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Startup Cyanide (Part 1)

Tom Littrell
Aug 17, 2017 · 6 min read

Startup entrepreneurs want you to buy their chic, solve-all innovations. The dominant market for these trendy businesses is a group of people looking to tweak their lives such that they can be more productive or ahead of the pack. The products they market ultimately hurt the problems they wish to solve, adding to underlying societal issues of flash-bang consumerism and environmental degradation. Often buyers do not stop to think about how the promises of their coveted gadgets and commodities fall very short of more-fulfilling goals that require much greater effort to accomplish.

Each new era of innovation has cumulatively overthrown the last, resulting in a world in which no idea is unheard, and yet creativity stagnates. Every bio reads “designer and entrepreneur,” “engineer and growth hacker.” Where one product ends, endless iterations begin. We are losing focus. Instead of careful refinements and bold new ideas, startup culture has drowned America’s consumer nation in habit-forming, time-mongering froth. Nothing is sacred when everything is pierced with a price tag, especially when that tag gets hidden in the sleeve. It is time (it has long been time) for modern businesses to contribute to modernity through moral redirection and stray from the petty prizes of consumer trickery and depersonalization. To accomplish this, problem-solving products must retrace issues to their founding frameworks.

You’ve just pitched a lean-to and are headed out to hunt for tonight’s dinner. Walking past your brother’s tent, you spot logs whittled and lashed into a peculiar contraption. He emerges, strolls across the landscape, lifts up the narrow end of the device, and starts pushing it across soft soil. Astonished, you put down your bow.

Village life is simple. Functional. Fields anchor the population. The elders are worried about travelers who keep piling into huts and settling nearby. You devise a plan to meet up with that man from the trading post out west and carve up blueprints for more practical housing.

Soon enough, the division of labor deepens. Bakers refine their recipes, weavers tinker with more precise tools, knives become sharper, and the gentry are onto some advanced form of scrawled speech.

It was a good book. You grin, closing the back cover and drawing a long puff of your pipe. Blowing out a candle and unlatching wooden window shutters, you gaze at a bobbing oil piston on the purple horizon.

Gloves snapped, stick shifted, and goggles in place, you twist on a growling engine, and exhaust bellows out the back pipe. “That Henry’s quite a sharp fellow,” you shout to your son in the back seat while rolling down a narrow road.

You click off your iPhone and slide it into your pocket. You can’t imagine a world before Steve and his garage. All comforts are within arm’s reach, but something is still missing. You’re not quite sure what, but you’re certain that a greater convenience exists and that you could be profiting from it.

Enter the age of the startup.

Kick-start your heart. Crowd-tilt the economic stratosphere in your favor. Snap chats and slap your face in a book. Download a calendar that’s surely better than the one you use now. To-do list? Just-do-it list. Spin out every fidget and tumble your thoughts. Charge your phone with your pelvis. Graph your sex life. Sex up your graphs. Read a book in two minutes. Check the time in three. Consume, upgrade, and dispose. Revel in force of habit.

The millennial credit card that alleviates pains of traditional credit fails to address a very foundational issue of capitalistic debt. It simply offers a diversion. The pillow that measures tussles and turns requires an analysis and reaction to those tussles and turns. Your heart doesn’t care how many times per minute it’s beating — it just wants some rest. A wrist blip reminds you to drink water but forgets that you are a human who thirsts.

When new products are created (even recycled products!), energy is required to create them. Waste is produced. Upcycling is a different story, but startups urge you to consume, not reuse. Built to last is a thing of the past.

Professor of business administration and marketing Lutz Schlange suggests that society, economy, and ecology are all interdependent, and that any sensible entrepreneur will need to heavily consider this symbiosis to succeed. How many have?

Tower Garden, a vertical agriculture startup, wants you to pay “$45.25 per month for 12 months” to own a big plastic tube with nutrient pods. The company is owned by Juice Plus+, a current-day Amway. All you need to know is that the company features a chummy crew of models in scrubs on its site to assure you that “Many doctors recommend Juice Plus+!”

Is Tower Garden economically driven? Obviously. Socially driven? Schlange describes a socially motivated startup as one that prospers “by promoting a social cause, by realising altruistic ideas, or by helping people in need, all of which represent opportunities for tackling major social issues and offering new ideas for wide-scale societal change.” Tower Garden aims to have consumers know where their food comes from and scrap reliance on food transportation — deserving of another check in that category. Is the company ecologically driven? Ironically, it would not appear so: 62 by 30 by 30 inches of “high-quality, USDA-approved, UV-stabilized, food-grade plastic” is part of the package, and delivered nutrient packs nix the save-on-transportation bit. Needless to say, Schlange’s symbiotic triangle serves more as a “pick two” than a harmonic trifecta.

Subscriptions are insidious. The reason your phone gets sluggish right before the next release is the same reason your pleather armchair peels and dextromethorphan disintegrates. Consumerism isn’t all bad, nor is capitalism, yet these greater economic platforms are macrocosms of Schlange’s triangle. You may have heard your dad dictate, “Nothing’s easy or free.” He was right.

To go faster, to make more, and to do so with as little waste as possible is to upheave all notions of one type of waste and deeply bury the others. After all, efficiency, when defined as the “quality of doing something well and effectively, without wasting time, money, or energy,” acts as yet another “sacrifice one, save two” scenario.

Often the question of “how can X be more sustainable” is a simple matter of consciousness and gradual change. (Of course, there are vastly more complex scenarios.) Do not allow the doom-and-gloom angle of climate change coax you into buying certain products marketed for their supposed ecological benefits. Instead of reaching for a digital sticky-note pad to reduce your carbon footprint, consider whether the resources used to create and power that digital product are worth the convenience it offers and the paper it saves. Many supposed solutions create a by-product of further issues — an insidious cycle to be caught up in.

Jonathan Foley, executive director of the California Academy of Sciences, pointedly states, “For those who doubt that personal climate actions really matter, I ask this: How do you think emissions actually go down?” Same principle applies to sustainability in the startup era. The individual must realize that certain marketed conveniences are fraudulent and, as a result, change their consumer mindset. This social-behavioral process has shown some promise in the past few years. As big data envelops us, metrics that were once impossible to obtain are now viewable in surplus. Fewer books, discs, etc., are being pumped out in favor of digital media.

The key is not to allow clever design and marketing to reverse this trajectory. Earnest entrepreneurs will back claims with dispassionate, peer-reviewed research. The rest will have their bluffs called and curtains drawn back by ever-cautious consumers navigating free-market competition. Idealistic? Maybe. Pessimistic? That outlook does no good. There is a quasi-solution (as no solution is without its own flaws) to living among a bombardment of snazzy startups. And that is to be realized through the catharsis of simplification (coming in Part 2 of this series).

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