Challenging the startup hype

I’m a big believer in doing or advocating for only those things that if they were to garner mass adoption they’d lead to net positive impact on the collective. In other words, I’d like to humbly propose for a stronger orientation around this question:

Would I want to live in a world where everyone did or believed in this thing? Why or why not?

More specifically, mired as I am in the strange distorted world of Startup Land (TM), I’d like to see those of us in Silicon Valley and its equivalents think more critically about whether we should all be doing what we’re doing when it comes to our unbridled orgies of capital and (sometimes questionable) innovation run amok.

Here are some topics of discussion I hope we all start to examine more closely, if only to be thoughtful and responsible stewards of the privilege many of us have inherited (or earned!) as a result of being in Silicon Valley, and all the financial and social capital that accompany it.

More specifically, let’s consider:

  1. Cause & longevity: Whether the unprecedented popularity of starting businesses is a fad (temporary) or a trend (a sustained shift). To what extent the permanent changes in work, automation, and technological changes are at the root of our newfound obsession with starting companies, and to what extent a temporary lack of economic opportunities coupled with immense student debt are to blame.

  2. Macro impact & labor markets: The internet and its various gurus seem to think so—but is entrepreneurship actually for everyone? What happens when no one wants to be a worker bee and everyone wants to build their own hive? Will the labor markets adjust so that being an employee or doing the “unsexy” work will become more lucrative as supply and demand calibrate? Or will all the unsexy work be outsourced such that the global markets become the arenas of correction? And what does this mean for our standards of leisure and beliefs around work and work ethic?

  3. Moral & philosophical concerns: What responsibility do we have to redirect time, human capital, and actual capital towards the good (i.e. useful) ideas instead of all ideas? How can we self-reflect more so we’re driven by altruism (or at least creativity) vs. just self-interest and opportunism? (Side note: instead of blindly opting into OR rolling our eyes at the psychedelics trend so prevalent in the tech world, can we extend this even further and encourage people to harness these “plant technologies” to break through to clarity around what really drives them?)

I appreciate the irony of my posting this, given that I’m both an entrepreneur and enabler of other entrepreneurs. But in fact I think this is precisely why these questions have consumed me so much: I like to do things thoughtfully and strive to challenge my own thinking. There was a time when I was far more unrestrained and exuberant about everyone pursuing their so-called passions—but even my understanding of what that should mean has evolved. I like to think I’ve become a little more nuanced in general since then, and a little less susceptible to the modern zeitgeist of #hustleporn. (I believe the other term for this is “jaded.”)

I also find that sometimes our most acute or scathing critiques of a thing come not from a dislike of it but on the contrary a deep and personal investment in its success. Such is the case here: I like startups. I appreciate (parts of) capitalism. I want to see technology, entrepreneurship, and the capitalist systems in which they are embedded to thrive so they can continue to uplift our baseline of collective living standards, but I’d also like to see this happen with the least amount of delusion and injustice possible.

The road to this kind of sustained positive impact must, in my opinion, involve honest examinations of the externalities of our systems. We have to ask the hard questions and not be purely consumed by personal ambition (and we must have the courage and self-acceptance to admit it when it is ambition that drives us). Let’s go beyond our discussions of the new self-driving cars or hyper-innovative technologies. Let’s go beyond the latest shifts in venture capital trends. Let’s look with honesty at ourselves so we can proceed with sober but curious minds towards the world we want to live in.