The Anti-Startup

I wasn’t expecting this tweet to hit a nerve:

I was, to be honest, semi-seriously playing with the idea. There’s some dogma around startups, and I thought it would be fun to challenge it. What does it look like to throw off some of the assumptions of how startups “should” work?

I don’t find myself connecting with the idea of “starting a startup” as much anymore (not like 10 years ago), and I’m not sure why. I love to build things that users want, and I love to work with small teams — but does that necessarily mean startups? Maybe there’s another way.

Before getting to some of the things I was thinking about when I wrote the tweet, here are some interesting responses from others about what anti-startups are: they don’t have offices, only set non-goals, do everything by hand. Others talked about prioritizing profits and sustainability rather than growth at all costs and exploiting the ecosystem. Some of these resonate with me more than others, but it’s revealing to see what aspects of capital-S Startups that folks instinctively reject.

One of the bits of dogma I wanted to counter is the need for ambitious, big visions. Solve big problems, find big markets, etc. What if we let go of that? What if we find small problems and solve them with simple, small solutions? To take it a step further — what if we intentionally keep our solutions small? This isn’t as ridiculous as it may sound at first. Perhaps by trying to start big, we miss the real value, which is in the small. And by chasing growth and becoming big, maybe we lose the value which we started with.

Another is that trade secrets, proprietary knowledge, etc are important to a company’s success. Increasingly, I wonder if this is the case. What if we open sourced everything, let go of our fears of being copied, and embrace transparency and openness? Maybe the real moat around our creations is trust in the brand, or amazing service, or rock-solid reliability, or iterating quickly on user feedback.

This was a bit more tongue-in-cheek but it’s fun to explore: what would our decisions look like if they weren’t colored by trying to gain traction or monetize what we’ve built? Of course, this is unworkable if you want to build a business that’s financially sustainable. But there’s something to the purity of the creative process — of solving a problem with code — that can get perverted by thinking about money or growth too early. Does this affect what we build? Or worse, are we less happy building it?

Maybe that’s why I haven’t been feeling connected the startup ecosystem recently — it’s become twisted by things that aren’t what building software is about to me. The joy I got from programming as a kid was scratching some tiny itch with a bit of code. And if I was lucky, seeing other people scratch their itches with my code too. It had nothing to do with “traction” or “ambitious visions” or “market validation” or “product/market fit.”

Startups have become the establishment. Maybe this is why the “anti-startup” idea hit a nerve — the type of people that are attracted to starting new things also tend to be anti-establishment. There’s a lot of money in the ecosystem, there’s a lot of advice, there are a lot of people who have done well or see it as a way to do well (as founders, employees, or investors). It’s maturing, becoming more efficient, optimized, mainstream. It’s less crazy, financially and career-wise, to start a startup than it was 10, 15 years ago.

Don’t get me wrong — I love startups (and small businesses), I encourage people to start companies, I believe startups are a huge net positive for the world.

Where’s the art, though? Where’s the tinkering? Where’s the joy?

I guess I’m chasing that feeling I had as a kid.

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