Do Startups Have a Drinking Problem?
Sarah Jane Coffey

Sarah — thanks for your wonderfully eloquent post. I’ve been fortunate to work in tech companies, and a couple of startups, where a firm “no” was enough. I had a similar experience to you with my soccer team where one member seemed to need others to drink around him and didn’t want to take no for an answer. I defused the situation by telling him the truth about my drinking past. He felt awful, and confused. Maybe that shone a light on something for him?

I’ve been in tech for more than 20 years so I’m able to compare “now” to “then”.

If I think back twenty years, the people trying to change the world through technology were earnest geeks and nerds like me. We were still the generation of programmers who’d had our pants pulled down — figuratively — and mocked for our interest in computers. If we were successful at anything in addition to changing the world, it was to normalize working in tech and make it more acceptable for those who came after us, and to make it interesting to a broader part of the population. And of course, the broader the pool, the more assholes you’ll attract.

I think VCs play a role in creating this culture. The “story” around startups is that it’s a way to “get rich quick”. I see this as a power relationship — if I’m giving you $nM of my money, I expect you to work yourself as hard as possible to get a return on my money. And you’ll need to let off steam, so a regular blow out helps you feel like you’re not actually overworking, and is quicker and cheaper than having vacations or a more stable work culture. With these conditions, it’s a self fulfilling cycle of attracting people who are significantly motivated by money, and are ultra-competitive, and assholes. We’ll bring more alcoholics around with that. I have no doubt that a CEO who gets pissy about people not drinking around him at 9.30am, regardless of the win the company had had, has a problem he needs to look at. And good on you for enabling someone ELSE to say no.

I’m encouraged by the work Jerry and the Reboot crew are doing to drive radical self awareness. It’s hard to be an asshole when you have to look at yourself and your humanity. I truly believe Reboot’s work with CEOs will create more stable, connected workplaces that simply aren’t interested and don’t hire the assholes

There ARE good startups out there without the heavy drinking, crazy hours culture. You just need to find them. If I might ask you a bold question for a public forum, why do you keep self-selecting into the dysfunctional ones?

With love.


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