Enter the Startup Forest
Our startups aren’t machines. They are alive like the forest floor.
I type the words “Feminine copy” into google. It’s a bit of research following a Skype call this morning between myself and two other founders. Under related searches is an option to click girly copy.
So a few years ago if you wanted to write copy that spoke to the feminine in us all and tugged on our female purse strings, the internet marketeers told us to use hearts, flowers, stars and celestial bodies. That’s the language of ladies. The language of lurve. Because nothing is more feminine than romance apparently. Pass me the sick bag.
A quick search for female entrepreneurs gives me a whole host of sites in pink and peach welcoming me with a Hello Lovely! and an avalanche of Vogue-esque photographs of women with blonde hair and lipstick, draped over desks wearing high heels. I watch them holding their cups of coffee as I am bombarded by messages of prettiness and the billionaire women I am supposed to emulate.
One of the reasons I’m looking at this is because the words around startups and entrepreneurs have a tendency to put up a brick wall for lots of people. Particularly women. They stop a large proportion of humans from going in that direction. And I think that’s a shame.
I like words. I like words and what they do to us. How they make us feel, what we use them for. How we play with them, tease them, and make up stories. Words that are used to make love and to wage a long drawn-out war or to fight a quick and dirty battle. Words can paint great sweeping landscapes that lure us into heaven or hell and everywhere in between.
Language is a true delight when used well and as ugly as fuck when you waste it. In the glorious words of Mary Oliver about the glorious words of Walt Whitman…
“I learned from Whitman that a poem is a temple — or a green field — a place to enter and in which to feel.” Mary Oliver, Upstream
So here’s the thing. I’m very turned off by the common language of entrepreneurship and startups. It is one of the ugliest poems around. A bad limerick told in a pub after too many pints. It actually makes me bare my teeth and growl like a lioness. Should the Common Tongue of the StartUp turn up on my doorstep I would circle, attack and tear it apart with my teeth and feed it to my cubs.
Accelerate, hero, fight, grow, scale, win, bootstrap, burn rate, churn rate, scaleable, traction, monetize, gamify, runway, extreme burn-out, booster, incubator, speed, pressure, yadayadayada…
If this is the language intended to romance you into bringing something wonderful and magical into the world, I am seriously disappointed.
I used to think I got so enraged by it because it was, well, so manly. So blatantly exclusive. Basically it was about having balls. And I don’t have those. Nor do I want them. Hell, I don’t even want look at them, let alone run my life and my business with them constantly being shoved in my face. I have had my fair share of that thanks to an early career surrounded by ex servicemen, engineers and soldiers. N.B they like to talk about their Glorious Enormous Testicles a lot. They also like to put their “cocks on the block” about things and they like to call grown women girls and get them to make tea but they do hold the door open for you, so that makes everything ok.
Younger me thought it was because the language always stank so much of the Patriarchy that I loathed it (what with me being an angry feminazi and all). Younger, feisty me wanted to bring it on and kick it where it hurts. A knee to the groin. I wanted to take that bastard down; my anger and frustration at the idiocy of it all was *ahem* shall we say borderline Millie Tant.
It was a Man Woman thing and the odds were completely stacked in the favour of testosterone. (There is a lot of data somewhere about how many founders are women vs the number of men, how investment sits between the sexes etc etc. I won’t go into that here, suffice to say it seems it is necessary to have Female Entrepreneur Hubs and categories for Women Entrepreneurs in the press).
Now I am older and wiser and less militant I have figured something out. I never wanted to enter into a Man vs Woman story. It isn’t the heroics or the balls or the manliness that pisses me off. It’s got nothing to do with Men and Women. (I’ve met many men who hate the language too, as much as I do.)
It is the machine-y-ness of it all. It’s the language of machines. That’s why I hate it. Because I am not a machine.
My life is not a machine.
My businesses are not machines.
My projects are not machines.
They are alive. I am alive.
I am alive and they are alive like the forest floor. Teeming with life and hidden networks of interconnectedness. They hibernate and they spring into bloom. They ebb and they flow. They are seasonal and cyclical. They are unpredictable. There is a time for sowing and a time for harvest. There is a time to be dormant and a time to grow. Things die and things are born. They move with the moon and the stars and the wind. And my job is to listen and to move with them, like an animal.
I remind myself to move like a human animal. Not a machine.
“Become a true animal of the earth.” Martin Shaw
The language of the Startup Machine is the same language that sends man to war and makes him a slave in my opinion. It’s the same language that makes him over consume and draw all the resources from the planet without care or regard. It is the same language that makes him forget. Forget that he is an animal. Forget that he is a father or a lover or a friend. Forget that there was a covenant. An arrangement between us and everything else. Forget that we are not the centre of the universe.
Language matters and when we use the terms of the machine to describe the world of the human, we become them. We are compared to them and we are driven by them. Who in their right mind wants to create a business or a movement or bring anything into the world that means they have to work like a machine and be measured like a machine in order to get it right? I certainly don’t. Perhaps some people do. They are catered for I guess.
“The inhuman economic machine does not love us back. It makes us into robots. It sucks us into the destruction of all that is… once you create something, an economic system or being or contraption that has to keep making more money, it is forced to do that…And even if we can’t turn it around now, at least we can wake up, so that in the time that is left we can discover who we are, just looking into each other’s eyes. Just looking into the face of the moon at night, or the trees, or the faces of our children and free ourselves. I think we want that.” Joanna Macy
Economist Joseph Schumpeter (1883–1950) stated that the role of the entrepreneur in the economy is “creative destruction”. That’s Mother Kali and Lord Shiva right there. The Yin and the Yang of Creation. That’s the masculine and the feminine in us all, totally doing their thing.
Silent and dynamic. Just like the forest.
I can go with that.
The Startup Forest is the place I like to live in.
It requires me to be alert and listening. Observant. Sometimes gentle, sometime forceful. To do well in the forest, you have to be part of the forest. You cannot arrive with a bang and grow and consume and crush your way to the top — if you do this there will be no forest left. In the end there will only be you, the invasive species or the slash and burn logging company. All life and vitality is lost and the forest floor becomes a wasteland. Prone to flood, famine and pestilence of biblical proportions.
Devoid of beauty. Desolate and defunct.
The language of the Startup Forest is animal, natural, alive. It is a language that speaks to the masculine and the feminine. The sun and the moon. The stillness and the motion. The man and the woman. There is no need to divide. No need for girly copy or startup heros. The Male and Female Robots of the Startup Machine have no place in the forest.
Wits, survival, instinct, intuition, resilience, adventure, vitality, diversity, interconnectivity, nurture, hibernation, curiosity, tenderness, fierceness, forgiveness, flexibility, fire, earth, water, air.
It is an elemental language. A language of the earth and natural systems. It is biomimicry and fractals. Art and science. Fact and fiction. It is dreams and data.
It is intersection. The ecotone.
“… as a naturalist, my favourite places to be are along the ecotone. It’s where it’s most alive … usually … the edge of the forest and the meadow. It’s the edge of the ocean and the sand … where the rack line occurs. It’s that interface between peace and chaos. It’s that creative edge that I think we find most instructive. It’s also the most frightening. Because it’s completely uncertain and unpredictable and that’s again where I choose to live.” — Terry Tempest Williams, American Public Media Interview, Feb 2011
I’m calling for an end to the language of the Startup Machine.
An end to the pink female entrepreneur in high heels and the heroic, hipster workaholic who doesn’t have time to play with his kids. An end to the founders who engines run out of oil after five years and watch their lives crash as the machine they have become suffers from burn out. These robot stereotypes serve no-one. Least of all the humans and the planet we are part of.
It’s time to practice using a new vocabulary.
A shared vocabulary. An ancient voice. Something we can connect to, something that unifies us in spite of our differences. A language we can experience firsthand when walking in the forest or swimming in the ocean or running along the beach. Something we are reminded of every time we step outside into the wind and the rain or the blazing sun.
A language we can come home to.
The language of the Startup Forest.
This article was prompted by a conversation with Georgina Jones , Founder of Turn Lights On and Rose Challies, founder of The Roccha Guide after a visit to the hill. It was inspired by the work of Joanna Macy, Mary Oliver, Martin Shaw and Terry Tempest-Williams. It was written whilst listening to Ecotone, an album by James Johnson and Brian McWilliams (aka Aperus).
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