A (not so scientifically valid) Cultural Anthropology Observation of “The StartUp World”

This is the first in a series of articles exploring the differences between big corporate culture and the start-up world.

In the Spring of 1994, my sophomore year at Florida State University, I was enrolled in a Cultural Anthropology class which was a prerequisite for what I thought would be a Anthropology minor. Held in the main anthropology building with its artifacts and grittiness, we spent much of the semester listening to our professor (I really wish I remembered her name) provide us with detailed accounts of indigenous tribes of Africa, Australia, New Guinea, and South America. She had actually participated in many of the field study’s we discussed. It was fascinating and I loved the idea of comparing seemingly dissimilar cultures in a effort to identify what components of their behavior were on point.

Looking toward to our final, I was not totally confident, as I had not really studied and kept up throughout the semester other than listening to her lectures. I had also not done very well on the mid-term. (It was football season at FSU, so cut me some slack). We sat in the lecture hall where the professor walked in and calmly told us that the Final was one question, which she was going to provide us verbally: “What is the meaning behind the Counting Crow’s song, Mr. Jones?” She then walked out.

Final Exam

Being smack dab in the middle of Generation X, I was extremely familiar with the song, which was at the top of the charts. I provided her with a detailed and eloquent account of my interpretation of the lyrics, which included an assessment of someone observing what they wish they could be, but know they never will because they missed their opportunity. Some others in the class simply packed up and walked out. I was confused, but “delusionally confident” (sic) that I did well.

I got an A on that Final and in the class. And realizing that sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, I promptly changed my minor to History. So take that into consideration; my formal cultural anthropology training is limited to mid-90’s pop music lyrical interpretation (which apparently, I’m good at!). While not formally trained, I am fortunate that I have had a career that has exposed me to thousands (tens of thousands) of interesting people in the working world. I’ve seen those who have been successful and those who have not. I’ve seen how the power of culture, belief and communication can impact the psyche of a workforce. Most, if not all of this exposure has been limited to viewing though the lens of a large and growing corporation. Until now. Recently I have been fortunate to look at working culture through another interesting lens.

As many well know by now, I left an amazing job earlier this year at a great company that I helped build over the course of 14 years. The decision, shrouded in not so much mystery, was based on many different personal reasons, one of which was to spend time with my beautiful and intelligent wife Nikki Ticknor (now Strickland). More specifically, to spend time with Nikki helping her fulfill her dream of creating a business from scratch. It’s something that she had talked about since the day I met her and quite frankly, I think she has a great idea and is fully capable of doing amazing things. So why not, let’s do it, I said. It’s called ZELO, check it out.

What I did not anticipate was how this decision would provide me with an amazing opportunity to participate in a phenomenon that’s happening right now in the world. It’s an experience that I would have otherwise had virtually no exposure to as a senior executive in a $4B company. What I’m talking about is the world of the “start-up.” It’s a subculture within a subculture within a subculture, just like amateur master’s aged competitive cycling (another one I cal tell you all about, just ask).

Like a sandpiper at the watering hole on the Serengeti (or more like a fly or a beetle), I’ve had a front line view of this world. And more so, what dawned on me immediately, was how significantly different this work culture is than that which millions and millions experience every day in corporate america.

The dynamics are significantly polar opposite in so many ways, both positive and negative (depending on your perspective). In particular, what I’d like to examine here, are the differences relevant to the people working in these two different worlds.

For some baseline knowledge, my completely unscientific anthropology evaluation is based entirely on the Atlanta startup ecosystem. Doesn’t sound that impressive? Well, as we used to say back in the day, you better check yourself…As you can see here, Atlanta is considered one of the hottest start-up scenes in the country right now. Think of it this way, if Silicon Valley is Elvis (the OG) then Atlanta is Biebs. Maybe he hasn’t been around that long and no one gave him much credibility, but now everyone’s singing his songs because the little guy just pumps out the hits.

So Atlanta has some street cred in the start-up world, but where do you find everyone? Well, there’s four primary places: Atlanta Tech Village, Atlanta Technology Development Center (ATDC), Tech Square Labs and Switchyards. There are other places, like a new accelerator program, Techstars, smaller specialty hubs and numerous co-working spaces. But those four are mainly where it goes down. ATV is the big daddy of the bunch, ATDC and Tech Square Lab are GaTech related and then there’s Switchyards, which is downtown and the only start-up hub focused on consumer based companies. Being consumer based, along with the location itself, leads it to be gritty, hard and a bit hipsterish (just made that up). So, it’s the coolest and that’s where we landed.

Being in Switchyards has given me exposure to many great observations. From their programming of insightful content to just daily interaction with other co-founders and the other peripheral characters in this world that range from investors, former successful founders now acting as mentors and then service providers supporting the industry (designers, developers, photographers, etc). Through this journey I also got the opportunity to meet several other founders at ATV, VC’s, angel investors, and successful start-up CEO’s who have always been great with some helpful advice.

I’m continuing to gather relevant data from all the wonderfully positive characters in this space. Especially now that I’ve told them about this little “side project” of mine, I’ve been pleasantly surprised about the willingness (eagerness) of folks to participate in my study.

I’ll explore each of these topics in full detail, but for now here’s the highlights so far:

  1. Engagement? Oh, you mean existing.
  2. You can do it, I believe in you! (~Founders)
  3. Eh, someone already tried, you’re going to fail. (~Advisors)
  4. I’m not sure I understand, I’m intrigued, let’s chat in a few months. (~Investors)
  5. Good news: Success = Failure.
  6. Real ping pong tournaments and coffee addictions.
  7. Working smart and hard, but maybe not that long.
  8. Hustle muscle.

So bear with me as I gather more data and dive these topics over the next few posts. My anticipation is that if you have spent your career in a traditional working environment you will find this both interesting and possibly surprising. I know that I have been surprised by many of the false assumptions I had walking in here months ago.

The questions I’m pondering and perhaps will get to an answer:

Can we identify common components of the start-up world that lead to expedient and innovative success?

Can large enterprise replicate these components? Or perhaps, is large enterprise willing to replicate these components of start-up culture in order to experience the potential upside? or perhaps, is it even possible to replicate?

Stay tuned.

DCS

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