The Startup Mythology of Silicon Valley

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Silicon Valley, skmurphy

A post on Matt Wensing’s blog alerted me to an atypical post on TechCrunch by Mark Hendrickson “Startup School and the Instigation of Entrepreneurship.” It’s an insightful critique of the startup mythology of Silicon Valley. Some excerpts:

“We are experiencing a generation of entrepreneurs who prioritize the phenomenon of entrepreneurship over its justification; we ought to be concerning ourselves as a community with teaching folks not only how to get into the entrepreneurship game but how to find their purpose as well.”

I think the dominant myth of Hollywood is to be part of a movie. Silicon Valley’s default aspiration is to be part of a venture backed startup. How do you know you are in a venture backed startup? You secure investment from a venture firm and are celebrated in the pages of TechCrunch. This detracts from a focus on value creation, as Jeff Nolan observed in January 2009, writing in “Why the TechCrunch Economy Will Falter” (bold in original):  “…a fundamental flaw in the startup economy promoted by a wide swath of pundits and proponents, that starting is more important than sustaining.”

Hendrickson continues, using the phrase “deliberate practice” which echoes Anders Ericsson‘s “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance

We should develop and promote a more deliberate practice of discovering passions worth pursuing and problems worth solving in a less haphazard way. [...] But without it, institutions like YC and its Startup School will likely continue receiving and channeling ever-more entrepreneurs who may be well-versed in tactics but who lack anchoring values that drive their efforts. And that will be a shame not only for those individuals but the investors and customers who await the fruits of their labor, which otherwise could have amounted to so much more.

Tim O’Reilly has also suggested to  entrepreneurs that they “Work on Stuff that Matters.” Alas this is easier said than done but essential to making a significant contribution. In “Overnight Success”  I recommended that “if you define success as making a lot of money quickly you should go into sales and cut out the middleman”.

It’s easy to lecture other people about their shortcomings, or at least your perception of their shortcomings.  I think the celebration of financing events as accomplishments instead of as a sometimes necessary precursor to the start of real efforts is one problem that Jeff Nolan, among many others, has already touched on.  One of the differences between the 80’s and today is a condensed time frame caused by a “built to flip” mentality that focuses on “cashing out” in a year or two instead of five to ten years building a real company.

I am reminded of the movie “Hoop Dreams” which documented how an entire generations of inner city boys are aimed at a few slots in the NBA. Most that miss are left with few if any marketable skills or fallback options for earning a living.  But all along the way they are encouraged by coaches, scouts, and others who are paid to fill the pipeline with new recruits.  I worry that a lot of what passes for entrepreneurial advice is given by folks who profit from their participation in the venture ecosystem and it is encouraging an “entrepreneurial lifestyle” that bears little resemblance to what’s needed to create and manage a going concern.

People ask me why we work with bootstrapping entrepreneurs and how we make any money at it. I like the orientation that most bootstrappers have toward creating value for their customers (it’s the only way they can get paid so it’s also a matter of enlightened self-interest). We run our practice on a “low intensity long duration” model that assumes success is going to require perseverance, intelligent experimentation, and a commitment to solving problems that will make a difference in people’s lives (a shorter answer is that we make less than we might serving other firms but we enjoy it more so it balances out).

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