Down and Out with Entrepreneurs and Startups.
George Orwell’s first full-length work, Down and Out in Paris and London is often overlooked in favour of his more surreal and dystopian masterpieces, Animal Farm and, of course, 1984.
This is ironic, especially in these economically/socially troubled times, for as a book its narrative better reflects the real-world challenges our society faces. By immersing himself in the ‘hidden worlds’ of kitchens (when in Paris) and vagrancy (when back in London), Orwell becomes qualified to write with empathy and understanding of the hardships many face in life: it’s not a patronising piece of prose from some academic in an ivory tower.
"At present I do not feel that I have seen more than the fringe of poverty. Still, I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by being hard up. I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning." ~ George Orwell.
So, how is this related to the world or startups and entrepreneurs, you ask? I promise I am not going to start labouring some pretentious metaphor or analogy, but what concerns me is the level of pressure - and false expectations - being placed on those of us who are deemed to be ‘entrepreneurs’ and, if we’re lucky enough (sic) those who reach the stage of being a ‘startup’ - ie, we are no longer selling just ourselves: we have a business; a product.
The transition from entrepreneur to startup (and back again) can be pretty seamless: in my own case, my freelance consulting activities led me to developing an idea that became a business-plan for a Web2.0 service that meant my service could be scaled. Of course it wasn’t that simple and after a few years (idea, business plan, seeking VC funding, development, release) it crashed and burned anyway. Well, it died with an embarrassingly prolonged whimper rather than a dramatic Zynga-like implosion/pivot. During this whole timeframe many people praised me as being an ‘entrepreneur’ and being the founder of a web-startup that would be worth millions, one day. Obviously.
"Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art." ~ Andy Warhol.
Fortunately, I never believed a word of it, because I soon became all too aware of how a startup can go awry unless you, the founder, have control of it. I never made a single penny/dime from several years of hard work, but I certainly accumulated a lot of debts and heartbreak. Ironically, money was never my motivator: I wanted to create something and what gave me my biggest kick was when we had an office and employed a few people, at the peak of the development cycle. I wanted to create a sustainable business, something real, that created jobs. I don’t say this from some grand stance of altruism; I expected some recompense when the startup became a successful business. Sadly, that never happened.
You live, you learn…
What concerns me is that we see too much of this cycle. We need to understand - and be more transparent about - the fact that being an entrepreneur typically means nothing more than you are a freelancer/consultant, selling your time - and being paid for it, if you’re lucky; additionally, your time is highly finite. Sure, if your skills are in particular demand at that time you can charge an accordingly higher rate, but this rarely lasts and periods of unpaid work dramatically reduce the real value of those weeks you were paid pretty well. But, we tell ourselves we are ‘entrepreneurs’ and it’s up to us to be at the vanguard of the new economy. I often feel I am U2's biggest fan; I've done so much pro bono work, over the years…
"There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else." ~ Sam Walton.
Say you survive the entrepreneurial stage and you are now a ‘startup’ your superficial stock-value goes up even higher; strangers will tell you, 'Wow, just like Instagram, Tumblr, Facebook, etc - they were all unprofitable startups just a couple of years ago - look at them now. You're going to be rich!'
"You don’t come into cooking to get rich." ~ Gordon Ramsay.
Of course, some do succeed, but the percentage that succeeds versus those that fail or limp-along in a zombie-like state of existence is minimal. Figures are anecdotal and speculated, for it’s hard to truly measure, but conservatively some 90% of startups will fail.
That’s pretty lousy odds, isn’t it?
Success is not always what it seems. When it is via the epiphany of some legacy CEO wishing to acquire a trendy new software company, or the delusional crazily-valued IPO of your company, sure, success in terms of billions of dollars being thrown about is evident. But, should I need to remind you, that’s not how it normally happens. And that is certainly not ‘success’.
"The pressure on young chefs today is far greater than ever before in terms of social skills, marketing skills, cooking skills, personality and, more importantly, delivering on the plate. So you need to be strong. Physically fit. So my chefs get weighed every time they come into the kitchen." Gordon Ramsay.
Think of a restaurant, think of a band. The people involved in both disciplines rely heavily on creativity, support, passion. Hard work. Success is a long, hard slog, and even then success may only mean you have a nice steady business: your restaurant is operating at 70% covers most evenings; your band is touring universities and clubs, earning some money along the way and growing virally via word—of-mouth. There’s a good chance you’ll get signed, sometime soon.
"I want to put a ding in the universe." ~ Steve Jobs.
It’s hard work, it’s iterative. You are always interacting with your audience; feedback is immediate and easy to assimilate: that meal was great/poor; that song was awesome/average. Iterate, iterate: teamwork.
Even if you don’t become ‘successful’, you’ll probably earn a decent living. This is good.
Twitter was a slow-burner, but from day one it had an audience, which steadily grew and grew. No hype. It was kept simple, it got itself to market quickly, even though it was relatively primitive and had a very limited demographic. No mater, Twitter learned. We all learned; it was an appetiser we grew familiar with; we wanted more. It was that obscure song from an unknown band that suggested they’d become big.
Contrast that with a typical contemporary web/mobile/media startup. Earnest, typically young, guys and girls, sweat away at code and design for thousands of hours; their leader (the founder/the investor/etc) has a vision that will make them all into millionaires - hell, if not, why bother? Locked away in a typically suitable ‘urban hub’ office-space, the company works away in relative isolation, other than looking at how their (successful) peers are doing and repeating the mantra, 'That will be us, soon'.
"Kitchens are hard environments and they form incredibly strong characters." ~ Gordon Ramsay.
No other industry will spend millions in isolation and have nothing to show for it apart from a room of Apple Macs, a rented office space, and a few good programmers. Oh, and an ‘idea’. Then, after 1-3 years of development, the stealth-releases and media-teases begin. Just like every other company in the industry does. The expectation is it has to be a jackpot; we have become so fixated with the crazily ‘valued’ acquisitions and IPOs that simply creating a sustainable business is no longer considered enough.
"The most frequently asked question I hear first-time entrepreneurs ask is, ‘How do I know when to launch my product?’ The answer, more often than not, should be: ‘Now!’" ~ Naveen Jain.
So, eventually, your product is released to the world and then there’s baffled amazement when nothing really happens. Our preferred lexicon has insulated us from commerce, leading us to finding comfort and support within semiotics and skeuomorphs that only further detach us from reality.
You’re not defined by being an entrepreneur, or a startup.
You’re a business.