From Steve Jobs’s Zen connections, to Wisdom 2.0 conferences, to mindfulness classes on tech campuses, Buddhism has strong roots in Silicon Valley. Zen’s aura of modern minimalism, calm focus, and social consciousness makes it a popular brand for fledgling companies, as Patrick Clark observed in the 2013 piece “Zen and the Art of Startup Naming” for BloombergBusiness. Clark lists a total of ten startups with Zen in their name, including ZenPayroll, Zendesk, Zenefits, Zenfolio, etc. In considering why so many tech companies have gone with Zen names, Clark cites a 2008 article by the corporate copywriter Nancy Friedman on religious rhetoric in business in which she claims, “zen is often a synonym for ordinary nothingness.” While people do use Zen to signify nothingness or emptiness, I think the proliferation of Zen startups points to additional facets of Zen’s commodification.
ZenPayroll has been around since 2012, but made news in April 2015 for securing $60 million in Series B funding. Founded by three Stanford graduates (go Cardinal!), the company promises to turn payroll from an impersonal exchange to a positive, personal engagement between companies and their employees. Though very little on their website speaks directly to the Zen label, much of their aesthetic, branding, and language evokes Zen. They use sans-serif fonts and a subtle palette, their logo features the ubiquitous ensō, and they run a ZenBlog as well as a Weekly Zen newsletter. The banner ad that popped up shortly after I started looking at their website invited me to find my “payroll Zen” with “fast, simple and hassle-free payroll.” Another connection to Zen is in ZenPayroll’s relentless positivity:
ZenPayroll is on a long-term mission to modernize the payroll industry and connect companies with their employees in a more meaningful way. Today people think of payroll as a painful, tedious chore that forces businesses to deal with unnecessary complexity, manual tasks and numerous fees.
Compensation should not be an impersonal transaction. It’s about employers rewarding people for their hard work, and employees feeling appreciated for their contributions. Our team is striving to positively influence millions of businesses and hundreds of millions of employees around the world. That mission is a key reason customers love ZenPayroll.
This positivity extends to features such as ZenPayroll Giving, which allows employees to automatically deduct charitable contributions from their paychecks. The ZenPayroll Giving screen that users see features the slogan “Make the World a Better Place,” a sentiment that has become such a cliché in the tech industry that it has been repeatedly parodied on the HBO series “Silicon Valley.” There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make the world a better place, but it comes across as disingenuous (as well as generic and vague) in a neoliberal economic system that rewards self-interest over the common good and relegates social welfare to the private sector. Considering that much of Silicon Valley’s interest in Buddhism (specifically in the forms of meditation and mindfulness) stems from the desire to work more efficiently and succeed in the industry, calls to improve the world ring hollow. ZenPayroll’s positive, charitable attitude ties into Zen’s associations with calmness and peace: Zen masters aren’t supposed to get angry or exploit others, though history — that eternal buzzkill — offers plenty of counter-examples.
Joshua Reeves, CEO of ZenPayroll, explained the company’s name in Kristen Brown’s 2014 article for the SF Gate, “Startups Fighting over the Word ‘Zen'”: “the company was looking for a name that communicated the company’s goals of making payroll a simple, ‘peaceful’ process for small businesses, rather than the headache it more often is.” Brown’s article included ZenPayroll as one of the dozens of Zen-branded companies that have become targets of Zendesk’s lawsuits. Zendesk, founded in 2007, has tried to aggressively protect its brand against upstart startups by alleging that people could easily confuse similarly named companies. (This doesn’t just happen in the tech industry: HBI International sued Rocky Patel Premium Cigars in 2011 over Zen branded tobacco and related products.) However, this has only worked against companies that lacked the resources to fight legal battles.
On one hand, it is easy to see Zen’s transformation into a trademark or brand as a separate phenomenon from its other roles as religious tradition or spiritual practice. Reading books about Zen, participating in Zen devotional practices, or engaging in Zen meditation can happen without awareness of Silicon Valley’s many Zen companies. Yet I do not believe Zen-as-brand exists in isolation from other understandings of Zen. Using Zen in company names changes its meanings in a way that fits into larger cultural shifts. The “spiritual marketplace” in which people compare and consume different religious options, including Zen, belongs to the same system that makes Zen an appealing name for tech startups. Zen companies are not just trading on whatever cachet the term “Zen” has left after all this inflation (Zenflation?), they are changing what Zen signifies. Will people be less interested in Zen Buddhism after Zen becomes known more as a company name, brand, or desktop kitsch than as a religious tradition?