Essays on Technology and Culture

Some Thoughts on Entrepreneurship, Startups, and Venture Capital

A note, before I begin: I have only a year of experience in the world of startups, and I am unsure if my experience is typical. Some probing of others suggest that it is, if not typical, at least not unique. My experience shades some of my thoughts. However, the particular startup I worked for allowed me to see some parts of how the sausage is made, in terms of venture capital and funding. A lot of what I saw, I did not like, but this may be from my particular experience.

I wonder if we have our priorities a little screwed up. When I think of the word “entrepreneur,” I think of someone who is trying to build something and shepherd it through the long term. It’s bringing something into the world you want, scratching your own itch, but other people’s itches as well. If you’re not scratching their itch, you’re not going to last long as an entrepreneur, after all. You don’t enter into it lightly. If you bring on employees, you accept responsibility for them, and they for you. When this happens, you’re not just building something for yourself and your customers, you’re building something for your employees and their families too.

However, when I look at the startup world, I don’t see a lot of that. I see a lot of people who just want to make lots of money, and a few people who want to scratch an itch. And as more people make lots of money in this game, even more people with lust for money are getting into the game with silly, frivolous ideas that tap into exactly what will get them large amounts of funding from people who also want to make lots of money. That second group are venture capitalists.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with venture capital, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with building something frivolous. So many wonderful things have been created in the spirit of frivolity, and many of the tools I use every single day have been born because someone else invested money early on. When applied right, venture capital is a great resource to help someone with a great idea get it off the ground and moving under its own power. When applied wrong, it gives us speculation, a bubble of inflated company valuations like $4 billion for Snapchat before they’ve made a single dollar—even if they have a monetization strategy now.

One part of this comes from the sheer shadiness of—again, some—venture capitalists. Another part comes from the inflated value of “entrepreneurs”. Most ventures are going to fail for some reason or another. I wonder how many venture-backed companies like Everpix fail because the VCs were too hot and bothered by “the next Facebook,” or some college drop-out in a nice suit with a dumb idea that will get a lot of users, even if it can’t make sustainable money. The more “entrepreneurs” who make it big and get the huge payout, the more people will desperately follow in their footsteps, waving their business plan and/or prototype app at the VCs in the hopes of free money.

But that money isn’t free, and I don’t mean in the sense of giving up equity in exchange. The money used to fund startup companies comes from somewhere, and it’s typically not some lucky winner’s largesse. Venture capital funds raise money from government and private pension funds, college endowments, non-profit foundations, and institutions that manage the sovereign wealth of entire nations. They invest because they hope to make enough back to pay retired workers, pay professors, build schools and infrastructure, and more. Considering the risks involved in venture capital, should there not be greater stewardship of that money? Is a smaller, steadier return not better for the people whose money is truly at stake, rather than finding “the next Facebook”? And this doesn’t even factor in the venture funding for things like clean energy solutions, new medical treatments, and other things that will only pay off in the long term, if at all. It’s too risky for investors whose only thought is how to get the company to a profitable exit, and fast.

This may be why I don’t invest in anything. That, and the lack of money to do so.

There are VCs out there who do want to help a company succeed, and will work with the companies they’ve invested in to put them on a solid footing. They share their experience with similar companies they’ve worked for, founded, or invested in, identifying the pitfalls and showing a clear path—if the founder will listen. There are also VCs out there who don’t care what the company does, how, or why, as long as they get back their investment and make a tidy profit on top. One of these is more valuable than the other, but I see the influence of the latter type more often when I look at technology and startup news. That’s something I try not to do as often these days, but sometimes it’s inescapable.

Building things, building businesses, these are not bad things. Investing in a promising entrepreneur with a captivating idea is not a bad thing, either. I’m not trying to tar all entrepreneurs and all venture capitalists with the same brush. It worries me to see businesses starting up and employing people with the assumption that the venture capital gravy train will keep flowing, or they will be acquired before the bill comes due and they need to make money. It worries me, because it shows a distinct lack of both long-term thinking and an unwillingness to consider the very real risks involved. In the tech world, having a failed startup or two under your belt is a taken as a good thing, and I will not deny anyone who tried a business and failed the right to claim it as such. I worry about the employees—the people who have x years experience on their résumé at a company that no longer exists and won’t take phone calls for references. The people who are trying to raise a family or pay off student loan debt on ramen noodle salaries and the promise of a payout. Can’t we do better by them, and by the investors?

Either way, this is the last I have to say about the whole thing for a while.