Tech Potatoes & the Weird World of Start-Up

Startups have been here and there since the advent of civilization, I mean, no we didn’t call them startups back then, more like “wahumis”, but you get the jest. Today, for the first time ever and I say “ever, ever”, because it’s true, check somewhere, startups are trendy or have been for the past 20 years or so.

That’s weird though.

The main reason is that weird is a direct description of something that is out of the ordinary and a startup being trendy is that. Throughout our short human history, people just want to get on with it and carry on, relax and be as far away from trouble and responsibilities as possible. But today, some genius in the marketing Dpartment of Things decided that it was cool to do it otherwise.

Hence, we have ended with a bunch of millennials that all want to be entrepreneurs of the next-big sexy thing. That’s it. No content, no thinking, no nothing behind to pursue what that sexy thing is. Nada. Just want to be part and ride that wave.

I remember a couple of years ago, while I was living the good life in London, having this job. In paper it looked like marbles, yes, those shiny round things you used to play with a while back. The job was international, had access to places in government, fancy private sector buildings, attended galas with ambassadors and dignitaries, and had a top-notch view overlooking the Tower of London.

Pure glamour if I might say.

But behind all the charade, the job was like any other job, it was a job. After all, the novelty of strolling along the Foreign Commonwealth Offices’ halls stopped being a novelty as it happens to most things when you do them twice. And the excitement of seeing Boris Johnson storm through our offices, was… well, sorry no, that was just wrong; but he did come every once in a while to our office.

Sorry, got carried away, but you get where I was heading with this.

The think I realised after a couple of years working in a very “cool” environment with many perks, was that despite that, my colleagues just wanted to get on with it and get paid. Just a job for heaven’s sake, just that! Something that could allow them to buy a pint after work, pay my rent and save some dough for a rainy day or for that chalet in Courchevel.

I see the trend with startups, though fading, in a similar fashion and blame that brilliant marketing clerk for this. Yes, alright, the financial crisis launched a bunch of us millennials into the streets and all the sudden we had to become resourceful and entrepreneurial. But and I knock on zee wood, that ghost has left us and things have normalised in one way or another.

Entrepreneurship is hard. PERIOD. It’s not glamorous, it’s not pizza and t-shirts and certainly it’s not millions in my pockets to spare. It’s rather clunky, pizza crusts for diet and millions of cents in potential debt once you’ve been given some money to build something up.

Even now and as the craze wanes out, I still see all these enthusiastic, mostly MBA grads from top B-Schools, waiting eagerly to work or launch a startup. Why? I ask, just why? With that fancy $120,000 degree you should be pushing numbers in a place like Goldman Sachs or helping a big Fortune 500 change their CRM. Not go and be part of something highly experimental gig, with a bunch of dudes that can survive with a yoghurt, or two, and have no convention for the rules.

But it is a strange world indeed and only today a fancy MBA from Wharton will want to earn a salary based on sweat, when back in the day prior to MBAs, a Victorian gent would leave bogus business to his mad brother whose marriage consisted in paying his bows to a rat whose net worth was a stretch of pipe under Paddington station.

Unless there’s something else.

And that something else is how the start-up world has sort of become institutionalised in the last years. With everyone pursuing the next unicorns, Venture Capitalist have followed a trend of being risk adverse, rather than risk thirsty. Instead, a global movement of “company builders” have appeared whose model is to replicate validated business in other markets working alongside venture capital, hire some pedigree approved MBA grads and replicate elsewhere.

So it’s another industry of its own that has hugely benefited from the buzz around start-ups but are worlds apart but in name. On the one hand you have the start-ups run by the dropout or industry veteran that bootstrap and are pushing the boundaries, and on the other you have the start-ups run by the MBA grad building the next big name in plant deliveries, backed by the big VC firm with the best in industry methodology.

Par example, over a year ago I was talking to this international VC firm, most likely managing a portfolio of $60 mio USD, for a Co-founder position. We talked and assessed each other, and at some point they started to mention why they were looking for candidates with the right skills and why they preferred MBA grads from top B-Schools. Which is odd right? You want the MBA to apply their knowledge to a working business to grow it, I mean, they rarely teach how to fail or run something that doesn’t exist in B-School. After the call, I was confused, VCs are by nature risk oriented, we all know that 10/10 investments will most likely fail, so why go for the safe business model and put a big chunk of resources to hire a shiny new MBA?

Which brings me back to my earlier points, start-ups, are risky, not safe, experimental and often pushing boundaries. People that are committed to them are Martians living on Earth trying to figure a) why they live on Earth and b) how to create something that has traditionally only worked in Mars. Some will sometime have an MBA, but empirical analysis usually points to Mars.

So, going back to my conversation with the cash rich VC I talked with, it seems that today’s VC backed start-ups, are more like the traditional SME: there’s plenty of evidence to back the business model in play, are probably more oriented towards increasing sales and are safe as a potatoes, they just call themselves “tech potatoes”. They attract most people that are qualified for the job as per usual and go about their business.

Naturally, this creates a natural issue of semantics, where the traditional start-up fails to capitalise or attract talent because of “tech potato” SMEs and VCs conformity with safe investments.

If you ask me, business as usual, after all that is just a good dose of competition in a free market-based society. The only problem being is that less and less so the market is able to scout the visionaries and is growing complacent with replication. Leaving, as per normality, the spear headers in a bit of a juicy pickle.

And weirdly enough, this whole trend around the startup nation is a façade that in itself, has become an industry that feeds stories, events, happenings, awards, pizza nights, concerts, egg hunts and more. Mostly catered to safe enterprises that believe the hype and are the pure beneficiaries of all the whistles and bells. And many are happy because they have a job, eat pizza and can benefit from networking sessions to discuss grooming their beards.

And there are those, who don’t care about the trends and the hype, they care about building something new and would appreciate some cash that is not ultra-conditioned by shark VC funds that know numbers, but rarely understand the industry. These folks linger around, they attend to the events when cash permits, they eat the pizza, they apply to competitions when there’s one isn’t for SaaS or Micro-mobility services, they learn and adapt, often attract talent to work for little or no cash. And once in a while when they hit a run, they fly like parakeets into the horizon never to be seen again.

They rarely seek glory or fame, some will come around greedy and ambitious, but that’s because they know their product is game changer and the spoils will naturally come after. They are no longer in the Valley as “those” in the Valley have left as it has become the victim of its own success: A Disneyland of startups abundant in pizza and unaffordable housing; a true contradiction to the conditions needed for true revolutions to happen.

So where does this leave us?

Remember that time I was at that fancy job in London town or about that call (which were many with diverse financiers), well, it was no long when I figured that although the people I worked with were a fantastic and a capable bunch, and when I realised that they and the usual SME is the unspoken hero of today’s world. However, I also observed that in that world, things are much more stagnant and usual, and not the front-line where folks are putting all their eggs waiting for most of them to crack but one to hatch into beautiful golden goose.

A front-line that is truly a battleground of ideas and solutions. A place that is not for everyone and for good reasons. A state of mind that challenges your every step along the way and will want you to break down constantly. This being the quintessential raison d’etre for anyone aspiring to pursue such path.

It’s not fancy place where most likely you’ll be better off testing in Mos Eisley Cantina than you’ll do in Austin, Texas…

It’s great that today the industry celebrates these bunch of mavericks, whom throughout the ages, even the Middle Ages, have been at the forefront of things approved by the Ministry of New Things. Let’s try to continue celebrating in such a way, but let’s also put extra care in defining what the industry is and what it’s not for the sake of…

Tech Potatoes.

Writer & Zen practitioner. Sometimes I work as venture builder at the intersection of technology and impact.