Let’s redefine “startups”

fast food

/me done with junk food

I’ve considered myself part of the startup scene for the past ten years or so, and I’ve learned a lot, met some amazing people, and still love helping others succeed by passing on what others have taught me. But lately, the ongoing hype and global desire to copy the Silicon Valley model has left me struggling to relate to the scene.

Like good, nutritious food, well-built companies spread happiness and provide long-term benefit. With iwantmyname, we’ve successfully resisted many temptations for instant gratification and instead have focused on not compromising the integrity of our customers. We’ve built a company that values its employees instead of exploiting them. We’ve never focused on increasing shareholder value, and we’re able to do that because the only capital tied up is ours.

The Silicon Valley model is very different than that. It’s pure junk food, built on instant gratification, external funding, quick iterations, massive scale, and big numbers. Instead of valuing people, the entire goal is to increase perceived shareholder value. The investors are the customer, and investors are always hungry.

Mike Monteiro recently summed it up perfectly: “The goal of every venture-backed company is to increase usage by some metric end over end over end until the people who gave you that startup capital get their payday. This is the original sin of Silicon Valley.”

Worst yet is what we’ve done with startup evangelism in the developing world. In many cases, the model has become: the all knowing white man comes in to tell the silly locals how to be successful, then rushes off to his next speaking engagement. The message is simple — grow quickly (with all that entails) or die. Rinse and repeat. I’ve been part of many Startup Weekends and similar events over the years where I’ve unfortunately felt that way myself.

I feel a bit like I would after eating a couple Big Macs — not sure if I should puke or just be happy to have eaten.

The startup world doesn’t have to be this way though. We’ve collectively learned a lot from this madness, but we need to change how we apply our knowledge. We need to holistically look at impact, not just the financial successes of a few. We need support structures that look way past a 3-5 year return on investment.

If we don’t, we’ll have similar issues like we see today with obesity, but with mental health. Burnout rates are already rising dramatically, and judging from the amount of posts on depression on Medium and Hacker News, we’re already well underway to seeing the dark side of our collective efforts (and that’s just covering the employee side — the societal impact is concerning as well).

Join me in building an actual future for all of us, not just for a few investors. We can do better.