Startup: The Good, The Bad and The Party

Don't miss the forest of shit for the free snack trees. Startups aren't the utopia you think they'd be. Sometimes they're hell.

If you didn’t catch Omri Aloni’s deliciously irreverent condemnation of startup culture in Medium, and the word “fuck” doesn’t offend you, I highly suggest you do, because it’s fucking poetry. I’m all for burning bridges and fanning flames, because much like Aloni, I know how to swim. However, despite his rightful indignation, it’s difficult to paint the startup scene with a single brush, or shall we say, keystroke. My beef with startups has less to do with the consumption of Soylent, and more to do with the blatant misogyny, cultish allegiance, and atrociously irresponsible “burn” (another startup word) of venture funding.

In the Tinder age, a “newly established business” sounds like a whole lot of commitment

My foray into startups began years ago, mostly in a freelance capacity. Some copy editing here, some social media management there. But it wasn’t until it became my gluten-free bread and almond butter, that I came FaceTime to FaceTime with the unsettling truth of how some of these organization operate.

Let’s start with what a startup is. It’s a millennial term for “a newly established business.” So why not just call it that? Well for one, it sounds sexier and more fun. Also, in the Tinder age, a “newly established business” sounds like a whole lot of commitment and well… work. And we millennials didn’t slave away at our overpriced liberal arts degrees and graduate into a recession to put all our eggs in one uptight, corporate basket. But colloquially, startup has come to mean a new business in the tech scene.

Monthly keggers, shirtless gong shows and inter-office Nerf wars

I used to say I worked at a frat. How else would one describe the monthly keggers, shirtless gong shows and inter-office Nerf wars? Oh, what’s a gong show, you ask? At the end of each month, for every sale made, the Account Executive who closed it would ring a gong, while the entire company watched. You were expected to cheer and drink, and stay well passed office hours until the executives left or were too fucked up to notice your absence. Showing your allegiance to the company and all its weird traditions mattered as much, if not more, than being good at your job. And in the words of Aloni, FUCK that.

If you’re starting to get a whiff of misogyny, you’re not mistaken. The tech community is a notorious boys club. There are of course, a considerable number women in working tech, but very few of them occupy leadership positions. Barring startups that were founded by women, I’ve only come across one female executive at an organization that was otherwise run by men, and my employment there outlived hers. So while the door might be open to women, the URL to the glass ceiling seems remain permanently under construction. And if like me, you find yourself in possession of a vagina at a startup whose culture is driven by testosterone, you’ll probably be the odd (wo)man out.

Is tech just finance for nerds? Are startups simply the banks of the Reagan Era?

Sorry I’m not sorry that I don’t drink bourbon and that I have a life that’s more fulfilling than free snacks–another common startup perk. Unless those protein bars are redeemable for a bonus, I’ll pass. Sorry I’m not sorry I was able to finish my work within an eight-hour day; maybe it’s because I wasn’t playing ping-pong for an hour or railing lines off a conference room table. Sorry I’m not sorry that I’m not 22, and the idea of getting blasted in the face with a Nerf pellet doesn’t thrill me. And I’m definitely sorry I’m not sorry that I called bullshit when I smelled it and asked to be compensated as fairly as my male counterparts, (some of whom were absolutely lovely, by the way).

Despite the seemingly “progressive” cultures of many startup organizations, my experience can’t help me wonder if in fact we are not regressing, specifically to the 1980s. Is tech just finance for nerds? Are startups simply the banks of the Reagan Era? Are the CEOs of today, the Patrick Batemans of yesteryear? The writing is in many ways on the wall: the drugs, the misogyny, the complete disregard of fiduciary responsibility. And with that in mind, is the economy destined again to be the victim of a corporate culture that blurs the line between work and play? How else can a company not be profit generating, and simultaneously rent out one of Manhattan’s prominent nightclubs to throw a party? What the fuck are we celebrating all the goddamn time?

How else can a company not be profit generating, and simultaneously rent out one of Manhattan’s prominent nightclubs to throw a party?

I don’t want to sound like a corporate grinch. I played a few rounds of ping-pong on the job and made use of the unlimited vacation time many of my colleagues were afraid to take. It’s not that these startup perks are inherently evil. In fact, as the workforce evolves to include more and more millennials, I wouldn’t be surprised if more established organizations start changing some their policies to attract desirable candidates. And maybe we have startups to thank for that. But as for the rest… thanks, but no thanks.

Photo courtesy of @matylda (Creative Commons)

Julia Reiss is a Los Angeles-born writer and humorist alive and mostly well in New York City.
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