proud history of doing…. nearly nothing.
After promoting some half-assed programs to assist employees, Facebook is just beginning to understand that its employees have to live somewhere in the real world with a proposed development in Menlo Park. Google is planning a campus in downtown San Jose, presumably with housing. As for Apple… they’re too busy polishing the doorknobs on their new headquarters to care about anything else that happens in Cupertino.
Meanwhile, down in Los Angeles, the B Team of Silicon Beach — including Snap, Hulu, and Dollar Shave Club -- has been similarly oblivious to the pot of rising rents that threaten to boil their employees alive.
Stoppelman called out his fellow tech giants directly the other night: "Google and Facebook have started to engage locally, Stoppelman said, and he’s surprised that “'more tech leaders weren’t paying attention to this problem as it was developing,’” according to the Chronicle. Not exactly damning criticism, but it’s a start.
All of this gets me thinking: What’s different about Yelp?
A few months ago at an event in Los Angeles on a similar topic, a speaker made a chilling observation: wherever they may be located, tech companies do not consider their neighbors to be their customers. People in Detroit buy automobiles. People in Pittsburgh buy ketchup. People in Rochester (used to) buy cameras. Even if a hometown customer base constitutes a small fraction of a company’s global base, local customers still tie companies to their respective locations. They humanize the business relationship.
What did this mean for cities? Involvement and largesse: everything from sponsoring Little League teams to funding museums (to, yes, tax breaks and political pressure). Say what you will about capitalism: baseball and art are OK by me.
What happens, though, when you don’t really have “customers”? Or, if you do, what if they come in the form of usernames and avatars, not corporeal humans? You end up with companies with all the civic spirit of a plague of locusts.
Yelp’s users come from the same faceless mass of bits and bytes that Facebook’s, Google’s, and Snap’s do. But, whereas those other companies seek to create their own “communities” online Yelp is one of the few tech companies whose product is linked, intrinsically and immutably, to the real world. (No offense to Pokémon Go.)
Stoppelman spends most every waking moment figuring out not how to improve and monetize the online experience but rather how to improve (and, yes, monetize) the real-world experience. Particularly the urban experience.
Yelp has lent crucial support to independent businesses — the very businesses that help make cities vibrant, interesting places. I mean, if you’re going to Applebee’s, you’re not doing it because of a review. But if you’re in a new part of town, or a new town entirely, you probably turn to Yelp to find a nice place to get lunch, get your suit cleaned, or fix your computer. Cities thrive when Yelp works properly, and Yelp thrives when cities work properly.
I don’t want to psychoanalyze Stoppelman. But I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that his business sensibilities inform his urban sensibilities. For one thing, he’s in Oakland, not Silicon Valley. And anyone with urban sensibilities in coastal California knows that we need more housing. And the type of dense urban housing that YIMBY's often promote goes hand-in-hand with the local businesses that populate the upper reaches of Yelp's ratings. It stands to reason, then, that Stoppelman would keep his feet on the ground while others have their heads in the Cloud.
Now, whether the YIMBY approach is the right approach is open to debate. But let’s give Stoppelman credit for trying. And, though I know tech billionaires are supposed to be iconoclastic, with their black turtlenecks and all, I hope some of his counterparts will also try to raise their ratings as corporate citizens.
This article has been updated since its original publication.