The Startup
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The Startup

On Entreprenerds

Losing and rediscovering the hope of startup land

Photo by Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash

“So we’re an AI-enabled platform providing banking-as-a-service to the next generation of digital businesses” — a young female journalist listens patiently to the founder on the other side of the video chat, as he endeavours to convey the lofty, revolutionary grandeur of his business over Zoom. “So it’s a bank? That uses technology?” — by now she is deft at filtering and interpreting his words and the prepared words of many like him, those leagues of young men excited by the prospect of PR and anxious to make a good appearance — to appear as if they are destined for the stars, that they belong to the tomes of recent business history and are sure to end up on the cover of WIRED someday soon.

From beyond the camera’s frame, I throw her a weary, sceptical look and she responds with the subtlest tilt of the head. It’s 9.47am and I resume staring out of the window. The lazy autumn leaves sail down into the yawning valley below. Just a few months ago I would have relished any chance to chat with a founder, invariably a conversation suffused with unspoken dreams of rocket-ship startups on a mission to create something new and change the world, but like a once-devout man with freshly-broken faith, I struggle to find specks among the bullshit. How did I get from there to here?

Three years prior I was in another world, slowly losing myself in an everlasting student summer. In spite of my complete ignorance of the labour market, I had developed a strong desire to have an impactful job, working on important things, alongside remarkable people. I wrote to friends, to friends-of-friends, and eventually got a reply, via my dad.

After a CV screening and phone call interview, I found the correct door on a warm Monday in July, and awkwardly sat down alongside the other interns. The company had prepared an outstanding programme of workshops and group tasks hosted by world-class experts, who peppered us with reflective principles — “MBAs are a bit old-fashioned” — “get as close as you can to power” — “be memorable”. I felt very lucky to see the guts of high finance firsthand.

The office, a short walk from Embankment tube station, stretched across 5 storeys of meeting rooms, desks and in-trays. Despite a recent internal decree that ties and suits were no longer required, an air of formality and professionalism permeated that building, novel and alienating in equal measure. There was one exception — a mysterious set of individuals who exuded intelligence and warmth, operating out of the subterranean basement, hidden from view. “Oh — they’re the venture capitalists. They fund startups”, my line manager told me. A quick search online revealed the blog of a prominent member of the basement-dwellers, and a link to his recommended reading online. I quietly devoured it at my desk over the course of a single afternoon.

The opportunity to create something new — the proverbial blank sheet of paper. You have the ability — actually, the obligation — to imagine a product that does not yet exist and bring it into existence, without any of the constraints normally faced by larger companies.

Full essay at https://pmarchive.com/guide_to_startups_part1.html

I caught the startup bug. Could I really spend a portion of my working life creating something original, tangible and valuable that would solve a problem in the world and give me an income, while managing cash, crafting a company culture and fighting the good fight?

The mere possibility sparked a memory of being sat in my room early on a Saturday morning, aged 7-or-so, playing an old PC computer game where the player commands a medieval village to accumulate resources, build walls and armies, and battle other villages. The appeal of a practical, creative endeavour was wildly refreshing in the context of my prior social and intellectual experiences at university. These had been largely limited to debating the morality of eating animals and spinning off scholastic essays arguing that so-and-so was wrong/right to such-and-such an extent about a particular theory.

Even so, I remained self-conscious about the megalomania of entreprenerds — the idea that I could play with capital and labour to make something new was both intoxicating and childish.

Photo by Floriane Vita on Unsplash

Weeks later I was safely back in the fraying fabric of the Philosophy department’s break room armchairs. As finalists we tormented ourselves with constant stress about our future. We’d managed to get into a really good university so the next step had better be impressive, but for many, our maturing characters were yet to carve out a specific conception of working life. Some dealt with the agony of choice by delaying — halfheartedly committing to master’s programmes, or jobs that were sufficiently broad to permit an 2-year extension to career agnosticism (‘junior associate’, ‘strategy analyst’).

Living back on campus also meant reconciling my genuine appreciation for Marxist analyses of capitalism (orthodoxy among the louder students) with my newfound fascination with, and admiration for, venture capitalists. On the one hand, I had to defend my new interest against self-appointed 20-something revolutionaries, who shamed my dreams between courses at gowned college feasts. On the other, we were 7 years deep into an agenda of Tory austerity that seemed to promote wealth concentration at the cost of community. Occasionally I would find a passage in Marx that would affirm my new passion -

…It is just in his work upon the objective world, therefore, that man really proves himself …Through this production, nature appears as his work and his reality…he duplicates himself not only, as in consciousness, intellectually, but also actively, in reality, and therefore he sees himself in a world that he has created. In tearing away from man the object of his production, therefore, estranged labor tears from him his species-life…

From the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844

Capitalism has a tendency to divorce workers from the object of their labour and therefore diminishes the capacity for creative activity. I didn’t want to be ‘estranged’ from my work, I wanted to be closer to it and in so doing, get closer to my own creative capacity — my own humanity. Somehow, Karl Marx affirmed my interest in founding a startup. I also reassured myself that despite various failings of markets, they could be fair and just in a well-ordered society when managed correctly.

Markets are good at spotting and solving problems, and brutally meritocratic when eliminating shoddy design and bad ideas. When (when!) it works, capitalism is innovative.

Photo by Jean-Luc Benazet on Unsplash

Reassured I was on the right path, I spent the last months at university nestled in my snug bedroom-study lodged halfway up a creaking 18th Century spiral staircase — alternating between John Rawls’ Political Liberalism and Eric Reis’ The Lean Startup — my first innocent foray into the intellectual canon of entreprenerdship.

Zuckerberg. Andreesen. Horowitz. Hoffman. Gates. Jobs. Thiel. These were smart contrarians with the drive to create something new, and scale it to gargantuan size within just a few years, earning their godlike status in the pantheon of Silicon Valley. That’s what marks out an entreprenerd — a deep admiration for these groundbreaking founders, along with their practices, culture and values. Intoxicated, I read up on their methods and maxims — build fast and break things. Let the data drive your decisions. Don’t be evil. A league of men dripping in the social privilege afforded by their appearance and backgrounds — I didn’t pause to consider that, if not for my own privilege, I may not have felt such belonging in my new religion, let alone that I was entering a world riddled with systematic problems.

When the last seconds of my final exam passed, I laid my pen to rest on the table, having spun out a few critiques and defences of multicultural liberalism. A few blissful weeks followed — breaking into garden parties, afternoons dipping into the Cam, May Balls, graduation — and then back to London, the lingering summer haze permeated with the weight of impending change and responsibility.

After a few months I landed a job that I was really excited about. I’d be working in a high-growth startup that was backed by big investors, alongside some really smart people attracted from heaps of different industries. More than that, I’d be working as their first business analyst, with unbridled exposure to the senior leadership and the chance to defend and shape a coherent growth strategy. A few weeks in, I learned to dance across spreadsheets and the company’s various systems and databases — after months of looking for a job, I was thrilled to feel useful.

At my first company-wide meeting, the employees gathered in a fringe theatre underneath the railway arches by London Bridge station. The CEO stood before us all and delivered some inspirational words. “To all of you I’d like to say that you’re a lucky few — you’ve chosen to spend the next years with us, which will act as a rocket ship for your career, propelling you into some of the most high-profile, groundbreaking work you’ll ever do”. After the speech, I got to know my fellow employees over beers and pizza. At last I’d arrived and was plugged into the mainframe. This was going to be fantastic.

Despite the promises of innovation, groovy mission statements and a humane working culture (t-shirt and jeans encouraged), Silicon Valley is no stranger to the nasty underbelly of society and markets — and neither are the hordes of startups modelled after Silicon Valley success stories. Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley outlines her experiences in startup land, including half-baked outlooks on diversity:

“I didn’t think to mention that if [my boss] wanted more women in leadership roles, perhaps we should start by hiring more women. I didn’t note that even if we did hire more women, there were elements of our office culture that women might find uncomfortable.”

Indeed, when Oculus CTO John Carmack’s answer to unfairness based on gender is the one-liner “we’re having a hard time hiring all the people that we want”, you have to wonder whether the problem may not be intentionally cruel discrimination, but rather the more subtle (more insidious?) curse of intellectual laziness — of not taking the issue seriously, or seeing it as someone else’s responsibility to consider the problem with care.

Silicon Valley doesn’t have all the answers, and so is reduced to exist on the same lowly plane as the rest of the world. Nor have they been able to prevent the subversion of democracy, by facilitating the concentration of massive wealth and massive power in few hands.

Social (in)justice aside, some disturbing forces are unique to the entreprenerd’s territory. There’s a worrying gap between appearance and reality, prevalent across startup land but exemplified to grotesque perfection by Elizabeth Holmes’ Theranos, the company that promised to ‘revolutionise healthcare’ with a new way to conduct blood tests at scale. Holmes dropped out of college at 19, fostered a mirage of technological genius, recruited Kissinger to her board and grew the blood-testing company to a $9 billion valuation — only to reveal that the whole exercise was a sham based on systematic deceit and blackmail. If you don’t know the Theranos story, read Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup or listen to The Dropout podcast. It’s shocking.

Or take Adam Neumann, co-founder of WeWork, who tried to justify his company’s gargantuan IPO valuation by asserting again and again that it was a tech company offering ‘space-as-a-service’. At heart, WeWork is really just an office-rental firm with good design.

The WeWork IPO prospectus mentioned the word ‘tech’ (or equivalents) 123 times — that’s more than in the Zoom prospectus, produced by a genuine software company. Predictably the WeWork IPO failed and Neumann resigned in a spectacular corporate fallout marred by sexual harassment allegations, which prompted the New York Times to report on “an implosion unlike any other in the history of start-ups”. It seems that, after all, wearing a hoodie to work and insisting on tequila shots while interviewing prospective employees doesn’t make you a revolutionary.

Photo by Eloise Ambursley on Unsplash

I found all this deeply disturbing. I was excited by tech, innovation and rocket-ship startups. I was happy to believe in founders and companies — perhaps all too happy. Entrepreneurs can fool investors with glamorous promises of tech and growth that are completely baseless. This worries me.

After a year of employment at the startup, I took the plunge and left the relative stability of my job to start something of my own. It was January of 2020 — I had my savings, no real responsibility other than paying my monthly rent, and retained the frugal instincts leftover from my student days.

Equipped with instant noodles (50p at Sainsbury’s) and my coding know-how, we started to build a carbon-tracking app from scratch. The idea was really simple. People track their bank balance, calories, steps and blood pressure on a daily basis — so why not their personal carbon emissions too? It was on-trend and would help solve a real problem — the problem of lowering carbon emissions. High on the thrill of starting anew, we worked out the basics of our business model, marketing strategy and investment plan.

It’s a nice image, but even then I think we conflated the drive to create a startup, with a genuine concern for climate justice. In retrospect (and thanks to some enlightening conversations with my friends) I’m actually suspicious of ‘personal carbon footprint’ as a useful way to think about how we stop the ecological catastrophe brought on by global warming.

Personal carbon footprinting puts all the responsibility on consumers, effectively granting institutions (companies, governments) permission to pass the buck. If we are to manage climate change effectively, clever consumer carbon footprinting software is not sufficient — and I suspect, not necessary either.

One warm summer evening, I wandered through Hampstead Heath with a friend who graduated into the consulting arm of one of the big accountancy firms. He was enjoying the relative career agnosticism afforded by project-based, cross-industry consulting work, but was increasingly concerned about finding a concrete path for his future working life. “I’m trying to understand what skills you need to be a CEO, or a CFO, and then I’m working backwards from there — right now I’m thinking financial acumen, management ability, analytical mindset — and then finding a role that will teach me those things”.

Fair enough, transferable skills are the future. But what particular problems did he care about? Designing and distributing beautiful wristwatches? Making it easier for men to talk about their feelings? Halting glacial retreat? I saw two different outlooks — do I aim at becoming competent ‘in general’, or do I find a specific problem I care about and learn from there?

My girlfriend pressed me on this issue more than once. “I don’t understand — you want to get better at understanding startups, right? So that you can build your own? But startups exist because they provide a solution to a specific problem…so what’s the problem you’re going to solve?”.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

To build a successful company, you need to sell a good product. For a product to be good, it needs to solve a problem that people encounter in their everyday lives. To solve a problem you need to understand it. To understand it, you have to take some kind of interest in it. Therefore entrepreneurs can only build successful companies around problems they are — on some level — interested in. Pure deduction; my philosophy teachers would have been proud.

Here’s the rub. The problem with being an solipsistic entreprenerd — someone obsessed purely with startups (rather than, say, travelling, or furniture design) is that you’ll only build products that solve the problems of founders (rather than, say, people who buy Chinese food or armchairs). This is really limiting. The brutal truth is that if you want to found a successful company, you have to be interested in more than just startups.

You have to actually spend time engaged in the world and with other people, including the struggles, joys and problems they face — at work, at home and everywhere in between. Crucially you have to spot a way to ‘do things better’. This means being well-rounded and developing a substantive character, personality, sense of self — rather than just reading TechCrunch every day.

“It doesn’t work well simply to try to think of startup ideas. If you do that, you get bad ones that sound dangerously plausible. The best approach is more indirect…live in the future and build what seems interesting.”

Paul Graham’s article “How to Get Startup Ideas” — http://paulgraham.com/startupideas.html

Eventually my business partner and I gave up on the carbon tracker before we launched. Despite our faith in the idea, we couldn’t source enough data to make the tool sufficiently useful for our target market. I was also struck by the sheer quantity of founding teams building carbon tracking software out there. It’s such an obvious idea that relatively few of the teams working on it have unique insight into the scientific and logistical complexities of calculating embedded carbon. There do exist noticeable and impressive exceptions from genuine experts (Foodsteps, Carbon Cloud) but now whenever I hear wannabe entreprenerds pitch a carbon tracking tool, my ears automatically flare up in suspicion.

After a few days of soul-searching, we stumbled across a new idea we were much more enthused about — a restaurant rewards club for plant-based punters. Strategically it was far better from the outset — we had deep insight into our target market; we knew the market was small, growing fast and massively under-serviced; we knew how to build the necessary software from scratch at zero cost.

Crucially, we held a strong connection to the idea. I’ve done my best to eat a vegan diet for over 5 years, during which time I have worked at vegan companies and campaigned for animal rights. I have also developed a strong awareness of the products and services available to vegans, vegetarians and the flexi-curious — and how they fall short. Add to this my business partner’s background in the restaurant industry, and we had a concept that expressed a deeper part of our personalities.

Once more, we wrote the code. We negotiated with restaurant managers and drew up a business plan that would incorporate network effects and innate virality. After two months of intense work, we launched the product — and waited.

Photo by Jonathan Formento on Unsplash

The next three weeks were painful. Launching a product with zero marketing budget was very tough, because the feedback loop was so slow. We didn’t need lots of customers; we just needed evidence from a handful of early adopters that they used the service, found it useful and returned to it over time — and if not, we needed to understand why. We tried everything — making it free, cajoling our friends and speaking to strangers on the street. Nevertheless, finding people to join a restaurant rewards club, during coronavirus restrictions against hospitality and socialising, was difficult.

Why wasn’t anyone signing up? Were we delusional? What would our friends and family think of our doomed experiment? My mental health suffered and for a while I was completely dependent on the people around me, supporting me through ‘the long dark night of the innovator’ (that quote is one of many gems from my dad — who happens to be quite an authority on the subject).

Before he released the original iPhone, Steve Jobs made the Commencement address to the students at Stanford University.

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.

Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford Commencement address — https://news.stanford.edu/2005/06/14/jobs-061505/

Those months were intense and frustrating; during distressed midnight conversations it was hard to see anything worthwhile in my labour. Blessed with hindsight, I now see that the chapter was deeply educational. Thrown in at the proverbial deep end, I learned so much about product deployment, database management, working with designers, online advertising campaigns, the psychology of selling and much more.

When you’re directly engaged in a creative pursuit (as all founders are) the learning process is rapid because you care deeply about the problem, there are few institutional barriers and you have to follow problems all the way through to their solution.

Early in the morning of a cold, bright Saturday in October, I turned up at the stall we’d hired at a Hackney market, in order to sell our restaurant club memberships directly to consumers. My business partner and I unpacked our merchandise and arranged a mountain of brownies that we hoped would entice market-goers into conversation. When we managed to steal the attention of anyone that would listen, our zealous pitch was received with mild interest — and very occasionally, a sale.

The day ticked on; as we looked down the row of stalls it was very difficult to ignore the two lads from an organic vegetable box delivery service who were oozing with charm and absolutely crushing it. The two of them, adorned in matching branded fleeces, sold their product like machines, and charmed a grin out of everyone they encountered. As the clock ticked over to 6pm, we packed up our stall after a reasonably successful day and walked over to the two of them.

“We’ve been watching you all day — how do you do it? It’s incredible”. Over the next 10 minutes my partner and I received a masterclass in sales psychology, and a free box of organic fruit and vegetables. It was a good moment.

When I say that the learning process is rapid because there are no institutional barriers, I mean that founders have to personally take responsibility for meeting consumers’ demands. It’s not like they can hide behind the rules of an institutional business, and fulfil their defined job function. Good management defines employee roles that are closely tied to creating value for customers, but as we all know, there is such a thing as bad management, and therefore jobs that have little to do with solving real problems.

Inside a bureaucracy it’s possible to be rewarded for meeting internal demands that have nothing to do with creating value, and attempts to reverse this flow can be penalised by sceptical management teams. Startups don’t face those institutional barriers. If they invent a better way to do things, it wins by the brutally meritocratic, evolutionary selection of free markets. By that same sword, if you’re not solving a problem well, your startup will fail.

I notice two psychological traits among entreprenerds. The first is a kind of megalomania; a sometimes arrogant belief that I can and should rise above the incumbent way of doing things and change the world, even if I’m young, trained in a different industry or just unconventionally qualified. The second is a complete absence of entitlement; they don’t expect the world to present itself in a particular way that pleases them. If they want to see change in their environment, they will take it upon themselves to create that change. These two perspectives, I suspect, are just different facets of the same coin.

Just because you find that life’s not fair it / Doesn’t mean that you just have to grin and bear it / If you always take it on the chin and wear it / Nothing will change

Even if you’re little, you can do a lot, you / Mustn’t let a little thing like, ‘little’ stop you / If you sit around and let them get on top, / You might as well be saying

You think that it’s okay / And that’s not right!

The lyrics to “Naughty” from “Matilda: The Musical”. (Tim Minchin, based on Roald Dahl)

Eventually, the restaurant rewards club we started picked up momentum, with a healthy flow of new daily signups and really positive feedback from our users. Thanks to our minimal baseline costs, it didn’t take long for us to start turning a profit. We re-invested income into Facebook advertising campaigns and partnerships, kick-starting the marketing flywheel of growth.

Ironically it was at this precise moment that the UK coronavirus situation took a turn for the worse, resulting in tough restrictions on socialising and hospitality. For this — and a handful of other reasons — I have not been involved in the project since November, and have left it in the capable hands of my co-founder. I’m looking forward to see how it fares after the pandemic.

Looking back over the chaos of 2020, I feel a deep sense of gratitude — both for the opportunities I’ve enjoyed and for the people who have taken the time to coach me. I’m painfully aware that this is not the success story of a 23-year-old digital millionaire, but my experience has gifted me the perspective to tease out some genuine merit in startup land, among the fluff. I like that.

On reflection, I see that in many ways, entrepreneurship is best thought of as a fundamentally creative activity. The entrepreneur is a kind of artist, an artist designed for the age of capital. In that sense they are not fundamentally distinct from composers, choreographers and writers. I hope the arts can provide entreprenerds with inspiration, solace and warning — that an artistic outlook can infiltrate a field dominated by computer scientists and engineers. I’m also hopeful for the imperfect startup land they inhabit. Entreprenerds like me have much to learn if we are to succeed in our creative endeavours while adding something positive to the world. We’ll continue to create, and eventually, the dots will connect. Let’s hope we create something beautiful.

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Harry Kingdon - Baz

Harry Kingdon - Baz

Entreprenerd · Philosophy · London · Portfolio at harrykingdon.com

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