Avoid the startup dance floor, and get on the startup factory floor

Based on my decade of experience of being involved in tech startups as a founder, advisor and investor, I can say without doubt that the cacophony of startup hullabaloo is getting louder than ever. Really, what does super excited mean, other than referring to an eight year-old on Christmas Day?

Startups have long lived by the mantra of ‘fake it till you make it’ and many are built on buzzwords and hype. For example, last week I was pitched by an AI startup claiming to use the technology. I said I couldn’t see where he was adopting AI in his MVP. But that will be in the future, he replied with a straight face, although I did detect the mad-eyed Jack Nicholson face from the scene in The Shining where he puts an axe through the bathroom door. Here’s Johnny was lurking within.

The extent of the false claims made around AI makes distinguishing a viable concept from a non-viable one tough. Founders have come to believe that exaggeration and the latest tech lingo are the best ways to land the cash to develop their big idea. But the hyperbole is becoming extreme, sorting scientific fact from fiction is becoming harder when analysing complex and specialised technologies.

It’s a cultural shift where we’re seeing the image and status of being an entrepreneur as having more meaning than the outputs they create. Everyone that wants to be a tech millionaire before they’ve really put a shift in and hit 25. I read an article that highlighted ‘The App Effect’ as the root of this, anyone and everyone wants a shot at the startup game. People want to build an app before having an idea. The Peter Pan Generation.

Then there’s the ‘Uber for X’ phenomenon, folks proudly announce themselves as the on-demand, sharing-economy solution for pet sitting, laundry, car-washes etc. But at least it’s replaced the i-laundry, i-car wash, i-tutor phase and the I’m building a white horse creature with single horn in Manchester. Pity it’s not a Valley. As you were, Manchester.

So, let’s be clear: startups are starting level companies based on new ideas. It’s a label, nothing more than a time adjective for businesses. Yet it has turned into a cool-hipster way of doing business and it’s a label people yearn for. That’s not to say that the real startup culture isn’t valuable, and ambition that stands for exploring the blank canvas of unsolved problems is worthwhile. There are brilliant ideas out there.

But this hype and bravado comes at a price. It’s chipping away at the key startup ventures. It’s the Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome. We need to avoid this hot-air and accept the brutal reality of pragmatism required to get a startup off the ground, and avoid the seduction of the rhetoric. Close your ears to the noise!

What counts is not the status of ‘startup’, but the endeavour and joy in the work. Don’t indulge yourself in the vanity of others, recognise your own dilemmas, because if we don’t discover what we want from ourselves and what we stand for, why bother in the first place? The paradoxes and tensions are the very drivers that spur us on. Living on your own wits as a solo artist in the spirit of individualism. The gung-ho bravado of startup culture is masking the reality and undermining the truth: it’s sheer bloody hard work.

Jason Fried, founder of Basecamp, a web applications company based in Chicago, has a philosophy to startup tech that is clear, articulate and makes complete sense. Fried pushes back on the cauldron of hype and bravado, highlighting extreme working hours, growth-at-all-costs, and the focus on fund raising as fundamentally flawed. He’s turned the startup rhetoric on its head and debunks the myths. And he has the track record to make us stop and listen – Fried’s company has millions of users for its products such as Basecamp, Highrise, Campfire, Backpack and Hey, and it’s all been self-funded.

Basecamp was founded as 37signals in 1999 by Jason Fried, Carlos Segura, and Ernest Kim as a web design company. David Hansson joined later, and was instrumental in developing the open source web application framework, Ruby on Rails. The company was originally named after the 37 radio telescope signals identified by astronomer Paul Horowitz as potential messages from extraterrestrial intelligence. There are apparently billions of signals and sources of noise in space, but, according to Horowitz, there are 37 signals that remain unexplained.

Fried’s story really is a personal entrepreneurial journey of creating answers to problems he had, then scaling the solutions into products to sell. His first product came from the early days of having an AOL account and dial up modem. So, looking at Fried’s blogs, published on https://m.signalvnoise.com/ and https://medium.com/@jasonfried, and his books Rework, Remote, Getting Real and It doesn’t have to be crazy at work – what are the key takeaways from Fried’s philosophies that stick? Here are some thoughts, based around his own words.

1.        Be a calm company

For many, ‘it’s crazy at work’ startup mantra has become their normal. At the root is an unhealthy obsession with growth at any cost, driving an anxious, crazy mess. It is no wonder people are working longer, on weekends, and whenever they have a spare moment. Work claws away at life. Life has become work’s leftovers.

The answer isn’t more hours, it’s less noise and stop the ‘always-on’ anxiety. On-demand is for movies, not for work. Fevered, unrealistic expectations drag people down. It’s time to stop asking everyone to breathlessly chase ever-higher, targets set by ego. It’s time to stop celebrating mad days. Workaholics aren’t heroes. They don’t save the day, they just use it up.

Build a startup that isn’t fuelled by all-nighter crunches, impossible promises, or manufactured busywork that lead to systemic anxiety. Noise and movement are not indicator of activity and progress – they’re just indicators of noise and movement.

No hair on fire. Build calm. As a tech company you’re supposed to be playing the hustle game. But Fried has Basecamp working at 40 hours a week most of the year, and just 32-hour, four-day weeks in the summer. The workplace should not resemble a chaotic kitchen.

2.        Love Mondays

It’s actually more Fridays and weekends I have a problem with. Fridays are often the anti-climax of the week, sometimes you didn’t get as much done as you hoped, your energy is spent, and frankly, you just want to put a lid on it. So, it all spills into the weekend, and by extraordinary effort and sacrifice, you make stuff happen. But the weekend becomes part of the routine, and Friday is just a shelf.

Mondays, on the other hand, are always full of promise and freshness. Imagine all the great things this week has to offer! Imagine finally cracking the hard problem that cooked your noodle last week. Monday is the day of optimism, to fuel your spirit. I think the key to enjoying Mondays is to ensure the weekend is spent doing everything but Monday-Friday type stuff. No digging into the mountain of overdue emails no ‘just checking in’.

Turning Mondays into a delight rather than wash-rinse-repeat is really all about moderation. Humans are designed for balance. The best recipe is a mix, not a single-ingredient sludge. Take the weekend to enjoy an exclusive plate of not-work, and wake up hungry for Monday’s fresh serving of startup innovation, learning and experimenting.

3.        Being tired isn’t a badge of honour

Many entrepreneurs brag about not sleeping, telling me about their 16-hour days, making it sound like hustle-at-all-costs is the only way. Rest be damned, they say , there’s an endless amount of work to do. But pulling 16-hour days on a regular basis are exhausting, and I think this message is one of the most harmful in all of startup land.

Sustained exhaustion is not a rite of passage. It’s a mark of stupidity. Scientists suggest that your ability to think declines on each successive day you sleep less than you naturally would. It doesn’t take long before the difference is telling. If the point of working long hours is to get more work done, and you care about the quality of your work, how can you justify sustained lack of sleep? The only people who try to do so are tired and not thinking straight.

One argument I hear a lot about working long hours is that when you’re just getting started, you have to give it everything – I understand that, and there’s some truth to it. It requires extra hours and you need to make an extra push. And that’s OK, because the exhaustion is not sustained; it’s temporary, the exception, not the rule. But if you work long hours at the beginning, and that’s all you know, you can easily condition yourself to think this is the only way to operate. I’ve seen so many burn out following this pattern.

It’s important to get a ton of sleep. You’ll start better, think better. Sleep is great. I love it! It makes me better at creativity and problem solving. Aren’t these the things you want more of, not less of, at work? Don’t you want to wake up with new solutions in your head rather than bags under your eyes? Work is not more important than sleep. Very few problems need to be solved at the 15th hour of a workday. It can wait until morning.

So, three interesting perspectives from Fried that run counter to the hullabaloo we see in tech startup mantra on the street and social media. Do your best and be calm by choice, by practice. Be intentional about it. Make different decisions than the rest, don’t follow-the-lemming-off-the-cliff worst practices. Step aside and let them jump! Chaos should not be the natural state at work for a startup. Anxiety isn’t a prerequisite for progress. Keep things simple, leave the poetry in what you make.

Equally, chose fulfilment ahead of growth. Small is not just a stepping-stone. Small is a great destination itself. Build something of purpose, of intent. Growth can be a slow and steady climb. Do live dreaming of the hockey stick graph. It’s not stable. Just look at oak trees. They grow incredibly slowly, but they have a solid foundation to withstand storms and other disasters. You need a solid core, which is why I’m such a big fan of consistent and steady growth.

I’ve not always been able to run myself by Fried’s philosophies, there have been times when the pace and demands have sent the needle into the red zone, but his common sense, people-centric, purpose and principles lead approach has been my yardstick.

Startups are bearing too much of an image culture, and many founders are too anxious for the status badge. Tech startups are now a symbol of C21st cool, and founders are hipsters. The bravado and hype is damaging, you need to detach from it. As Jason Fried says, avoid the trap, it’s signals versus noise.

The Digital Age has been revolutionary in a number of ways to such an extent that the word Disruption has come to signify a startup can rewrite the rule book while relegating the titans of an industry to the annals of history. It’s the kind of trailblazing that is majestic in nature and game-changing in practice – but after the aura of being a ‘startup’, it very rarely happens.

A key troubling factor in the surge of startups vying for attention are inflated evaluations and the proliferation of half-baked organisations propped up as emblems of fruitful innovation (WeWork?). Many entrepreneurs are routinely fêted but lack the maturity to survive beyond the hype stage and contribute to ramping up failure rates at an alarming rate.

Stop seeking the limelight, get off the startup dance floor and get onto the startup factory floor. Stay grounded and maintain a focus on shipping. Celebrating equals shipping. It’s not sexy, but shipping pays the bills which builds the company.

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