Can we stop the “Startup Bullshit” once and for all?

It’s in every place that is or wants to be a tech hub: it’s in Seattle, it’s in Belo Horizonte, it’s in Tel Aviv. It’s everyone that wants to be a high-tech billionaire by 20. It’s both and neither. It’s everyone’s fault and no one’s. It’s really a cultural shift of values that started to merit the image more than the content, and the idea more than the achievement. Whatever you call it, the “Startup Bullshit” has to stop, unless we want to honor the nickname “Peter Pan Generation”.

The plethora of ideas out there really amuses those who might think we are doing more developing than every other generation in human history. We shall not be that naive, however. It’s unnecessary to throw out numbers to show that the “Big Data/Cloud/… Era” is not that prolific. Nor was the “App Effect”. In fact, this author argues that the latter is really the root of all the evils. But anyways, the problem is not that we have so many ideas, nor is the solution that we have to stop thinking about innovative ways to live and interact.

The main claim is that the jocose motto “making the world a better place” has gone way too far to be taken any seriously anymore. Bar talk gives birth to napkin-business-plans, those to cool “.io” and “.xyz” domain names, those to fancy web designs, those to free-food-office-spaces, blazer-jeans-executives, and those to nothing at all. The chain ends when the dream fails. When the money is over. This has been the story for quite some time now, replace “web designs” for “mobile apps” and you’ve got yourself in the 2010 app frenzy.

Fortunately, capitalists have become somewhat more aware of these blobs, and have started to open their eyes to the true value of tech goods and services (ahem, Snapchat). It’s all plain, old capitalism that sometimes it’s puzzling how we even got to his point of startup bullshit: if you bring value, you make money. Otherwise, you don’t. How did we manage to disrespect that? Startups bear too much of an image culture, and most of them are too anxious for the IPO toast, that they shoot in all directions hoping one idea works someday. The culture seems to perpetuate itself; everything nowadays is a startup. Let’s get it straight for good now: startups are starting level companies. Period. It’s nothing more than a time adjective for companies. It has turned into a tech-savvy, cool-minded, hipster-looking way of business, but it really shouldn’t have. All of this eager desire to carry that image is partly helping more and more companies to establish the, Endup Culture? The more deluded with all this image we become, the less likely we are to pay attention to the core of the content. The result is failure to understand market demands, consumer needs, technology boundaries, logistical concerns, and all that makes a company traditionally a success. Are we addressing the right problem? Are we looking at all the edges?

Computers are too nice

Not to say that the real startup culture isn’t valuable, though. The culture that really stands for exploring the blank canvas that computers and technology give humans is worthwhile, to say the least. But it seems like people forgot how fun this really is, and instead are deluded with the tricks of Wall Street, and the perspective of getting rich faster than any other career has ever promised. There are brilliant ideas out there, and most of them could truly be solving someone’s problems, if only they were well executed. Yes, some of them were not even well thought first of all, and computers are somewhat blameworthy as well; they are too gentle to developers. Computers allow any person with some degree of programming knowledge (or maybe not even that) to pursue any idea — even those ideas that have no chance of becoming a reality.

The “App Effect” season is perhaps a great example of this reasoning; at one point, developing an app was so easy, with great help of all the intuitive software to do so, that anyone and everyone wanted a shot at this game. People started having an app before having an idea. The way you would come up with a company was to start with an app, then think about what were you going to lay out in it. It is unfortunate, but most of the legacy of the apps is about entrenching this false intuition of creating companies and suddenly becoming rich, and the “every idea is a good idea” logic. Now, apps are mostly gone, and we are left with Apple videos every year at the World Wide Developer Conference on how apps can change the world. It’s exactly the elasticity of computers and the freedom of the internet that provoke together the twofold outcome: on one hand, all these ideas coming to reality within a couple of months, and with very little money — (generally, you would choose you parent’s garage for likelihood of success), but on the other, all these ideas each creating a problem for the solution, instead of the opposite. The one-way result, however, is us having so much more than we need and as a consequence, choosing to dispose most of it. Interesting enough, the startup culture also flirts with simplicity and minimalism, but it seems to be working the other way around by putting together so much of what we don’t need or want.

College dropouts

Another reason is linked to maturity, or lack of it. The story of the college dropouts did a bad service for all of the prominent startup founders; Among many, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg implied an induction principle that leads to an unfortunate fallacy; so many of the successful tech billionaires dropped out from college, so we should probably do the same if we want to succeed — college is a regular, medium-class, “become employable” dream. The real entrepreneurship life is out of it. It reminded me of a Philosophy exam in which we were to distinguish deductive from inductive reasoning, and the example for inductive was exactly that: “Steve Jobs dropped out of college. Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of college. Jobs and Zuckerberg are billionaires. Therefore, if I want to be a billionaire, I should drop out of college.” And then, didactic enough, the problem ended with a picture of a miserable man collecting trash in a Brazilian slum. It couldn’t have been clearer. Again, the superficial appearance of things, that is very appealing to the generation that scrolls social media feeds to only read headlines is a major reason for why we are slowly becoming sellers of organic, fresh air.

“The Uber for X” Phenomenon

Another good example of “Startup Bullshit” is the “Uber for x” phenomenon. Although there’s plenty literature out there that explains why the Uber for X is never the Uber, and will eventually fail, it is still relevant to talk about it as a major reason for the current startup trend. Too often we see examples of companies that don’t introduce themselves as the “Uber for X” because that would probably carry an IP lawsuit, but proudly pronounce themselves as the on-demand, sharing-economy solution for, well: laundry, car-wash, books, tutors, handyman work, housecleaning, etc. The list is an endless set of inputs for the value of X. Why? Because it sounds awesome all of this counter-culture, non-materialistic way of thinking, which really is, but it’s a false step to think that it’s that trivial to have a good implementation of the sharing economy model. What is trivial, though, is to come up with a rip-off of Uber, applied to another category of product. It goes on the same line of the inductive reasoning above. Uber has succeeded, so why don’t we have it for any service we can think about? Name it. We should also use the 2010 prefix “i” that fits every idea because Apple has done it successfully: i-laundry, i-car-wash, i-tutor. No, wait a minute, your friend interjects, that’s old school bullshit. How about the “y”, “ly” or “fy” suffixes? laundryfy, car-washy, tutorify. The linguistics get complicated, but who cares? Others have used them. Done. The Uber for X was created. Now it’s the part we never think about because the “Uber” component of the formula “Uber for X” guarantees us that he’s going to save us from any trouble, for it succeeded being what it is, so shall we. The VP pitch questions: do we need the Uber for laundry, the Uber for tutors, the Uber for housecleaning? Or, do we want them? Do they simplify or complicate our lives? Can we connect the suppliers to the buyers? The laundromats to the users, the tutors to the students? How are the logistics? Will you knock door to door asking for clothes to be washed, take them to laundromats, and deliver them back? Not that any of these ideas couldn’t be useful, but the urgent concern is that this line of inquiry is never taken into account when startups try an “Uber for X” solution. Next time, when the VCs start to point out the weaknesses of your idea, request an Uber for hire ride — ask the driver to explain to the world which problem you are trying to solve, and how you are going to do it. Oh, and just so you know, the name UberX is taken.

The Fundamental Law of Having an Idea

Yet another cause for the deteriorating situation is the failure to understand this: you rarely come up with a good idea that is outside of your work environment or living habits. It might be obvious, but the reality out there shows the opposite. Everyone has got a good idea all the time. This reasoning might have a deeper psychological flavor, but to my perception, the reason is that we are generally tempted to remember the most fantastic and successful stories (at least how they are told to us) rather than the struggling ones. Someone has a story of winning a lot of money in the casino, but prefers not to tell that before winning, he lost the double of what he won. We remember stories of ideas that came suddenly, like the Newton’s fall of the apple, Archimedes running naked yelling “Eureka”, the melting chocolate in Spencer’s pocket, and so on. Judging by some of these stories, we really think we can just “have” an idea suddenly. Don’t worry, it will come to you at the right place, in the right time. Or sometimes, you need to sit in a quiet place with a notebook and it will come to you. But, didn’t you notice? They were all working on something related. Well, Archimedes was bathing, but it was precisely the observation on the water movement that made him conclude the principle of volume displaced. Newton was studying the movement of the objects; Percy Spencer was in front of a magnetron. Similarly, we can also have ideas on things we really enjoy and therefore understand. The controversial Winklevoss twins had the idea of a social network for college students because they were in college. Larry Page and Sergey Brin came up with Google because they found that indexing the internet would be a useful tool for research. Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp invented Uber because they had trouble hailing a cab in a snowy Paris evening. Just think about it. There’s barely any story of someone who was fooling around and just had a billion-dollar idea of something completely unrelated to what they were doing or to what they understood about. It’s a person’s level of expertise in a field that makes him see the needs and desires of that field. It’s the principle of specialization. That expertise, however, can come in all sorts of different levels of interest, as to a point where the simple fact of being a college student and living as such would sparkle a highly valued idea of how we should communicate and consume content online, but there really isn’t an easy way around it. Focusing and putting work to what matters to you is what really is bound to success. The ones who saw a need, or a problem they knew a lot about were the bearers of truly impactful ideas. In other words, the idea comes before the company, and not the opposite.

The Startup Culture Culture

Finally, apart form any single reason given here, and above them all, the industry that makes money out of the startup dream has to sink together with the Endup Culture boat. The gurus, the books on “5 Steps to Building a Startup”, the videos of supposedly successful professionals that show their bank accounts to try to sell you their online courses on “How to Market Your Startup”, and some outrageous like “Make an Uber For X App”, the “whiteboard brainstorms”, the nonsense flowcharts, nap-rooms, free food, using some English terms if the country’s language is not English, careless attire, colorful furniture, they all supply the image-before-action trend, and indulge people on the possibility of making money without putting any true hard work, just because someone else that is now very successful has all of this. Google, for instance, is surely amazing, but they really didn’t start out off nap-rooms and giving fancy free food to their employees.

I don’t hate startups. I am totally in favor of the good ones — the real ones. And since the definition of the term has lost its meaning, and is now a symbol of 21st century business that is cool-looking, hipster, minimalist and forward-geared, please don’t overuse it. We enjoy all of those meanings. Yes, it’s hard to tell if an idea is in fact good, but there’s a behavioral distinction between naivety and pretension. In fact, let’s not even use “real” to describe startups, but do the opposite: call startups on reality. Hopefully, we will get to a point when we will be able to talk about startups without this distinguishing adjective anymore. Make the fascinating startup culture bear meaning and value. It’s tempting to end any other way: #MakeStartupsGreatAgain

Daniel Fonseca Yarochewsky, Spring 17'