The startup scene has to take a long, hard look at itself

Aug 18, 2016 · 5 min read

For a long while I have been very much not fascinated by startups. Or rather, by a certain way of making startups. In particular, by that way in which you dream up a stupid idea while drunk, “validate” it with a bunch of your friends — possibly equally drunk — or, if you want to be “professional,” with an accurately selected moderately “large” bunch of people you call “market” but actually closely resembles a group of more-or-less drunk friends of yours, and then pitch it to a bunch of overly rich people who are only looking for their next investment opportunity but will die before revealing to you that the venture capital that they pour on you is nothing more than a leveraged trade with a relatively loose stop-loss policy in a crowded cart full of largely different baskets with largely different likely outlooks. Some will succeed, some will fail, but overall the “angel” will make a profit. You will probably go bankrupt — jumping ship in time and landing on your knees if you are smart and quick enough. Not any wiser, though, from what I’ve seen.

In fact, I have been keeping a close eye on startups — all of them, because sadly they all come as a bundle—and what I have seen made me cringe every single day. I started doing this the last time I was looking for a job. My field is dominated by a few relatively large, moderately-to-quite exciting established companies, and by a plethora of startups, so I figured I’d improve my chances. As I was gravitating around London, I naturally looked at that area. I already have strong opinions about British people in their late twenties that I’m not about to discuss, but I was extremely surprised to find the very same traits — sometimes brought to extremes—in circles that were supposed to be the productive backbone of the future entrepreneurship.

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You may — not casually—spot Venice in there

A bit of background. I was born and raised in an area of Italy where you work hard and keep your head down enough so you can spot good ideas while not risking going berserk on pipe dreams and burn all your capital. This comes from the 30+ years preceding my birth when Italy had to sort itself out of the mess left by two World Wars. Yet, my area was among the most successful in the country at rebuilding itself, generating wealth, and dragging the rest of the country along with it. It hasn’t been a perfect journey, and there are still small and large faults, but overall we’ve been successful. I attended a “technical industrial” high school where much of the focus was on technical subjects—my specialties were electronics and communication—as much as on getting people ready to be injected into the industrial landscape with technical as well as managerial and entrepreneurial skills, and a basic knowledge of the relevant legal frameworks. You know, so that they don’t do anything stupid. [Spoiler: people have done stupid things, but the majority behaved and we are still mostly fine, although 2008 hit hard—tough times.] Anyway.

When I went to university, I studied Engineering—the science-y kind we do in southern Europe, not the one that produces glorified technicians that is more common in the Anglo-Saxon world. The focus was once again very much on scientific and technical skills, but also on entrepreneurial and managerial skills. They wanted us to “go out there and build successful businesses.” Much of the Economics courses I took were focused on legal frameworks, building a business plan, and keeping your books in order. The kind of things that keep your head on the job of finding exciting ideas, developing them, and seeing them through to success, rinse, and repeat. The kind of things that prevent you from chasing ill-conceived pipe dreams.

Now that you have an idea of where I come from, you might understand why I have been increasingly horrified by the present startup culture, one where, for as long as you can keep generating increasingly crazy ideas to “disrupt” this or that “industry,” you can keep being the receptacle of millions of coins, even without a business plan, even without generating profits, even when you have to keep chasing down opportunities and traffic and market and the likes because if you stop for a second the whole thing can fall on your head, and when you finally burn out and fail, if you are quick enough to jump ship and return enough investment to your VCs to keep them from killing you, you can go on and chase the next pipe dream.

Granted, some startups have become successful businesses, generate revenues, and have solid business models. Just take a look at Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft… But then also take an honest look at Deliveroo, Just Eat, Grooveshark, and a bunch of others that just failed because of their lack of planning, lack of reliable capital, and generally lack of appropriate attitude and skills towards building solid businesses.

People will tell me that failing is part of the startup culture, and that is the reason for why startups are so exciting. I think failing is part of life, and you have to accept the possibility of it, and take whatever lesson you can take from it. But failing is also not a necessity, and it is an outcome that you should avoid because it brings you trouble. Do you want to keep founding startup after startup? Fine, just build them solid enough, give them a decent future, and sell them when you stop feeling excited. Plan ahead for failure, and don’t bitch when someone disagrees with you, or tells you that your idea may not be the greatest disruptor of all time.

And now, for the actual reason that prompted me to finally put the time into writing this post: I’ve been banned from the London Startups Facebook group because I dared speak up against the nth post that resembled more self-help for some type of delusion rather than sound entrepreneurial advice. I dared being unapologetically non-constructive because I feel that too many times many startuppers have never been slapped in their faces enough when they were kids — metaphorically and not—so that they simply don’t know where to stop, or how to recognise when something is right, wrong, good, bad, or even helpful or unhelpful.

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Now, I had been thinking of leaving that group for a while precisely because I was fed up with the constant stream of cry-baby/pipe-dream/i-dont-know-what-im-doing-feed-me-kool-aid-and-ill-drink-it-promise posts, so I won’t cry now that I’ve been banned.

But the knee-jerk reaction that I’ve seen this time, and many other times in the past, should just call for a serious moment of reflection, particularly in these times.


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