Last week brought us some brutal VC-on-VC invective, and today, the Silicon Valley Honesty Hour continues with a perfectly honest warning to would-be startup employees. It's not all bean bag chairs and free massages.
The wonderfully trenchant "Letter To A Young Programmer Considering A Startup" is penned by Alex Payne, who was one of Twitter's original employees before moving on to investing on his own and working at Simple, a banking startup. "Here are some things to consider that, in my experience, you’re less likely to hear about working in startups," Payne begins—and it's true, you'll rarely hear anything but cheerleading in this field. Anything resembling pessimism—or even recognizing what's truly unpleasant or frightening—is heavily discouraged.
He makes four main points:
"A startup is just a means to an end."
If the goal of the young man described above is to run a business – any business! – then perhaps a startup is indeed his best path forward. For others, though, I often wonder if they’re fitting their goals into the format of a startup because it’s an approach that’s lauded, admired, and easily understood (if not easily accomplished).
"A startup job is the new office job. Startup culture is the new corporate culture."
Startups have been systematized, mythologized, culturally and socially de-risked; reduced down to formulas and recipes.
"Startups are part of the system, not a rebellious wrench in the cogs."
The machine doesn’t care about you. In fact, the machine is designed with the understanding that most startups will fail, or at most offer unremarkable returns to investors.
"Startups have an ongoing interpersonal cost."
I’ve seen firsthand the damage that startups can do to relationships. I’ve watched marriages and friendships fall apart...
There's plenty more. This kind of thinking, this kind of writing, this kind of candor—it's all too taboo in tech. It's an industry that runs on caffeine and blind optimism, requiring participants to dedicate (or delude) themselves to some hazy notion of progress. If you can make yourself believe all of this, the thinking goes, you might just get rich—or even change the world forever! But you're never supposed to doubt your purpose, question someone's vision, or acknowledging that really, you're just sitting at a desk like everyone else.
Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty