In Which I Badmouth the Scene for a Minute
There's a lot to like, even love, about being an entrepreneur. There's agency, opportunity, creativity, the singular challenge and potential rewards of doing something different and new. I wouldn't want any other kind of career.
That said, there are things I really don't love about the Startup Scene, and I've had a stressful week. At the risk of bemoaning what are undoubtedly "first world problems" (and then some), I want to write a bit about what I find irksome about the Valley. Writing helps me process, and maybe my scribbles will help some fellow traveller somewhere down the line.
Everything is Like High School
This is a depressing realization that dawns on you over time. If you expect something different, prepare to be disappointed.
Now, clearly not literally everything is like high school (thank goodness), but it does seem that social ecosystems have a tendency to regress towards a pretty mean mean. People fall back to formative social experience; for most of us, that's high school.
Which is unfortunate. Those adolescent years were full of struggle and strife, angst and anger, cliques and kerfluffles. The lowest common denominator is no way to live, yet these base tribal dynamics — the zero-sum quest for popularity, for social dominion — play themselves out over and over and over again.
I've heard people talk about this in their office, their gym, at their book club, on their marijuana plantation, within their church. It's an omnipresent phenomena and the world of startups, especially the localized world of Silicon Valley, is far from immune.
Let Me Tell You How My Pain is the Worst
I probably feel this way because it's the soup I swim in, but it seems to me that things are particularly bad here. I think it's a combination of factors, starting with the fact that many people here who are successful (or striving to be successful) carry formative adolescent-years baggage.
This isn't to say that every nerd has a chip on his or her shoulder, but some do, and for a few it's clearly a powerful motivator. It takes serious drive to succeed, and the redress of past injustice (real or perceived) is one of the great proven drivers of extreme human effort.
Indeed, well-adjusted people often don't thrive in a pressure-cooker. People with something to prove, with "fire in their belly", with a score to settle — they will persist when a saner person would say "screw it" and throw in the towel. That might be the healthier choice, but in a world where everyone's pretty brilliant and hard-working a maniacal edge can make or break your venture, even if it takes years off your life.
Alternatively, you can fulfill a cliche and become your oppressor; a brogrammer is born.
Which isn't to say people aren't also motivated by positive or creative drives, by their vision and values. They certainly are, and I'll get to that later. I'm just observing there's a kind of psychic pollution that sometimes comes along with extremely driven people. It creates an atmosphere.
There's a lot of ego in this ecosystem, a lot of irony that borders on cruelty. There's not a lot of self-awareness.
And of course there's the money. The big winners here win so big, economically speaking, that it dwarfs any other individual wealth-creation exercise. The only thing that's close is the emerging economy aristocracy game — but that's more a matter of birth than effort, and neither here nor there unless your grand-dad kicked it with The Chairman.
The chase for money/power/respect is a fabled social corruptor for a reason. Even the most successful Wall Street hustlers don't get to be billionaires in their 20s, and they're infamous for being douchebags. The fact that the proverbial brass ring is so gigantic and shiny raises the stakes, justifies (or rationalizes) more extreme behavior, lends to that maniacal atmosphere.
Worse Than Worse, It's Ineffective
As I used to say with my own adolescent friends, "I'm in the business of getting [stuff] done." I like being productive. My biggest problem with all of the above isn't the sometimes toxic atmosphere it creates — you can always get fresh air if you need it; thanks, California! — but rather it's that it can be such an ineffective and wasteful way to organize and incentivize effort.
For starters, the pressure to succeed means people become unwilling or unable to fail. At anything. Even when they are.
If you're trying to do something new and different, let alone good, you need to be brave and bold and creative, and that means making mistakes. Everyone knows this, and will talk about it in abstract, but the scene dynamic drives people, particularly those with less experience, towards a kind of puffed-up bravado instead.
Everyone is always "killing it", going "up and to the right", "executing like crazy" and so forth. Right up until they "pivot", which is valley-slang for starting over.
While it's often true that you're doing well — we're all rockstars after all, and we do pretty awesome things — it's never always true. People speak positively about the "reality distortion field", but I think this loss of perspective can be dangerous.
Another anti-pattern that develops is the cult or personality (or brand). People cluster around high-visibility/high-success individuals, or exhibit a loyalty to groups/companies that can only be described as tribal. Fashions and fads sweep through, with marginally clueful people vociferously extolling the virtue (or danger) of this that or the other.
This is normal human behavior to a point. Though we all swim in this soup, few of us are in positions of real power or influence. We participate vicariously. But the emphasis on dominance leads to a tendency to go overboard.
So if you think that the Android vs iOS debate is any more weighty that the question of Team Jacob or Team Edward, or if you're consciously modeling your management philosophy on Steve Jobs or The Zuck, check yourself. You might be a valleywag.
Gossip Drives Negative Cycles
Which of course brings us to the massive amount of energy wasted on gossip. There isn't much in the way of true journalism in start-up land, or in the technology world in general. The gaps between practitioners, the people who cover them, and the audience are all significant. That makes it hard to tell a story that's anything more than hand-waving at the truth.
Of course, such gaps in understanding aren't abnormal; anything sufficiently technical or complex resists the standard journalistic template. However, most other fields don't have the kind of attention paid to them we see here. The Valley has developed its own poparatzi, a digital tabloid ecosystem which feeds on and reinforces the "pop culture" of startups.
In their low moments, these sites demonstrate all I've been discussing. You get flash stories about money — very rarely real news because they come out long after the deals are done, but $$$ draw eyeballs. You get cults of personality or product. You get soap-opera gossip and public feuds. Lamesauce.
I know a few people who do a very good job writing about technology and entrepreneurialism, but they seem to be swimming against the stream in a lot of ways. Substance is hard, and the incentive structure trends away from it. The systemic drivers favor the TMZ-for-geeks pop culture cycle.
These outlets derive power and revenue from popularity, and the quest for clicks and eyeballs drives sensationalism. This is the essence of tabloid journalism. It requires a constant stream of pulse-quickening updates, not real inquiry or investigation.
Tech blogs also have currency because they are followed by people who make investments (or at least by their assistants). That makes them important. Per the above, I'd question the quality of this input stream, but there aren't many alternatives. The investment decisions then become the basis for future "news", and the snake continues munching it's tail.
This cycle has obvious problems. If you have sensationalism (both real and manufactured by PR) grabbing headlines and driving investments, leading to more sensationalistic coverage, it's not going to end well. Garbage in / garbage out — lather rinse repeat.
Where It Gets Cynical, Or Not
It's easy to become cynical. There's a game being played, and the winners don't seem to be more talented or smarter, just less scrupulous and/or luckier. The top brands are build on shifting sand — Apple's financial success doesn't work w/o Foxconn, Google's gold still comes down to hawking ads — and the up and comers sometimes look more like Ponzi Schemes than real companies.
You start thinking that way, you start thinking about how to get over, to beat someone else and get your piece. Everyone is chasing something: consumers chase shiny baubles, developers chase the framework of the month, founders chase a term sheet, VCs chase the exit. It can feel like a rat race. It can be a rat race.
And as soon as you start trying to win a rat race, you've lost. At best, you'll be the first rodent to get the cheese.
I don't think many people get into this business for that. There are some who are purely after the big score, sure, but they're a slim minority. Most of us — even people with something to prove, with more ambition than is good for them, with occasional dollar signs in their eyes — are really here because of values, ideals, dreams, for hope, for fun, for the future.
All the grinding I've been talking about has a flip-side. It only happens because we're close to the edge. We're near the event horizon. We get a small chance to nudge humanity, to alter progress, to "make a dent" as the saying goes.
That's a real thing, and a good thing. What breaks my heart is when people get so caught up in the scene they lose sight of that. It kills me when I start to feel this happen to myself.
So you have to make a choice.
Obvious Advice, and a Little Hope Too
It takes effort not to regress to the mean. You have to work at it. Check yourself, be a better person. Odds are, it'll make you a better entrepreneur.
Manage your information diet and avoid sceneter blogs. Also, keep your twitter under control. There's an app for that.
Figure out how you want to create, where you think you can really add thick value. Put your energy into things you believe in.
When I think about it, what I like about this advice is that it's not unique to this scene here. I could be saying the same things about my experience with actors in NYC, or hippies in Oregon.
I think the keys to escaping the social regression scene spiral could be common across fields, across cultures and communities. That's a heartening realization. It suggests to me that people who want more out of life can make common cause, that we can have some solidarity, that things can improve if we keep working on it.
Maybe not everything has to be like high school. Maybe we can use our moment on the edge to nudge the species in a better direction. That'd be a hell of a dent, wouldn't it? It's a long shot, but it'd probably take off like a hockey stick if you got it right.