The dark side of the startups
Tales about the Valley, MIT, nuclear bombs … and 13+ years of experience in startups
Much have been said about startups. Developers dream to land a job in the Silicon Valley for a Unicorn. Startup universities, people pitching with hip-hop style, etc. It is ‘cool’, ‘modern’, ‘trending’ and a lot of people go this way. Growing number of articles (this, this) and initiatives (this and this) show that the startup culture (as everything else here) has two sides and before going this way it is good to think a bit.
In 2003 I started coding for a Skype killer product. In 2006 I became a partner and full-stack soldier (does everything from coding to CEO) in the just-founded software house Dreamix. I spent 9 years there and most of my activities were related with startups: started my own education startup inside the company; led the MVP development and validation for the insurance industry; 24/7 helping a Silicon Valley startup survive with 10 000 users and poor service availability; fostered the startup spirit in the company, etc. Meantime I founded a music startup, office in the woods, forest kindergarten. Currently I help a school to start up.
Everything, which is new, challenge, hard to achieve attracts me and I’m ready to commit the ‘new’ forgetting the rest. I dip fully in it, dream all day and night. No matter if I’m a founder, tech leader, business development or regular engineer I feel part of the team and I fight for the common cause “The new one” with passion. A passion that burns …
After the initial fever comes “Why … I do that?”, “What is the direction? Do I like it? Do I and the team go in the same direction?”. If I don’t answer the questions well enough I quit.
I’m 32 and I have maximum of 68 years here. I don’t want to spend them asking Why I do what I do and not get a satisfactory answer. Meeting the following
Stories from the startup world
made me reconsider the way I behave and make choices.
- Robert Oppenheimer — project manager of the Manhattan Project (nuclear bomb invention). The interview comes after bombing Japan. Often in this and similar interviews you can see the man explaining with tear in his eyes how his invention can kill millions of people and everyone can do that. My guess is that when he was invited to lead the project he was proud entrepreneur.
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For engineers this is the probably the Mecca of technology and science. I’ve visited it 2 weeks ago and while researching about Lifelong Kindergarten I hear people talking about how great projects are born here and how the American army is the main sponsor of MIT. How should I know that if I teach tech for kids with Scratch JR it is safe and my vision for better world relates with the American Navy’s one? Of course this probably is not the case, but be mindful about the situation helps making better choices.
- Walk in the mountains. Two old men with white-cotton-communist-style vests talk on a wooden table in front of the mountain shelter while having lunch. One of them is telling a story about his past — loud and proudly. Physician, invented a great radar tool which the Russians bought and integrated in thousand factories for … tanks. Could this invention improved the tanks so they can kill 10 times more? I cannot tell. But what made me great impression was how the other old man called with great respect the first one — “You are a pioneer”. Have you heard about the festival Pioneers.io?
Extreme examples but they show that lack of thought, wisdom and human values can lead to unwanted results. Even in my practise I’ve seen people using my work not really being “man of integrity and honesty” or people using it to share illegal content. I’ve met people proud coding algorithms for self-guided missiles. Everyone has this stories.
What is important when we have to choose starting or joining an initiative? How can we stay motivated and do good?
Criteria, character and conscious choices
Man comes to the Earth and dies. How he’ll walk the way between these two events depends on the choices he makes. The character determines the choices. The character is composted from man’s values (what is important for him) and habits. The character distinguishes one from another. Everyone is responsible for the choices he makes and bears the consequences.
New thesis: Startup doesn’t mean it is cool.
With experience people develop their criteria system. It is good for people to be conscious about it and practise often. Practise comes with comparison and asking questions. It starts in early childhood with simple exercise: Look at these two trees: apple tree and pine tree. What is common and what is the difference? Or “Lets buy you a backpack. What colors are available? What size do we need?”.
Values are what is important to us. When we are conscious about our value system we can we can see which ones we like or don’t like. For those which we don’t like we can try change them. Small part of the general values are the human values. Human wisdom proves that if we follow those human values then the results of our choices are good in the long turn for us, those around us and the whole. Of course there could be exceptions so it is important to remember that everyone is responsible for his own choices. Training in human values is a good step to realize one’s own values.
So what questions we could ask ourselves and others before making a decision?
Why, How and What?
This famous TED talk gives us three questions Why, How and What prioritized by inmportance — Start With Why. It is simple: If we know Why we act then we’ll know (or learn) How to do it (eventually with quality) and then What comes naturally. When we know those answers we can be conscious about our actions, abilities and values.
I observe that people often start with What :“Lets do an online shop” e.g What — Online shop; How: Don’t know but we’ll ask; Why: Because it is modern. Or it could be this way — Why: I believe music changes the world for good and some people feel better when they play. How: By making easier for people to express themselves through music. What: Online shop. But … wait a second … “I might help by organizing workshops and actually it is more effective and I’m better in organizing people”. In the first case the shop goes ‘et another online shop’. There are two types of entrepreneurs opportunities based and mission based.
NLP and Five logical levels of change/learning/consciousness
5 Identity — Who am I? What is my mission? What choices do I make?
4 Believes/values— Why I do that? What is important for me? What do I believe?
3 Capabilities — How I do that? What I’m capable of?
2 Behaviour— What am I doing?
1 Environment — When and Where I do it?
Robert Dilts extended
In my training in human values the logical levels are extended to 7. Level 5 is split into 3:
7 Vision — From where? To Where? Global mission. The whole
6 Identity — Who? Mission
5 Choices— Which one? How much?
Levels of growth and consciousness in organizations
The same levels can be applied to organizations.
The table contains sample questions that can be asked when one wonders if should start working for a company/startup.
Number 4,6,7 corresponds to the widely spread company’s Values, Mission, Vision. For a long time these were one of the best practises in business. Now I believe they are essential and without their clear answers I cannot make a conscious choice. These answers keep me going when the hard times come. Choice that changes my and the world’s future.
Company’s Vision is how it imagines the world we live, which are the important problems to solve. It is a answer to “Where to?”. Where the world goes? The Vision is not how does the company see itself in 5 years which answer is often — XX employees and YY profit.
The Mission of the company is its role in its Vision. How the company will help its Vision becomes reality? It is the answer of “Who am I?” => ‘Where is my attention?”. What do I do so the world goes the way I believe it is good.
When one knows the answers of “Why I do this?”, “What is my role and function?” and “What values do I have?” then he is motivated to go further or if he doesn’t like the answers knows what to change.
In order for a company to work Vision, Mission and Values are not enough. It should prove that the world needs it.
Values are what is important to us. When we prioritize and organize them we get our values system. There are human values, organizational values, christian values, etc.
Values determines the choices of the organization. They are related to its character, mission and vision.
De Bono gives us the Six Medal of Values. It makes possible to realize what is our medal. If we like it — we put it on the front. If not — change it.
- Golden. The medal of humanity. It is important to do good for the people in and outside of the organization. Philanthropist
- Silver. The organization medal. It is important to be good for the organization itself. Optimized processes, profit, expenses. Egregors are those organization who think and act only for themselves. They are powered by the people in the organization and they do not return equally. (Check Momo by Michael Ende).
- Steal. Medal of quality. It is important to produce a quality product.
- Glass. The medal of innovation. It is important to do new things, something that has not being invented or it is simpler/better than the current state. Creativity.
- Wooden. The medal of the surrounding environment. It is important to look after the nature. What environmental footprint does the company leaves.
- Brass medal. Medal of perception. The most important is how the company looks like. Valuable are advertising, good vision, prestige.
The balance between the medals is important. For example if an organization values only steel or glass medals without golden when it can produce the best or the most silent bombs.
The process is important
One of the principles I like is Google’s “release early release often”. Even if we don’t have satisfactory answers of the important questions it is not necessary to quit. We all have our Inner guide that leads us and if we can hear it he’ll lead us to the answers.
The process of awareness and change on every one of the Logical Levels is important and takes time — sometimes less, sometimes more. Realizing the questions will bring us the answers. Forcing the processes results in mutation (like using synthetic fertilizers). Copying others’ values, visions and missions is self-deception.
Change on a certain level significantly changes the processes of the lower level and affects a bit the upper one. For example if we decide to be a doctor instead of lawyer (change in Identity) then our choices will be different, but our mission (to help people) might not change. Thus it is important to be aware how we are trying to change things and on which level. Imagine what is the difference when saying to a kid “You are bad” and “The things you do are bad”. In the first case you go on a level way to high.
A problem on a certain level can be solved from the next level. The kid is putting its finger in its nose. You give the child a napkin — tool, new skill.
It takes time for the management and employees to soak, realize the values, mission and vision. Otherwise those words are only a good looking sign on the wall and they loose sense.
Companies like Zappos gives us a good example how to answer those questions so everyone feels them personal.
Few related articles and books:
I believe in entrepreneurship as a way for positive change. I believe that the more conscious choices we do less stories for nuclear bombs we’ll hear.
How important are the Vision, Mission and Values of the company for its existence? Is existence at any price acceptable and should we close if we are not sure about our vision? What are the best practices when it comes to Vision, Mission and Values in the company? Please share in a comment and hit ❤ so more people can see it.