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August 21, 2012 4:57 PM   Subscribe

Durrrrrrr... What's a startup?

OK, OK, in the general sense I know what a startup is.

I'd like an in-depth explanation of how tech startups work and what is involved. Especially who is involved and what those people actually do.

(Side question: wtf does a software/web developer actually do? What is the literal job description of that?)

I'd like personal stories and explanations, but I'd especially like long form journalism, documentaries, and other fact-based resources. Ideally with first-person stories. I want things that are aimed at the general non-techy population. Pretend I'm a moron who has no idea that there are people whose job it is to create web-based technology.

Scope: I'm thinking about writing a piece of fiction that takes place in a startup environment. So I'd like to know enough to make my story plausible, but I don't need to know how to actually make a startup. I'm especially interested in the tech side of a start up (my protagonist is probably going to be a female tech), but I don't need to literally learn how to code.

I have seen The Social Network. I have not read the article it's based on, but it is on my reading list. There are copies of Wired stashed around my apartment somewhere which I have never bothered to crack open.

I know a few people who work in tech fields, and I could probably finagle office visits, informational interviews, etc. but I'm very much not there yet.
posted by Sara C. to Technology (43 answers total) 71 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Check out Paul Graham's essays. Start here.
posted by sninctown at 5:04 PM on August 21, 2012 [2 favorites] is a documentary that followed a startup during the .com bubble. I haven't watched it for many years, but I recall it being interesting. It's probably on netflix.
posted by primethyme at 5:07 PM on August 21, 2012 [6 favorites]

There's a few here (a longform collation of articles on startups, so pretty non-techie). If I understand your request properly I think you'd be interested in the myspace one and the yahoo/flickr one. At this distance the digg article might be interesting too.

I have some other articles, and there are some great blogs that talk about the startup experience. I will see if I can hunt some down. (On preview - for e.g. sninctown's link!)
posted by pymsical at 5:09 PM on August 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you like reading fiction, you might like Douglas Coupland's Microserfs, about six friends working for Microsoft in the 90s who leave their jobs to try their luck at a startup. It was an interesting and I think fairly accurate read.
posted by stellaluna at 5:14 PM on August 21, 2012 [9 favorites]

Hacker News is like a Reddit for startup-oriented people. There's some general-interest and programming stuff on there, but many of the articles are blog posts about various aspects of startup culture. This might be a good question for them too (post with "Ask HN" at the beginning of your subject).
posted by grouse at 5:28 PM on August 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Another book rec: Ellen Ullman's splendid, essential Close to the Machine. Two novels also worth reading are her The Bug and Allegra Goodman's The Cookbook Collector. I've worked in and around Silicon Valley startups for a dozen years, and these are among the few books about it that didn't make me wince.

(Speaking of which, please take The Social Network with several generous lines of salt. It's a pretty good movie about an ambitious, misunderstood geek... in Hollywood. Named Aaron. Aaron Sorkin.)
posted by rdc at 5:29 PM on August 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

Lots of the "startup" info you can find online is about software startups. There are plenty of hardware startups too -- renewable energy, robots, commercial space flight, electric cars, etc. They deal with different sorts of problems and different methods of getting off the ground. I worked for a robotics startup and would be happy to give you a "day in the life" sort of thing. Feel free to memail me.
posted by olinerd at 5:33 PM on August 21, 2012

Best answer: Po Bronson's The First $20 Million Is Always The Hardest satirises late-90s startup culture in SF/Silicon Valley.

One consideration is that the climate for startups has changed significantly since then (and even since the mid-2000s and Facebook's launch) for a number of reasons. One is that the environment is more densely populated: there are pure-web behemoths who are quite happy to headhunt (or acquire) talent, or conversely provide a lot of startup founders with experience and money in the bank. (A lot of startups work within existing ecosystems rather than trying to create new ones.) Another is that the people who got rich out of the dot-com era are often angel investors and advisory board members or run venture funds like Andreessen or incubators like Graham with YCombinator. Some of them remain serial startup creators, grizzled thirtysomething veterans of the generation before MySpace leading dev teams that don't remember MySpace.

So you'll find a lot of stories (fact and fiction) about the 90s model of maxing out credit cards or traipsing Sand Hill Road to pitch to VCs, but modern startups don't really do that as much. (And they're not dashing to a datacentre to fix a broken server, because they're running their infrastructure on EC2 instances.) So look instead at Foursquare, Instagram, Buzzfeed, and perhaps what Caterina Fake's doing right now at the helm of Findery.
posted by holgate at 5:38 PM on August 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Seconding the recommendation for Ellen Ullman's The Bug. It is one of the few fictional accounts of programming/tech work that is actually—how to put it—good.
posted by enn at 5:44 PM on August 21, 2012

Seconding It takes place in the first "dot-com bubble", but I've worked in startups for over a decade and I was really struck at how much their office resembled ones I worked in. The environments have changed, but not that much.

Check out various tech Meetups- there are tons in NYC. If you're focusing on a female protagonist, something like the NY Tech Women or NYC Ruby Women Meetups might be a good place to drop in.
posted by mkultra at 6:26 PM on August 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I am a female tech-type who currently works at a startup. Almost every job I've had since graduating 5 years ago has been at a startup, in some technical capacity. Here is a very small slice of 5 years of startup life.

Almost everything you eat in the office comes from Costco. Imagine: a counter spread with open jars of Pub Mix, cashews, jelly beans, Red Vines, Granny Smith apples in those bullet-proof molded plastic cases, Clementines in a mesh bag. Your office is usually in some rented space with shitty carpet and a small kitchen. Sink overflowing with dishes and orange peels and dirty water? Check. Wine glasses with fruit fly colonies busily expanding little fruit fly subdivisions in the sticky wine goo at the bottom? Check. Toddler-sized bag of Nestle chocolate chips in the cupboard? Double check, especially if it's seated next to an equally corpulent bag of pancake batter and a waffle iron. You *will* make chocolate chip waffles at 2am after writing code all night. You will also drink a lot, at local bars, and in the office. You get your whisky from Cask, wine and liquor from Cosco. Beer just seems to appear and never run out, who the hell knows where it comes from. That and shitty pizza. Every time you need to order food in, it's shitty pizza or Thai. Sometimes someone goes off the rails and orders sushi for the whole office. That can only happen so many times before they start rounding up the loose company credit cards, so make the most of it while it lasts!

You will have nice office chairs--probably Aeron. You will probably have a yoga ball or three, rolling stupidly into everyone's way all the goddamn time. You will probably have couches and bean bag chairs and some boys flopped onto both, sleeping, at most times of the day. They are like plants: You can move them, but they remain essentially unresponsive.

You will go to lunch and listen to your coworkers talk about other startups until you want to jam a splintery chopstick through your own eye. Then you will settle for merely tuning out and replaying cat videos in your head while they talk. You will all watch the same cat videos because you Skype each other cat videos all day long.

The startup I currently work at was run by two guys for a few months: the CEO, who came up with the original idea for the company, and the CTO, who is a friend of mine. They have since hired a COO (former banker), another JavaScript engineer, me (QA/systems administrator), an interaction engineer (writes a lotta HTML/CSS), a designer (makes lots of stuff in Photoshop), and a product manager. The workflow goes like this: the CEO gets too excited about something we could make, tells the product manager, who uses Sprintly to turn the CEO's overheated brain droppings into tasks and farms out work to the designer and engineers. The designer makes a beautiful portrait of the potential Hot New Thing in Photoshop, passes it to the interaction engineer, who puts in the HTML/CSS plumbing. In parallel with the interaction engineer, the CTO (himself a veteran coder) and I push the necessary Python, bash, and PHP scripts around to make everything actually functional. Our entire stack is hosted on EC2. We do not use Ruby on Rails, although a previous place I worked at did, and many, many, many, many startups do as well.

Aside: Most of the Ruby on Rails hosting companies/services (like Heroku) actually use EC2 underneath all those sexy interfaces. This means that when Amazon Web Services experience an outage, half the new young hot companies in San Francisco go down too. Hilarious!

Every engineer I've met in San Francisco, without exception, hates Internet Explorer and has a fast, shiny MacBook of some stripe, usually the freshest newest stripe, with the umbilical cord still wrapped around its magstripped titanium unibody. This means that when they look at their own internet work, they usually look at it in Chrome, on a computer with unimaginable amounts of memory and CPU power. "It work fine! No bug!" they say. As a QA engineer, I am put in the strange position of constantly advocating for users of Internet Explorer on dialup in Kansas. Sidenote: I personally use Linux and do not own an iPhone or any other smart device.

Here is a short list of some of the tools and sites that I and most Bay Area startup engineers use daily or are at least very familiar with: Github, arcanist, TextMate, the Facebook API, the Twitter API, Sprintly, Trello, Amazon Web Services (EC2 is just one bit), Heroku, Get Satisfaction, ZenDesk, Stack Overflow, reddit. Everyone has read Paul Graham's essay You Weren't Meant to Have a Boss. Many people apply to YCombinator, even when they are employed because why not. Lots of people go to the Github drinkups.

I hear more and more startup pitches at parties, especially from people who have just graduated, which is why I do not go to parties anymore. Lots of people ski at Tahoe and go to Napa and SXSW. A LOT of people go to Burning Man; many startups will be eerily empty next week.

That is a major and majorly disjunct brain dump and that's not even the half of it. Memail me if you want more stories--I have so, so many.
posted by guybrush_threepwood at 7:05 PM on August 21, 2012 [224 favorites]

Also, sexism. A lot of sexism.
posted by guybrush_threepwood at 7:07 PM on August 21, 2012 [56 favorites]

Best answer: > wtf does a software/web developer actually do? What is the literal job description of that?

Takes product requirements, or in a less formal environments, ideas scratched on the back of a cocktail napkin, and writes computer code to implement the requirements (or ideas).

Most of the work involves in talking to the product owner a lot to figure out *exactly* what's supposed to get built, and identifying all the funny edge cases around "but what if *this* happens, what if *that* happens... " Unless you're asking the engineers to build something complicated (like a google), getting the requirements right is much much harder than writing the actual code.
posted by colin_l at 7:34 PM on August 21, 2012 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Also, for first-person accounts, there are lots of good stories on

Lots of ideas about interactions between engineers and mangers, customers, product owners, etc.
posted by colin_l at 7:39 PM on August 21, 2012

I think there's theory and practice here. For the theory (of what ought to people do, org charts, etc.), maybe try getting hold of some books on 'project management' (specific term) for software/startup projects.

For the practice, some tales from the trenches, from different times, not necessarily strictly start-up, but definitely looking at how projects run into deadlines:

Scot Rosenberg - Dreaming in Code

Fred Moody - I Sing the Body Electronic
posted by carter at 8:22 PM on August 21, 2012

Also - the PBS documentary Coderush on Netscape transitioning to Mozilla.
posted by carter at 8:25 PM on August 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

The breakthrough I had about startups was from someone doing one: THE reason to create a startup is that you have an idea you hope to build up to a point where some big corporation will buy it out for big bucks. You're not in it for a long term, you just have an idea you think a big company might want tfor a building block in the next couple of years.

This is probably obvious to everyone else but it clarified for me why there's all this hype. It's a bit like buying a lottery ticket, with slightly better odds of winning a big jackpot.
posted by zadcat at 8:44 PM on August 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

There is a common emotional texture to working at many startups: When you join, it's because the money's not so great, but the work is SO AMAZING AND INNOVATIVE! And the flexibility in hours! (Not that you'll enjoy them, since you'll be working around the clock.) And your stock options are sure to make you very comfortable! What you are doing is so exciting! There is nothing else in the world you would rather do!

This slowly gives way to a suspicion that the people in charge are idiots, that the company is failing, and the slow, creeping dread of the moment when they can't make payroll or everyone goes on 60% salary or just plain gets laid off. And then that moment arrives.

Not every startup is a Zynga or Facebook or Google. Not even close.
posted by Andrhia at 8:46 PM on August 21, 2012 [6 favorites]

guybrush_threepwood's description is wonderfully accurate for Silicon Valley startups; NYC startups are a little different but overall very parallel. There's a book called "Founders at Work" which is a great light read with terrific anecdotes about how many startups happened in the early Web 2.0 era; Sarah Lacy's "Once You're Lucky" is probably also good, but I didn't read it because I lived it.
posted by anildash at 8:59 PM on August 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the fantastic answers, guys!

The book links are all super helpful. I want them all, and it's going to be hard to narrow it down in order to not fall into a research rabbit hole and never write the damn thing. Ellen Ullman is at the top of my list, because she sounds amazing even if this little project never comes to anything, and also, yep, she's basically exactly who I want to write about.

Unfortunately, it looks like is not available on Netflix right now, in any form. Bummer. But Coderush looks like exactly what I want. Also, the late 90's fashion is a total flashback.

Guybrush Threepwood, you win all of the internets for me today. I will be memailing you in the near future.
posted by Sara C. at 9:39 PM on August 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Hrm, yes to everything guybrush_threepwood said x 1000. Other things from my experience as the only female in a Linux-worshipping startup from 1995-2002:

- Wednesday is comic book day; mandatory two-hour lunch for weekly buying/scouring/digging trips

- Going to Fry's more frequently than new homeowners go to Home Depot is normal; I still do this, actually

- Literally everything in the office might be caffeinated

- LAN parties and job interviews sometimes blur together

- You're almost always over budget and past deadline, and it almost always gets blamed on design

- The only time anyone's dressed nice is when you're going off to do presentations to corporate clients to pitch your data solution/killer app/GUI design/etc

- Nobody can explain in proper business jargon OR in ways a layman can understand what your company actually does, so you can print whatever silly job title you want on your business card and get away with it

- If motion graphics or video production are involved, your shit's going to crash while rendering 70% of the time (Premiere Pro's come a long way, though)

- If you're the only woman on the team, at some point, you'll be calling people/banging on their door/giving them rides to work because you'll accidentally fall into "mom mode" when you're late on a project and need them to finish their shit so y'all can all get paid

- Your own website will end up not getting updated frequently enough because you're behind on paying projects, and like others have said, it won't work in IE (but WILL in Opera, for some reason)

- Every asshole on earth will ask you to build them a website/app/school project for free or teach them how to do it themselves for free, or to "put on your resume"

- You keep a stick of deodorant and tampons in your desk. Only one of these things is (mostly) for you.

- If you're not one of the founders and they suddenly offer to make you a business partner, Shit Just Got Real. (And 90% of the time, not in a good way.)

- You'll have to sign maybe lots of NDAs and non-compete clauses, because intellectual property and in particular patents = the only real $$$$$ some startups ever see.

- Some places still have scooters or even Segways lying off in the corners of their offices; they're like dinosaur remains trapped in amber. (Nerf-branded items that can be shot and/or neon toys of every variety will be stuck behind and underneath everything.)

- Most of your office furniture's either rented or made of slapped-together particle board. If it's the latter, don't pull your desk sideways... it'll just disassemble itself onto the ground.

Feel free to memail me - I left, but the dudes are still in business, and I should also mention our office always closed for Mardi Gras. :)
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 10:04 PM on August 21, 2012 [17 favorites]

Startups are to normal companies as Facebook is to the Internet.
posted by [@I][:+:][@I] at 10:10 PM on August 21, 2012

I'm the CEO of a venture-backed internet startup in Mountain View. This is my second. My first was in NYC and acquired by Yahoo, unfortunately. I'm also an angel investor in a further ~70 companies.

> a point where some big corporation will buy it

Not really. Building companies for acquisitions tends to work out poorly. Investors generally actually want you to try to build real companies. Good startups want to be real companies someday. Bad ones want to be acquired.

For what it's worth, we try to maintain a calm, even pace of work at our office. We get out around 5 and go to our families. Stuff still gets done very quickly. None of us are particularly young, though, so this might change if we hired people in their 20s.

I will note that some startups have an ... odor ... that seems prevalent. Too much working, not enough coding? I dunno.

@anildash - ugh, there's a lot of outright wrong stuff in Once You're Lucky. I am unfortunately in the book.
posted by joshu at 12:28 AM on August 22, 2012 [9 favorites]

I would also strong recommend reading The Soul of a New Machine. (eBook). While not technically about a startup, it nevertheless captures what it's like to be in a startup as it is a startup within a larger company (aka a "Skunk Works").

Some of the key elements of a start up are ridiculous hours of work, a "grown up" who interfaces with the money people and doesn't tell the kids that what they're trying to do is impossible (an approach I've used with great success in my management career) and moments of pure genius that are the real reason engineers love to be engineers: because of that one golden moment when they see how to solve the impossible.
posted by BillW at 10:12 AM on August 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

Sara C., since it's not immediately obvious in this thread -- joshu is a very well-known entrepreneur, who started and backs a lot of big-name startups. Probably one point that's worth noting for context is that it's not uncommon for many of the best founders to be as sincere and accessible as he is here; If you're writing about a cliched startup, the founder would be precisely opposite.
posted by anildash at 5:48 PM on August 22, 2012 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: Yeah, I clicked joshu's bio and gleaned that.

I also recognize your name.

Right now my founder is going to be a big goofy loose cannon. Approachable, but unpredictable.

Then again, this could all change. I'm in the very earliest stages of thinking about how to write a narrative that takes place at a software startup.

It kind of amazes me that, in asking this question, I can have easy access to actual founders of the kinds of companies I want to write about. I'm not in a place where I can use that access yet, but it's seriously cool. The internet is a wonderful thing.
posted by Sara C. at 6:27 PM on August 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I can tell you that working to support a startup (which I've done in several shops) was great fun though extremely demanding at times. Most of the time, the groups of which I've been a part were responsible for keeping everything up and running after the first releases got out the door - network, servers, infrastructure services (mail, etc). We were a group of (mostly) Unix folks in our own little office suite area wholly separate from the rest of the company. The day-to-day work was spent jumping around the following list of things:

- responding to critical, revenue-impacting issues
- preparing for (or recovering from) the next release/update
- general housekeeping, care & feeding of systems, networks and all parts in-between
- large amounts of Unreal Tournament and Tekken
- lots of music
- 24/36 hour release sessions, since every release included DB updates that needed to run and possibly re-run, so it was work like hell and then wait for 18 hours. During the wait, lots of drinking and weed. The Monday after a major release, our office suite looked 100% like a fraternity house: beer cans and trash everywhere, and maybe a DBA or two still passed out on the gnarly old futon.
- seeing who wore the biggest, blackest wizard hat when it came to shell scripting or other esoterica
- and so on. lather, rinse, repeat.

We never went public, unfortunately. Most of us were there because we'd worked together in prior shops and liked the manager who took really good care of us. We had, in fact, followed him over. The bottom dropped out of the dot-com stuff about that time (this was during the 2nd wave), so there were cuts and I went in the second round. It sucked, but that's life. I was fortunate to snap back pretty quick afterwards in a down area.

It was a blast.
posted by jquinby at 7:47 AM on August 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

ou get your whisky from Cask, wine and liquor from Cosco.

Man, I wish the office booze came from Cask.
posted by kenko at 9:37 AM on August 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

As a QA engineer, I am put in the strange position of constantly advocating for users of Internet Explorer on dialup in Kansas.

And here I am, working at an extremely-well-established tech company, and my problem is the opposite: I build things that I hope will work on Internet Explorer on dialup in Kansas, and the QA people get annoyed when I ask if they've tested on low-bandwidth/low-quality browsers. Huh.
posted by davejay at 11:21 AM on August 24, 2012

Best answer: I was the office manager and then the CEO's assistant at a tech startup. Yes to basically everything Unicorn on the cob said. When we got a second round of funding and moved to a "real" office, we got a kegerator. There are hammocks in the warehouse-like space where people program. People actually wore the company t-shirts unironically. We had indoor bike parking, and a giant whiteboard that doubled as a screen for presentations and video games. I think they still do an all-hands standup meeting on Fridays at 4:30, with beer and with people's family/girlfriends/kids coming in around 5 to drink beer and hang out. There are dogs in the office.

Our CEO (a man I have very positive opinions of generally) was notable for the difficulty he had transitioning from "small business owner" to "funded CEO." He had to buy his first suit. One of my jobs as his assistant was to learn business protocol and teach it to him -- as someone who'd never been an EA before, I relied heavily on the assistants of our venture backers, women in their 40s and 50s who'd been doing this for decades. He had a really hard time backing off from doing actual programming -- he'd do CEO stuff all day, and then go home and try to close tickets all night long. The next day, the programmers would come in and everything would be completely fucked up. It took a while to hire the kind of managerial team who could tell him to get the heck out of their business. (Also part of my job.)

From talking to other (almost exclusively) women on the administrative side of running a startup, there is this concept that the office managers and assistants are the ones who make it possible for these programmer boys to get their work done. The admin women make sure there are whiteboard markers and enough beer and food that appears like magic (even if it's from Costco) and fancy desk chairs and the newest, best computers, and also that the execs stay on target.

I mention this because I think it's relevant to the character of a CEO. In a new startup, there will be some kind of office manager who will act secondarily as the CEO's assistant. As the startup progresses, he'll have an honest-to-goodness assistant, who will often be an older woman, but sometimes that office manager who's been with the company since the beginning and knows the CEO really well (the Donna to the CEO's Josh, if you catch the West Wing reference). This is the person who provides the foil to the kind of loose cannon CEO you mention: someone extremely organized and with it.
posted by linettasky at 2:06 PM on August 24, 2012 [4 favorites]

My experience working for a tiny very shoestring startup recently (not in either California or New York) is that it's a mix of highly practical getting-things-done and complete hot air.

The person at the head of my company (who is an intelligent and charming person) talks constantly about being "entrepreneurial" and salts her speech with every buzzword imaginable. From my perspective she is in sales mode all the time. This is good; when she talks to people who are more in the thick of the industry, she is speaking a common language of buzzwords. I've observed her interacting with tech people and investor people and users, and they are all very impressed with her - her energy, her intensity, her seriousness, etc. When she interacts with us (staff), she is motivating. There are pros and cons to this, but on balance I think it's positive. You've heard the phrase "reality distortion field", and having seen it in action I do believe that it's an important part of success - to be relentlessly positive and believe you can do the things you say, and to be able to convince everyone around you.

The flip side of this is the getting-things-done. There is a great culture of "what do we need? ok great, I'll do it" volunteering, stepping up, etc. (This comes from being very small, and not having people who "own" certain roles.) Also, there is a beneficial thing of everyone bowing to the common criterion of success, namely getting a product that works well - so anyone can mention that x won't work, and y would be better, and they'll be acknowledged. The common standard keeps the focus off interpersonal disputes. Now maybe this is peculiar just to the group I was working with, not sure. But a small team of smart people can be a really great environment if you have these things in place. In the group I was working with, they kept it very small and selective in order to avoid jerks or dramatic types, etc, and it was very effective.

In our case there was a third thing, which was constant need for money. We had no external funding and very limited funds of our own, and for various reasons could not take out loans. Thus our founder was constantly traveling, networking, always "had a call at 3" about possible funding help. There is a whole ecosystem of funding events, meet-and-greets, etc, and it sounds as if there are an awful lot of minnows going to these events clutching business plans and their most positive voices.

There's a thing of preparing your very-short pitch, and your somewhat longer slide deck, for the different audiences, putting every thought into the form of advertising slogans ("What if you could x without needing to y? will let you do just that!") and in terms of combining existing famous startups ("we're like Twitter meets Youtube").

There's design -- preparing the look of the site, before you build a working demo, and you can just show people the static image of a page on which they would be able to click and do things. Remember in a tiny company everyone wears multiple hats, so non-designers will be involved in the process. What font should you choose for the logo? Does it say "handmade" or "sleek" or ...? Do you want breadcrumbs at the top or bottom? (they let you see where you are on a site - things like on Zappo's if it says "Shoes > Women's > Heels > Low > Black" at the top of the page, you know how you got there and how you could refine your browsing)? This would be a side of making a web product that normal readers could relate to, but which also could have some great insiderish comedy.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:18 PM on August 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Read "The Innovator's Dilemma" by Clayton M. Christensen.

Big companies can't create the new products that will destroy their own existing profitable products. Why would they? That would be nuts.

So some other little guy does it. She's got nothing to lose.

Startups are the little companies set up by the little guy with the cool new products that will destroy the existing products made by the big companies.

If the startup's product is really cool, and it will destroy the existing products, then someone will (may) notice and buy the company and the products. And use them to make the profit that the old products used to make.

So the little guy sells her startup and makes tons of money for her shares and products. (Or she was wrong, or unlucky, and her products sucked, or no-one noticed them.)

That's a startup: new innovative product/service plus hope that someone will notice it and buy the company.

Take-home message: get shares (options) in your startup so when the little guy sells out you get a cut. Get out if the products aren't great and won't get the company sold. Work for a startup with potential for getting bought out and make sure you get shares, or go work for a grown-up company with better pay and benefits.
posted by alasdair at 4:29 PM on August 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: BTW If you are going for cliche, I have sat through literally a thousand startup pitches. Take Guy Kawasaki's Art of the Start, multiply it by very common ideas, and you're mostly there.

"Lipstick is a six BILLION dollar business. If we could get just ONE PERCENT blah blah etc blah our 'foursquare for makeup' is going to revolutionize blah blah blah" so on and so forth.
posted by joshu at 7:18 PM on August 24, 2012 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I'm part of a very atypical startup, thousands of miles from silicon valley.

There are just three of us - a designer, a coder, and me, the strategy guy (I can code but I don't). The coder sold another company he started for seven figures a while back. We all have other jobs.

The designer does visual layout. The coder implements. I write the strategy, specification and pitch documents. The three of us together make joint decisions about everything over a whiteboard.

We aren't paid (yet). We have a tiny office in the local town where two of us work, part time on this, part time on other paying stuff. We came up with the concept over several years of beer drinking, and having rejected scores of possible ideas. We're launching in the most minimal way in a couple of weeks. I wrote a design brief which the coder guy is implementing with lots of constant feedback (when requested) from the other two.

We all know what we're doing and have a clear view of where we need to be so there's very little tension. Competence certainly has its rewards.

We are soliciting angel and VC funding right now, but to be honest we can survive without it for long enough to know if the product is going to get any traction or not.

Our next 'hires' will (probably) be a business/marketing guy and some more code guys to port the product to different platforms. I say 'hires' because we're unlikely to pay them anything other than equity, like us.

Lunch is takeout pizza. Beer is involved at almost all stages of the process.

We are probably as atypical as you can get, since we're rurally based, unpaid, not really bothered about getting funding at this point, or even revenues, and just focused on building a userbase for our product as quickly as possible. Nevertheless, we are building a product which aims at ubiquity and I think has a stab at it.

We have two advantages, which I think are important. (1) an extremely simple, rather compelling concept and (2) near zero overheads. Of the two, (2) is the most important. In my experience, overhead is the killer.
posted by unSane at 7:56 PM on August 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, yeah, and most of the business discussions are done out of the office -- drinking beer around a firepit, on a mountainbike ride, in some crappy bar someplace. We avoid meetings at all costs.
posted by unSane at 7:59 PM on August 24, 2012

Best answer: Warning -- rambling ahead:

So I work at a "startup" where "startup" means: a smallish company (we're ~100 now) in SOMA (a neighborhood in San Francisco known for having a lot of them) that produces and runs a web service. I've worked at Silicon Valley startups all of my short adult life.

The OP's question is a valid one because, as you might expect, all startups are not created equal. There's a wide variety in nature, purpose, talent, demographics, (dys)functionality, technology, etc. etc. etc.

But they all tend to share the same set of common assumptions with regard to purpose. Namely, the purpose of a startup is to get mega-rich a la Zuckerberg by creating a company that either IPOs (Initial Public Offering, where the shares of a company are initially traded on a public market) or is bought by another company. The reason this is possible is that employees (and the earlier the employee joins the company, the more this is true) are compensated to a large degree, sometimes almost exclusively, with stock = equity = options. That is, a share of ownership in the company. For instance, I happen to own 0.1% of the stock in my company as the 30th or so employee. So if the company IPOs for a billion dollars, I make a million dollars (it's a bit more complicated than that... more on that presently).

Naturally no one comes out and says "We are all here to get mega-rich." That would be mundane, banal and socially distasteful. The leaders of these companies always appeal to altruism or something else (e.g. Jobs' "Making great products" or Zuck's "Sharing content with your friends") but when you cut through the vapid ideology and businesspeak, the primacy of economic motives becomes clear.

Making megabucks is the magical fantasy that is dangled in front of every startup employee. They earnestly believe (and the younger / more inexperienced / more ignorant they are, the more this is true) that they are going to become mega-wealthy if the startup is financially successful. This is what causes otherwise sane, rational people to run themselves into the ground working insane hours. If it ever occurred to you "Hey, why don't these oppressed workers unionize or otherwise do something about their crappy job situation?" it is because they earnestly drink the kool-aid about the whole Myth of the Startup. Of course, the likelihood of success is extremely small. The likelihood of mega-success is even smaller. (Not to mention the fruits of success accrue disproportionately to the investors and founders. Or that, from a probability perspective, a better way to make a greater amount of money over time might be holding down a steady tech job at a larger firm like Google. Or that working as a investment banker will probably net you more money as career, if money is what you're interested in.) But, like a young basketball player who believes he has a shot at the NBA, startup employees keep cranking away at it.

Since working at a startup requires a considerable amount of devotion, a lot of people like founding/running their own startups which is much more satisfying since they have a much greater degree of control over their labor. This is the reason why many find working through companies like Y Combinator enjoyable. Plus you get lots of nice pats on the head from rich Silicon Valley businessmen, which many techies find validating, if you make your investors a generous return on their investment.

There are many types of ways to have a financial stake in the company: common stock, preferred stock, restricted stock, etc. There's all kinds of minutae involved in rounds of funding, stock dilution, tax law, SOX compliance, etc. that is well beyond the scope of this post, but I recommend picking up a book on the subject if you really want to understand all of the really important legal/financial mumbo-jumbo that is the important background to everything that a company does.

The kinds of startup news that tends to make the headlines (as with most other genres in news) tend towards the sensationalistic, the consumer-oriented, the dramatic, the financial... essentially everything that made the Social Network such a hit. And also why there's a great number of startups out there that you will almost never hear of. The one that I work at, for example.

The thing that has always bothered me the most about Silicon Valley is the way that everyone buys into the Myth of the Startup and pretends that technology companies operate by fundamentally different rules than other companies. Of course, they don't. There's tension between labor and management (see the recent OnLive debacle: ); there's sexism, as some other commenters have mentioned; etc. etc. etc. It's easy to convince impressionable and naive employees straight out of college that there is some kind of mystique to what they do that transcends all earthly rules and constraints, but I expect that impression to at least wear off with experience. Sadly, for some, it doesn't seem to...

There's also a kind of Ponzi scheme-ish element to startups occasionally. To make money, you have to buy low and sell high, and the technological nature of startups tends to be that you can fool a lot of people into thinking that your company actually does something productive and/or sustainable onto which you can unload your stock before it collapses. Zynga, for instance, might be offered as an example of this... more extreme examples could be found during the first tech bubble, circa 2000.

As far as reading material goes, I highly recommend Cyberselfish by Paulina Borsook for a critical take on Silicon Valley culture. Also Progress Without People by David Noble is a good text on the philosophy of technology (that, again, almost nobody subscribes to in SV, but is well worth reading). For a view of a startup from a non-engineer/management perspective, see Processed World magazine, which was circulated around San Francisco a couple decades ago. You can find all of the issues on the Internet Archive.

Also, IIRC, Cal Henderson (founder of Flickr) is also on MeFi, so you might want to hit him up as well as the Delicious founder that posted above... (although, of course, founders of successful startups are likely to have a somewhat similar view on things...)

Another great resource for a startup-y narrative (and I'm surprised nobody has mentioned this yet) is Jamie Zawinski's blog about his years at Netscape. I can't find the link to the list of all the articles, but here's a sample: and
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 8:22 AM on August 25, 2012 [9 favorites]

Best answer: I cannot watch again without having PTSD flashbacks and wanting to barf. The company in was a competitor to one of my dot com clients and I definitely recommend renting it for a look at start-up culture.

By the time I hooked up with them, my dot com start up had begun to scale up, and I was hired to do the user research and usability work for Midwestern projects. Being one of the few hires over 30 who already had some 13+ years of corporate and consulting firm experience, I was blown away by the inefficiencies, mismanagement, and financial carelessness mostly stemming from the enormous hubris that permeated the culture. There were a lot of people who really, truly drank the Kool-Aid and did not believe that venture capital gravy train was ever going to end.

Yes, we had the requisite Aeron Chairs, open floor plan, conference rooms named after super heroes, shiny Mac laptops, white board walls, glass-enclosed lobby, foosball table in the break room, Kegger Fridays, oodles of "spirit happy hours" and titanium briefcases for client take-aways. But scratch beneath the surface and our infrastructure and operations was shite.

There was a lot of time spent on visually pretty iterations of a consulting model that never seemed to progress past the User Research and Business Analysis phase because our clients always seemed to run out of money at that point. Very few projects were ever built. (But our PowerPoint decks were Oh! So! Perfect! :/ )

Scores of inexperienced 20-somethings ran around shouting things like, "GO BIG OR GO HOME!" (thanks to the CMO's ballsy, shallow tagline speeches) and perfecting their elevator pitches for when they happened to be standing next to some big wig in some highrise elevator somewhere. Those of us with jobs in the first phase of the consulting model worked our fricking butts off while everyone else partied and played, poised to "jump into action" on the projects that never got built. Some new corporate chat feature had just been rolled out and everyone in this ENORMOUS loft space open plan sat at their desks and gossiped over chat most of the day while our little group clocked in at 90-100 hours a week. No administrative assistants, so clients were charged the same incredible hourly rates whether you were collating copies, transcribing audiotape, typing screeners, or doing field research. Only 1-2 project managers out of the whole lot who were good at actually managing projects. The cliques, the 24/7 party, Breakfast Club, Stepford co-worker vibe. Scooters and skateboards and empty beer bottles to spare, but not a working stapler in the whole damn place.

I can't remember now if it was every day or every week, but we all had to do this incredibly inane corporate cheer during office meetings (just thinking about it makes me want to barf) which I would never do because, are you serious? You have kept me here for 90 minutes debriefing the change in font sizes on the corporate branded PowerPoint decks while I need to deliver on this data analysis so maybe I can grab 6 hours of sleep in a row for once this week. STFU, please.

When it all blew up, three things stand out in my mind as note-worthy about that few weeks.

1) Our stock sliding from $133+ a share to under $38 a share in a very short time period. A very experienced consulting veteran who had moved over from a stellar career at Anderson to the dot com world came up to me in tears. "I lost it," she choked. Me: "Lost it?" Her: "My retirement, my 401k funds, all of it." Me: "" She had rolled over her 6-figure nest egg into JUST the company stock. OMG. Just OMFG. Fourteen years of retirement savings gone. In a week. Holy shit.

2) The alcohol that began to appear EVERYWHERE, on EVERY DESK. Bottles in the conference rooms. Bottles on desks. People drinking all day long. It was...weird. Before the teleconference where our office was to learn its fate, the folks on one side of me were doing shots of tequila out of paper clip holders and getting absolutely. At 1 pm.

3) One of the bigwigs at our office running up to me breathless and excited because I was one of two people who they wanted to keep from the entire regional office, have us moved to NYC ("Sorry, we can't give you more in salary though..."), and wasn't that just great? I know a lot of folks would have loved to hear that they could keep their job, but I almost burst into tears screaming on the spot. I had hives all over my body from the stress. I had taken crap almost every day from project managers who were livid that I couldn't physically divide my time between 3-4 separate clients at once (there were only 6 of us doing what we did covering the whole globe at that point), getting no sleep, feeling like I had been sold a bill of goods, just hanging on because I knew that this shoe was going to drop and I felt some weird need to stay at least a year before bailing. I stared in shock at the envelope containing the offer letter that she handed me. The next day, I told the office manager that if he had any respect for any of the work I had done for them during the past 10 months, he would lay me off with everyone else. Immediately. He tried to talk me out of it, but it all fell on deaf ears. I was done with this ridiculous experience. And the day I left, I practically clicked my heels.

Make no mistake. I LOVE to work hard, especially back in my late 20's/early 30's. Oh man, I loved me some all nighters and pulled out of a magic hat projects. But I also liked being proud of working on a well-managed team which made some amazing stuff happen without wasting the clients' money. Slick PowerPoint decks were great, but if that was all you had to show for your efforts, it was hellishly embarrassing.

And that is how I will remember most of the dot com start up era. If I had it tucked away in a box in my closet, it would contain these things: one flash drive with the corporate PowerPoint template pitch deck saved on it; a mousepad with "someone's gotta win, it might as well be you" on it; a cocktail napkin from the bar at the W Hotel; a half-completed time card printed out; a paper clip holder smelling faintly of tequila; a worthless stock certificate; some Ativan; and a copy of the 1998 Herman Miller catalog.
posted by jeanmari at 4:20 PM on August 26, 2012 [15 favorites]

This was relatively recent and worth reading, imo.

Don’t waste your time in crappy startup jobs.
posted by gen at 1:30 AM on August 28, 2012 [5 favorites]

Has anyone read The Boy Kings? I heard about it last week and devoured it in two days. It's a new, intimate account about the culture and early years of Facebook up till 2010 and still feels very of the moment.

The author is Katherine Losse, employee #51, who joined FB fresh from grad school in English and who'd became Mark Zuckerberg's ghost writer by the end of her tenure. Much of the book consists of interesting observations and snark about fratty culture as you might expect, but there are also keen analyses of the structures of power and control forming around her. There are apt allusions to the Panopticon, and she's quick to point out the irony of company's professed revolutionary ethos when, for example, status and money ends up concentrating in the white, Ivy League demographic that had it all along.
posted by far flung at 9:02 AM on August 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I've been away from this for a few days, processing and brainstorming and reading Close To The Machine, which, *swoon*, I want to invent a time machine and use it to make out with Ellen Ullman, for sure (would also accept modern day Ellen Ullman makeouts).

Thank you all, again, for your amazing stories. I have a feeling I might be required to send my someday future finished product around to all the folks who've been so helpful, both here in the thread and via MeMail.

but sometimes that office manager who's been with the company since the beginning and knows the CEO really well (the Donna to the CEO's Josh, if you catch the West Wing reference)

The Joan Holloway to the company's Don Draper and/or Roger Sterling? Gotcha.
posted by Sara C. at 6:45 PM on August 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was the first employee at an online publishing start-up. We expanded to about 11 geeks and I managed a team of five content people. We played heavy metal in the office, dressed in rags, lived on energy drinks and stuck it to the man. The pay wasn't great but I gained more insight into business by working there than I have all other jobs combined. I was at the coal face, so to speak, and I appreciated being involved. One memory is that of lawyers and my boss sharing one phone, sitting on milk crates in a rumpus room (we had no furniture), being offered an 8-figure sum by our major competitor to essentially sell out. Did we sell out? No way, man! Was this a wise decision? No way, man! Without going into detail, the boss knocked back a chance to be financially comfortable for the rest of his life. A few years later, the company was down to three employees and no one was offering crazy internet valuations or chances to cash in. I sometimes wonder if the boss accepts I was right to get up in his grill, telling him to sell before people worked out we were just dorks in a rumpus room.
posted by Bubbles Devere at 5:53 PM on August 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

I work at a digital creative agency that is transitioning from startup to more normal business. Kind of free associating rant follows.

At my workplace, people use scooters and skateboards to get from one end of the office to the other. There is a pingpong table that gets constant usuage and a giant teepee on wheels that is used as a meeting room when there are less than 10 people meeting. Developers mostly have toys or video game related ephemera on their desks. Lunch lasts an indeterminate number of time and starts when you feel like it. Margaritas in the coffee pot. Beanbags big enough to curl up and nap in (and we do). Often producers are women and the coders are men. They don't understand our work but keep us on deadlines and know how to talk to clients. Lots of happy hours. no shame or stigma about drug usage (but it isn't out in the open in the workplace). Not unusual to see someone with a beer at their desk while working. Pervasive low level flirtation and casual sexism. Pack of dogs brought to work by various people that chase each other around the office and bark at shit.

Some people get paid to fuck around on social media and have ideas. Some people click on buttons on a web interface to upload resources to a cms. The designers / developers / producers are three very different cultures. Even among developers there is front end vs. back end (or "rear end" as they sometimes teasingly call us), with different skillsets, attitudes, coding styles, and programming languages. Some people suspect what front end does isn't "real programming", everyone knows the back end guys just aren't cool. Everyone uses the chrome browser on a Mac. I am the only guy who also uses Linux. Nobody uses Windows. I am the only one who does not use a smartphone.

Sometimes we have bands play in the middle of the office on Friday afternoons. People all have friends in bands or advertising or the TV industry or in the arts. People park bicycles around the office, and sometimes ride them from one end to the other. Sometimes motorcycles are also brought inside. Everyone has a Hermann Miller chair (aeron or similar). There is a waffle maker and usually at least one day a month is waffle day. Everyone but the backend developers is very stylish and trend conscious.

Developers get away with alot in terms of various workplace standards (timeliness, hygeine, deadlines, crankyness, showing up at meetings, drinking on the job, etc.) because developers are a relatively rare skillset - no company ever has enough, so it takes quite a bit for a developer to jeapordize their job (and many of the other things, like pingpong tables and naps on beanbags and skating around the office are about spoiling the developers to try to keep them around).
posted by idiopath at 8:58 PM on August 31, 2012

I've never really worked for a startup, but I do currently work for an ex-startup (now a real enterprise-y web company) and I know some of the original employees that stuck around through the company's growth.

Silicon Valley sort of freaks me out, and I think the commentators here have nailed down the bad parts of it pretty well. One thing I actually like about startup people is that they're always ridiculously on the ball with tech trends. Like, I am really into JavaScript, but I've met some people who live for JavaScript. That sort of unhealthy devotion is nice to experience in a field like web development where every six months there's a totally new "hot" technology that you want to work with but never get the time to. I absorb more through my coworkers than I actually have time to do on my own.

The downside from an engineer's perspective is that startup people don't care about code quality or testing. Well, I'm bitter.. I should say, they don't emphasize testing. There's very little fault tolerance practiced when writing code because the expectation is that you'll be up all night working anyway so why set up a monitoring system to make sure things don't go wrong while you're sleeping or out with your family? People push patches for critical production bugs at 2am on a Thursday like it's no big thing. And, I mean, if you're a clever 24 year old who codes 24/7 you get pretty damn hubristic about your code. Plus most startup companies, for all their foolish optimism, don't really build to last. Everything is propped up just enough to barely get it out the door in working order. Why spend a day refactoring the login page when you could be working on some hot new feature? And since the goal is just to get a product out the door and generate some publicity/funding, that emphasis on product development absolutely makes sense. Unfortunately, at some point that "build it now, worry about fixing it later" attitude starts to catch up with you and you have to clean up the mess.

As far as lifestyle, basically joining a startup web company is like picking up a pan and heading to California in 1849. There's gold in them thar hills! People accept a certain amount of risk for the chance to have a big payoff. As you might expect, those people are usually young, single, and financially independent. In other words, they have (relatively) little to lose. You don't see a ton of middle-aged people with two kids in college going to work for a company that does nothing run by 25 year olds.
posted by deathpanels at 1:55 PM on September 18, 2012

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