Let’s get rid of the start-up fantasy

An unpopular thought: start-ups aren’t gilded factories churning out mind-boggling awesomeness. Few question the beanbag-cushion-utopia idea, where innovation is nurtured over morning pretzels and an eclectic blend of passions fuels a euphoric, profoundly inspirational workplace.

But just as war films struggle to depict the reality of war, so does popular culture fail to mirror the journey of start-ups, beyond the gloss and artist’s license. 

Start-up culture can be a unique force of creativity and new thinking – but not every young company is united by a thread of unwavering spirit and determination. It’s much more complicated, and even good intentions can turn foul in execution.

Start-ups can be lazy, apathetic and indifferent. With an over emphasis on product viability and exit plans, customer service and satisfaction are forgotten. The small steps are subsumed by the big, and the journey is whitewashed by the end-result: the victory and buyout.

The current start-up culture is analogous to a Willy Wonka-esque process of elimination, in which eager and hungry entrepreneurs drop quietly to the wayside, betrayed by their unchallenged belief that audacity is sufficient to see them across the line. There’s no catchy sing-song parable to signify their departure; few stories are ever written about the fall, but plenty about the feisty upstart punching their way through the mire of mundanity.

Whilst there’s no point dwelling on failure, omitting such stories from the start-up narrative means we’re left with only the winning protagonists and their rags to riches story. This might be inspiring to the doe-eyed graduate, but it’s unreflective of a reality that hopelessly paves over the sweat and travail of starting and running a company. 

Start-ups need more than product viability, and ‘today’ cannot be relegated to the status of a stepping stone. The energy and dedication necessary to push a company forward exists in the now, which disappears when we confine discussions to the beginning and end.

This is the problem with eliminating the negatives and clinging exclusively to the positives. It sells new entrepreneurs a false reality and ill-prepares them for the unglamorous, uncelebrated day-to-day work that’s necessary to laboriously drag a concept from A to B. It’s the reason so many start-ups race to their exit plans, slogging their proof of concepts through the hurdles while turning a blind eye to the inefficiencies.

CEOs are differentiated by their ambitions; there are those that want to catapult ideas and personnel to the exit, and those happy to take it slow, invest in the company and its people, and guide growth.

Honest conversations about start-ups leaven the endeavour, not diminish. Currently, the way we frame start-ups in popular culture provides little more than a vignette. New entrepreneurs are treated to an opaque view and begin half blind.

As with anything, the more we concentrate on the end, the less we see in the present. It entangles entrepreneurs in the irony of the more success is sought, the harder it becomes to achieve. Yes, they’ll be investment – because many ideas are wonderful on paper – but it’s the realisation of an idea that requires the hard work and energy, and no small amount of ruthless dedication to the daily grind.