Startup Culture Shock: Is Startup Life Life?

So I think somebody struck a nerve. So what do you think of this tip to save money:

Fire people who are not workaholics. Come on folks, this is startup life, it’s not a game. Don’t work at a startup if you’re not into it. Go work at the post office or Starbucks if you want balance in your life.

That’s from Mahalo founder Jason Calcanis, late last week, on his blog. He titled his post How to save money running a startup (17 really good tips). So he’s the one calling his tips “really good,” not me. Some of them are pretty good tips, but I think they got lost in the storm.

Responses came fast and furious. 111 comments by Sunday morning. Other blogs reacted too: one of the best of them was from 37 Signals, titled Fire the Workaholics, which concluded:

If your start-up can only succeed by being a sweatshop, your idea is simply not good enough. Go back to the drawing board and come up with something better that can be implemented by whole people, not cogs.

That one has 90 comments on it. Two posts about it — one by Michael Arrington agreeing and another disagreeing —  have about 350 comments between them.

Jason, meanwhile, got hit hard, with some strong words. He quickly toned down the original, striking out a couple of the more quotable phrases. And, to his credit, he shows the edits too, in the post you’ll find when you go there.

Fire people who are not workaholics. don’t love their work… come on folks, this is startup life, it’s not a game. don’t work at a startup if you’re not into it–go work at the post office or Starbucks if you’re not into it you want balance in your life. For realz

What’s going on here? I think it’s culture shock; war between worlds. These are not simple disagreements. There is a whole lot of aggression and anger in the comments.

There was a joke I heard first in Mexico City. Maybe you’ve heard an English version, but this is a translation. It’s related to all of this.

A man walks into a crowded cantina and starts shooting two six guns in the air, getting everybody’s attention. He draws a line across the middle of the bar and issues an order: “I want all the fools on one side of the line and the jerks on the other.”

“Wait just a minute,” says one man in the crowd. “I’m no fool.”

“Then move to the other side of the line.”

That’s what this controversy is trying to do to startups and people running startups. It’s pretty much either or, if you believe the flow and direction of the comment storm: fool or a jerk.

And I don’t think it’s that simple. I see at least two other issues rolling around vaguely in the middle of this. And perhaps a way to bring them together.

First, how do you define success? Every so often somebody reminds us that it’s an important question. But we get lost in the startup tension, or maybe that’s the startup culture. I think all we have to do is ask the question, as a reminder. There are so many shades of gray between the back of plain old failure and the white of fabulous billionaire success. Some people want to have a life, and they want the people around them to have lives. And it’s not like there aren’t examples of startups that respected people and balance. On the other hand, there are lots of stories around. One person’s obsession is another’s passion. You can paint that picture how you want. Do you want to be coach the kids’ soccer team or (have a very small chance to) be on the cover of magazines?

The second issue is founders with blinders. They want the whole team to share the obsession but they forget that only a few of the top founders actually stand to share the pot of gold at the end of that very-hard-to-catch rainbow. Sometimes its leadership, sometimes its selfishness. It’s insisting that everybody buy into their private dream, which sometimes is shared, and sometimes not. I’ve seen that kind of driven-and-driving-founder at work. The younger Steve Jobs was like that at Apple during the Macintosh gestation in 1983. Philippe Kahn had a lot of that when he build Borland International in the middle 1980s. I saw it again from a comfortable distance in the late 1990s, with dot-coms and their hard-driving work-is-everything atmosphere. That reminds me of the late 1990s in Silicon Valley. Back then it happened all over. I knew a company that raised $45 million venture capital in its first year, hired more than 100 employees, nobody over 30, and brought in dinner almost every night and offered video games and ping pong in the office. The 12-hour days were the norm. The long hours, the lack of balance, the obsession is supposed to be shared by the whole team, but, in many of these cases, the supposed rewards at the end of that long trek won’t be shared by the whole team.

It can be a bit like the one-size-life-fits-all syndrome, except in this case it’s the one-size-no-life fits all. Does that work? It didn’t for that company I knew, which (because a legal settlement so required it) shall remain nameless. It did for Apple and Borland. I don’t think that works very well for very long for anybody, at least not for any extended period of time. But then again, some of the people who say that it works have a whole lot of money.

And how do we bring it together? I think it might be value. Believing in what you’re doing. I’ve known companies, and teams within companies, that believed that what they were doing in the business mattered, to them and to the world. There’s a very special feeling that you get when you walk out the door at the end of the day with the feeling that you’ve spent your time making the world better, not worse. Some companies are built on making things better, while others are built on getting money out of people’s pockets. Some companies respect their customers, some companies bilk there companies. You know who you are. Does that make it better?

(note: I posted this originally on Small Business Trends. I’m crossposting here for readers’ convenience)


  • Productivity Paradox: Maybe Less is More says:

    […] (17 really good tips). So he was the one calling that tip “really good.” I posted my disagreement to Jason’s post back […]

  • Is Work Life Balance in a Startup A Good Thing? says:

    […] question keeps coming up. I jumped on a similar discussion a couple of years ago, when I posted Is Startup Life Life, which followed a public debate about work/life balance triggered by this zinger from Jason […]

  • David Mackey says:

    Well…I really wanted to say something intelligent in this comment, and I had a few things to say – but I read the whole article and by the end you'd stated them all. So, great job on offering a balanced perspective. And I'll just state that I fall into the latter group, I'm more interested in life than in business…but I agree that much depends on your passion and vision. Some businesses have it, others don't. Helping to inspire that amongst employees is one of the most important jobs of leadership in my opinion.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *