The Startup Game

July 16, 2014

Stories of startups are most often told using superlatives. These are stories of founders dedicating themselves to a single idea, prepared to risk it all for a chance of success. Teams putting in extraordinary effort: their sweat, late nights, and swapping socialising outside of work for obsessively improving their products.

These are always heroic tales of turning talent and youth into success and money. They are so pervasive that in some circles it is automatically assumed that your goal is to either have your own startup eventually, or be a part of one destined to make you rich.

Even outside of the tech bubble many believe the hype. The government is happy to claim to have played a part in the success of Silicon Roundabout, whatever that success may be. Young people skilled at programming are hailed “the next Zuckerberg”, their companies “the next Google”.

The sad truth is that most startups fail, but these stories are always presented as post-mortems: we did this, and it hurt us in that way. We ran out of money. We couldn’t scale.

As Nikki Durkin points out, “the startup press glorify hardship”. As a founder, you’re expected to put on a brave face.

Ask any founder how they’re doing and you’ll hear something positive. Whether that’s the truth or not, that’s what we’re trained to say.

I found postmortems of startups outlining what didn’t work and why the company went under, but I was hard pressed to find anything that talked about the emotional side of failure — how it actually feels to invest many years of your life and your blood, sweat and tears, only for your startup to fall head first off a cliff.

Of the personal stories of my friends most of them are not the happy ones of hardship, survival and success. Mostly they’re stories of workplaces that in the name of innovation and moving fast throw out healthy working practices. I’ve heard of startups doing “agile” by having three stand ups a day. Ones which insisted they were still too small for HR departments despite complaints. Companies where managers were so scared of losing control that they had to micromanage everyone below them. Places which enforced permanent “crunch time”. Stories of unfair dismissals, unforeseen firings, burn out resulting in months off work.

Anecdotally at least it seems to me that those stories are at least as common as the success ones, but they’re not told as often, though they should be. That’s why I made the Startup Game (mirror here).