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Over the last six or seven years, startup culture and its endless inventory of entrepreneurs has blessed us with a lot of great stuff. We have recently seen impressive leaps forward in product and process innovation, organizational philosophy and personal empowerment—much of that progress can be attributed to the successful practices of software startups. At the same time, however, that very same culture has infused the broader business landscape with some troubling instincts and damaging habits that seem surprisingly void of widely available hindsight.
I write this now because I think we’re approaching somewhat of an inflection point. As last year’s Kauffman Index calculated, the rate of new entrepreneurs in the US increased about 10 percent in 2015; that rate of 0.31 percent translates into approximately 530,000 new business owners each month and about 130.6 startups per 100,000 people. It was the second consecutive year of growth after four years of sharp decline, and the trend seems like it will hold.
At the same time, just this month it was reported that global venture capital funding hit a two-year low in Q3—we saw the lowest level of funding since Q3 in 2014 and a 14% decrease from Q2 alone. Some will attribute that to a lack of gargantuan deals, some to a sobering correction from an “irrationally high” injection of VC dollars in 2015, and others to a logical founding-to-funding latency and the natural ebbs and flows of a dynamic market.
Still, it would be difficult for the most optimistic of observers to ignore a likely correlation between projected failure and contractions in funding; analysis has shown that even companies accepted by Y Combinator have less than a one in ten chance of becoming a big success. It isn’t hard to extrapolate a relatively valid estimate of what those success rates will look like within the hundreds of thousands of startups inevitably deprived of world-renown guidance and support.
All this is to say that over the next ten years, I think we will be left with a lot more tangible residue of software startup culture than we will be left with contemporary software startups themselves. But they have already made their mark. Now that profound characteristics of that startup culture have permeated most functional veins of North America’s business anatomy, it has become critical to identify their fundamental flaws most hazardous to the long-term success of a scalable software company.
Just recently, Medium author and Android Developer, Shem published a popular piece entitled, Fuck You Startup World. It’s fairly insightful commentary on many of the irritating qualities and philosophical flaws within startup culture, wrapped in an all-too-relatable rant. While both tactical and theoretical concepts are attacked, the piece largely leans on the identification of hipster-esque annoyances and conflicts of common sense and authenticity.
What worries me most, however, is ground-level, bottom-line business success, and an erosion of our ingrained sensibilities surrounding strategy. Startup culture has caused us to lose sight of some very important principles that uphold favorable odds of long-term success. To borrow some software terminology, we are face to face with a strategic architecture filled with points of failure densely disguised as evolution and enhancement.
Shem rhetorically asks of the culture, “…why the fuck does everything have to be so extreme with you?” It is in those extremities that you will find structural damage significant enough to sabotage the most intelligent and innovative of organizations, unaware that they have inherited the genes for myopia. They are not insurmountable glitches, and they are not glitches without some merit, but they are threatening glitches nonetheless. Hopefully some of these perspectives here will help to improve our collective consciousness and save us even just a little bit from a future littered with entirely avoidable collapse.
1. Imperfection As An Expectation
It’s almost as if software startups and the “agility” they now exclusively preach has encouraged us to neglect the nuances of practices like construction, aeronautical engineering, and medicine, ultimately losing appreciation for their most constructive characteristic: a standard of perfection.
Of course, there is more at stake during a plane takeoff than there is launching a new foodie app or V1 of a chat platform—there is certainly incomparable permanence to the former in the event of a mistake—but what a horrible mentality it is to so comfortably embrace the inevitability of error and oversight just because we can afford to do so.
Extremes of both predetermination (e.g., Waterfall) and iteration (e.g., Extreme Programming) are fraught with risk. Where we tend to land these days, however—especially amongst those never privy to the underpinnings of enterprise-level software—is around the space on the spectrum that too closely resembles procrastination and cognitive apathy. We will never see everything coming—much like the hedge fund manager won’t know exactly what the market will do—but the goal is certainly to hire and groom people who are better at grasping (and often defining) a fickle future than the average smarty-pants.
The more we snobbishly lean on a narrative of endless unpredictability (and thus an aversion to planning), the more we smudge the lens of strategic vision; and subsequently, the less we appreciate, in both ourselves and our colleagues, the development of true intelligence and foresight.
2. The Misunderstanding and Marginalization Of “Thinking” (vs. “Doing”)
In an enthusiastically entrepreneurial world increasingly burdened by bootstrapping, this trend is not surprising; such wild premiums have been placed on people in the “production line,” that those fitted for roles specializing in definition, translation, comprehension, communication, and strategic execution are often relegated to realms of ambiguity (unless lucky enough to be at the executive level).
The most vivid example of this in software culture is the almost cyclical struggle we see—now arguably at its highest peak since the mid 2000s—to define the roles and cultivate the utility of Product Managers. If someone isn’t hearing the word, “Project” on utterance of their title, then someone else is surely asking them questions about programming languages or the limitations of cookies for client-side data storage.
While this trend of execution-exclusivity is not surprising, it is certainly harmful to the growth prospects of a company, regardless of its size or stage. Being too captivated by a book-end strategy—one where “making it look good” and “making it live” aggressively command priority over “making it globally sensible,” “making it preemptive” and “making it cover all the right bases”—can quickly become a dead-end strategy.
This is not to say that one can never straddle the entire range of software’s cognitive and tactical responsibilities; it is simply to say that ongoing history shows us that one rarely does so effectively, if we take a holistic approach to delivery.
3. The Data Daze
A major driver of the aforementioned marginalization, and one that invades a number of the trends outlined in this piece, is the exaggerated appraisal and oversimplification of making “data-driven decisions.” It is as though the emergence of comprehensive data sets has been used to displace the entirely separate resources of logical interpretation and strategic application.
While everyone may have access to “objective” data, not everyone has the mindset or the capacity to leverage it sensibly within a product-centric, market-aware business machine.
Data does not replace adaptive psychology; data aids its development. Data does not provide awareness of context and stakeholder balance; data facilitates their refinement. Data is not perspective; data is access to perspective. Data is a form of input in the process of software design and management.
Setting yourself up to strictly chase data and the clickable artifacts that facilitate its accumulation is a strategy just as likely to spread the weeds as it is to help avoid getting the wrong people stuck in them. It is also a strategy inherently in conflict with intellectual diversity, a major contributor to overall company success.
4. Believing It’s “Better To Beg For Forgiveness”…
When left unregulated, what follows from all of the above is the development of a condition I call, MVP ADD: Minimum Viable Product Attention Deficit Disorder.
Its basic definition: Difficulty (manifesting as an unwillingness when coupled with marginal success) in maintaining prolonged, actionable focus on the nuances of potential future product states, holistic solution architecture, and comprehensive brand-level user experience.
Its symptoms: The emergence of exaggerated need for iteration, the external appearance (and internal management) of instability, unnecessarily fragmented and band-aid-bound UX strategy (we’ll get to that shortly), and many others.
Another way to look at its most tragic symptoms—perhaps the most relevant way to look at them—is as deliberate, self-serving indifference towards the general trust, comfort and adoption investments of your most average and most sensitive end-users.
This may be my favorite passage from Shem’s piece:
“Fuck having a Design sprint in EVERY sprint, pushing to production 100 times a day, using no staging environment and building a micro services architecture. Fuck your feature flags and endless variants in your A/B testing. I want to get the same version of your site every time I refresh it, stop fucking changing it up on me.”
I liken such wild departures from constancy and predictability to the anti-bunt phenomenon in baseball. While a statistician can tell you exactly how many runs over the course of a season a baseball team will forfeit if they frequently bunt (and they will forfeit runs), a pitcher cannot mathematically quantify the positive impact on his approach, his affinity to the club, and ultimately, his overall performance when his team has a tendency to buy him simply one more run in important circumstances. Nobody can quantify it, but it’s big.
The intangible qualities of insurance and marginal confidence go a long way, and are just as important to a long-term winning strategy as is playing the big data game to squeak favorable numbers into a win column.
5. Myopic UX, Forsaken IA & Their Best Friend, Technical Debt
If you have been around the startup scene over the last few years, you will have undoubtedly heard some rendition of the following pseudo-stat:
“Scaling too fast, too soon is the number one reason most new companies fail.”
There is enough perspective and research available to confidently debate that this is not “the number one reason” for most tech startup failures. For now though, we can put aside semantics and acknowledge that indeed, being too concerned about scale in early stages can result in severely stunted development ROI. On the other hand, being dogmatically negligent about scale considerations in order to live at lightening speed will result in some alternate setbacks, the impacts of which we seem to dismiss now more frequently than ever.
First, as previously alluded to, placing too tight a grip on future formations can (subliminally and explicitly) hinder the inception of UX designs and conventions that are adequately powerful, flexible, and eligible for relatively painless evolution over time.
Going up one vertebrae in the UI backbone, a trend of short-sightedness often results in a total lack of appreciation for a well-considered Information Architecture; we find a case’s Individual Screens establishing permanent power over a product’s Interaction Legend. In some cases, this is entirely appropriate; in many, it is profoundly disruptive.
Finally, what all this inevitably breeds—and I don’t actually need to tell this to anyone of any notable experience—is the age-old antagonist of Technical Debt. Technical debt is treated much like other modern day ailments, like heart disease, diabetes, or even cancer: most people talk about how bad it is and how reluctant they are to confront it, but it is not until it actually strikes that people realize how crippling it is to the fulfillment of their goals, and sometimes, how superficial and inattentive they truly were in their efforts of avoidance.
If a company achieves a pace of growth that is worthy of economic excitement, some technical debt is both unforeseeable and unavoidable. Again, though, it should not be the standard of the culture to apathetically succumb to a self-fulfilling prophecy and embrace a recursive pattern of patch-work. Too many companies today all too greatly resemble this strategic profile.
6. The Imposition of Over-Specialization
Taking a step away from product strategy and technical management woes, I want to point your attention to some fault lines in the foundation of emerging hiring practices. In short, due to the boom in volume and diversity of software products and platforms, we are exhibiting a tendency in perception to pigeon-hole people into buckets of experience that imply much narrower contribution capacities than are available in practice.
“What experience do you have with e-commerce platforms?,” “Have you ever had any direct reports?,” “Have you ever worked with a big team?,” “How familiar are you with streaming services?,” “Have you done any work with digital rights management?,” “What background do you have in design-heavy, socially-integrated consumer productivity and discovery apps developed in agile environments?” We all need to take a step back and breathe.
We are scaring ourselves off of a lot of driven, intelligent, creative people with unnecessary attention to buzzwords, tactical nuances, and imaginary intellectual walls between platform genres.
An article was recently published on SnapMunk called, Entrepreneurs Use The Wrong Search Terms To Find The Right Attorneys. It provides great perspective on how entrepreneurs are often coming up short in their searches for adequate legal support. One of the biggest reasons is because they are being granular to a fault. Entrepreneurs are searching for lawyers with expertise in “Vesting,” or expertise in “Delaware” law, when what they actually need are simply smart lawyers with general experience in areas like “Financing,” or literally any kind of corporate law.
We need to be very careful not to spiral into trend of competence-clearcutting, leaving us nose to nose with a whole bunch of trees while the more pertinent forests oblige our expectations of elusiveness. Precise overlap between experience and expected work has never and will never be the key to lifetime employee value and the success of a company. Now is a critical time to remember that.
7. Vertical Career Ambiguity
Applying balance to the personal growth side of the equation, individual contributors need to ensure that no matter how exciting an opportunity, and no matter how empoweringly flat an organization, they remain aware of an immutable reality: people outside their professional bubble need an easy way to understand what it is they have been doing, for what they have been responsible, and to what tier of corporate resource they have grown. Companies need to ensure that they provide their employees that kind of clear visibility and professional branding.
The odds of any given company being someone’s last are low; the odds of any given private company actually going public (or being acquired) and rendering their employee’s titles and reporting structures irrelevant in a rain of riches are exceptionally low. Career growth is not just about the where, but also very much about the what, and that “what” needs to be dead simple to recognize by outsiders. Do not let an apparent affinity for infinitely collaborative, amorphous armies lead you to forget that.
8. The Illusion of The Infinite Prosperity of Effort
There is a chronic narrative that fuels much of the entrepreneurial engine—especially in the world of software startups. It is similar in concept to the unconditional encouragement we give our children when they say they want to be an astronaut or The President; it is not unlike the hymn we are sung about time-protected market values and eternally appreciating real-estate investments; it is the narrative telling us that as long as we work really hard, we simply collect information, and we always maintain a progressive balance of humility and tenacity, we will emerge from our efforts “successful.”
It is an inspiring narrative. It is a narrative that elicits hope and naturally conscribes an impressive population of people eager and able to propel our world into a much more resourceful future. It is also a narrative that, not coincidental to my observations thus far, lacks appreciation for the effects of aggregated errors; rewards courage over common sense, marching over mindfulness, and almost always “sooner” rather than “later.” It is a narrative that has worked, and because of its unbridled success, it is a narrative that must be closely watched and carefully told.
Startup culture has provided us with many incredible and innovative tools, personalities and perspectives—many of them noted here in this piece (do not confuse concern with condemnation). Startup culture has given us all a much-needed high. It is at these kinds of altitudes, however, where we need to be cautious; where we need to question how we have addressed important concepts like scalability, psychology and structure. Some things are not built to sustain certain pressures. No person and no company is immune to the gravitational pull of real life. And things get very real very fast these days.
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Thomas Peden says
I think many startups that want to scale right now know they are not in the race for the long term. They want money now, can get it and will be onto the next thing very shortly.
Carrie Fleming says
Great article! Looking back, I can see exactly what you are talking about. After following the startups for a few years now, it does pain me to see some of going down the same path as the one before it, only to get the same results and then ask “what the hell?”