There are many things I wish I knew before I started a business, but chief among them — aside from “get a bookkeeper early, you idiot” — has to be how shitty and annoying “entrepreneur” culture is. The startup world, as you’re all undoubtedly aware, is full of Straight White Men (TM) who have the same relationship to business as celebrity children have to their Hollywood success: sure, their dad’s board membership on a Fortune 1000 company got them in the door, but they had to hustle their way up from there. Um, dude, your father giving you that “friends and family loan” of 50 grand, and making sure his golf buddies became clients, is 99% of the battle.
And of course, there are many entrepreneurs who are nothing like this, but the largest, loudest, and most successful demographic by far happens to be the most annoying. And they define the culture, and the efficient, HR-department-less, ostentatiously-minimalist values it holds sacred. Startup culture has managed to distill a lot of the most eye-rolly traditionally masculine tropes and turn them into full-on myths: the bootstrapping cowboy stories, the emotionless efficiency, the exponential growth and the focus on pure numbers above all other metrics of success (such as, I don’t know, employee retention and quality of life?).
The point is, startup culture is drowning in myths that we’re all supposed to be aspiring to and achieving in order to feel like we’re doing it right, even though half of them are based on total bullshit. The image we all have in our heads of the self-made man are more based on musicals about the corporate world than they are on actual numbers, and the American Dream is very much a race in which we’re all starting at wildly different lines, and some of our lanes are covered, Tomb Raider-style, with swinging blades.
There are a million annoying entrepreneur tropes I’d love to yell about, but in the interest of efficiency (!!! am I doing it right???), I’ll limit myself to the biggest four.
1. “Being an independent/bootstrap company” when somebody gave your ass money.
This is probably the biggest one because a) it’s the most dishonest and b) it’s the most damaging. Here is the truth: 99 percent of businesses need some money to get them started, even if that means “I am living off of someone/in someone’s house/off savings while I spend time on this business,” and no other outside funding. But that money — even living in your parents’ basement while they don’t charge you rent and let you eat their food — is real money, that would have been spent by you, if not for that generosity. That’s money in the company. That counts.
And a lot of the faux-bootstrap stories will go even further in the ruse: sure, there was no VC money or bank loan, but there was a friend or family member or partner (or some combination thereof) that put some money into the business at the outset to help it grow and give it a runway. Yes, technically, you are “independently” funded in the legal sense, but you still got money. And to perpetuate this narrative like you took a single business bean and grew a forest with no money watering it in any way is not just dishonest, it’s dangerous for the people who are reading it without anyone to help them and thinking, “Hey! That person started a company with no money, I should do the same!” No. That person almost certainly got help somewhere, or at the very least had a cushion of savings to live off of while they got started.
For example, at TFD, we are fairly close to being bootstrapped, as far as it goes (even though that’s a horrible, damaging, misleading term). We got a small grant (ie, under $10k) from Ecogeek when we were first starting out that helped with some administrative costs to make us a real, legal business. Then Lauren and I had partners who helped us with costs of living while we started up, and Marc who has paid the hosting fees and put in a ton of sweat equity doing our tech and ad work. (Though we are both paying them back at the quickest available pace, because even in a couple, that money is considered an investment to be repaid, not a gift.) That is not a lot of money, and it’s certainly not a bank or a VC coming in and giving us seven figures we need to figure out how to spend. But it is a privilege that a lot of people don’t have, and more importantly, crucial to getting a company going. When Lauren and I have forgone taking a salary to allow others to draw first, that is a privilege. When we wanted to take the plunge and leave our jobs/stop freelancing, that was a privilege. We are able to take those risks because we have safety nets, and the same is true for the vast majority of entrepreneurs. Could we spin our story to be more universally-flattering, and not risk people angrily emailing us as though we have some money-dispensing Daddy Warbucks figures in our lives? Sure. But the point is that being transparent about how starting a company actually works helps other people get a clearer understanding of their prospects, instead of being lured in by these faux-Dickensian stories of rags-to-riches that leave out the benevolent uncle who wrote you a check to get you on your feet.
2. Referring to unpaid interns as “employees/team members.”
Nothing makes me angrier than when startup CEOs are touting their successes while either omitting entirely or obfuscating the fact that a lot of their workforce was unpaid interns. Now, obviously, an intern is a unique position where they are also here to learn and get experience for the field, and shouldn’t have the same financial expectations as a staffer. But let’s be clear: even if you are fine, ethically, with not at all compensating for their work time (which you shouldn’t be), making your internships unpaid (especially in huge, expensive cities) means you are essentially limiting your pool of candidates to “rich kids who can afford to live for free.” This is capital-B Bad, and leads to the perpetual cycle of “these jobs are only open to an elite, who only go on to hire that same elite.” If you can’t afford to pay someone at all, maybe don’t hire someone! Maybe that shit is a sign from God.
At TFD, our intern program is as fair as we can make it to all parties: we’re a new, small company, so we can’t afford to pay a ton to our interns. What does that mean? They are limited to 15 hours a week, they get a stipend, they can live wherever in the country (aka at home, where it’s free, if they want), and they can pick their schedule around their job. This gives us the widest possible pool of candidates, economically-speaking, and makes it sustainable for all parties. (Oh, and they are actually learning on the job, not being misled into the world’s worst-paid administrative assistant position.)
Could we exploit people more and squeeze more out of them temporarily? Of course, probably everyone can. But the point is that part of the balance we’re striking is, oh, I don’t know, also feeling good about ourselves at the end of the day? And that means not having a “team member” who is working X many hours a week for us totally unpaid. Acting as if the indentured servants on your startup crew are beloved team members only adds insult to injury, and paints an unfair picture of your company.
3. Acting like a galling lack of HR makes you streamlined and modern.
There was a point, and I don’t know where that point was, where a startup could suddenly literally have 50+ full-time employees and not one single HR person. We wonder why so many unfortunate workplace stories practically pour out of the hubs of entrepreneurship and startups, and maybe it’s because we for some reason think human resources are a laughable afterthought for them. Worse, this sort of total disregard for what actually makes a person have a positive, healthy work experience — sorry, no medical benefits, but there’s Pac Man in the break room! — is seen as some sort of new frontier of business, instead of the class-action lawsuit waiting to happen that it actually is.
I know that it’s more convenient and Jobsian to think of a staff as a series of blinking zeroes and ones rather than living, breathing human beings with feelings and needs, but Steve Jobs abandoned his daughter for 18 years to focus on his business, then acted like his success was more due to his wearing the same shirt every day. So, yeah.
4. Pretending your success is all about hard work/grinding/hustling.
Actually, scratch the first point being the most galling, because it’s really this one. This myth is by far the most aggravating, the most degrading, and the most insulting. CEOs/founders/entrepreneurs/Sharks/whatever who insist on acting like it was their ~next-level hustle~ that got them all their success, and not a celestial cocktail of luck, timing, networks, and some hard work that got it, are the fucking worst. Period.
You know who works hard? Fucking everybody. Including the person who makes your lunch, cleans your streets, drives your Uber, and raises your children while you’re spending 20 hours a day at the office. Do you think those people are just missing your work ethic and determination? Do you think that, if only the person who does your dry cleaning was a little more dedicated to his job, he’d be the CEO of America’s third-largest laundry detergent company? Of course not. Everyone works hard, everyone tries, and most people are doing it on the fraction of the compensation or satisfaction of someone who started a business. If you are lucky enough to be successful at starting your own company, the least you can do is have the humility to acknowledge that you are not more special or more hard-working than anyone else, you just happened to have the privilege of being able to start something (and yes, being born in a country where that is even possible is one of them).
There is no need to act like the people who are not at the top of the professional food chain are only at the bottom because of a lack of grind. Everyone is grinding, you just happened to hit a lot of the right notes at a lot of the right times (and probably had a little bit of money to help along the way). The lack of humility and perspective in the startup world is probably the worst thing about it, because it’s not just misleading the people who might want to follow the same path: it’s acting like the people who haven’t only haven’t because they’re lazy.
No. Being an entrepreneur is easy, because you actually have a stake in the thing you’re building. Toiling daily for something that doesn’t care how hard you work is the real challenge. Try doing that for a year, startup bro, and let’s see how many condescending articles you write about how getting up at 5 AM and doing a green juice IV is the magic key to your success.
Image via ABC/Shark Tank