Thoughts on Entrepreneurship, or, Screw the Entrepreneur-bots

Feb 18, 2010 • Karen

There seem to be two stereotypes that dominate the entrepreneurial field.

The first I'll call West Coast entrepreneurs. They're the ones Silicon Valley is famous for.

The West Coast entrepreneur is a young, 20-something white dude who attended Harvard or Stanford. (Sorry Yale. And everyone else.) At least one of his co-founders has parents who are wealthy and willing angel investors. If he's on the techie side, he is and has always been an ubernerd. If he's on the business side, he was also socially inept as a kid, but now overcompensates for it in ways that are functionally valid but carry a whiff of smarminess, creepiness, or desperation. He is aware of his youthful arrogance and stokes it, takes pride in it; his ego is the size of Montana. He is dead certain that his product will change the world but is cavalier about building ways for people to pay him for it. He may have an Asian male co-founder, and will have Asian males among his early employees, but no other minorities in the early stages—not by design, but "it just worked out that way." Before exit, he brags about how long he's gone consuming nothing but ramen and Mountain Dew. After exit, he buys a red electric sports car and eats at black-tie restaurants in his swimming trunks.

The second type is the typical entrepreneurship model everywhere else.

This stereotype is a 40-something rich, golf-playing white man who thinks he's still hot shit because he built something fifteen years ago that was just good enough to sell. He is motivated by money, ego, and possibly the thrill of the sell. He reads business books and magazines and finds them incredibly insightful. He doesn't realize that his business is incredibly boring to just about everyone else. If he does happen to realize how boring he is, he becomes an angel investor to live vicariously through the next young crop of entrepreneurs. Sad to say, most of the guest speakers in last year's Shotput Ventures incubator program fit this stereotype to the T.

If I had to pick one of these to be, I'd pick the former. I have so little in common with the latter stereotype. I hate boring, mediocre products, especially when they succeed in the marketplace.* I detest selling to people. Revenue in itself doesn't excite me. I completely loathe golf.

But the West Coast entrepreneurship model is obnoxious in its own way too. It's a fact that venture capital firms reward startups that pitch the best, not the ones that build the best, which enables pie-in-the-sky behavior and encourages talk and smarm over results and realism. Superior products and teams are likely to die from lack of funds if they don't play along with the Ultra Bleeding-Edge Shiny Hype of the moment. There's also a surprising amount of snobbishness about where you went to school; unless you developed your product in grad school, if you didn't attend one of the top of the top schools with a legacy of successful dropout entrepreneurs, forget about it. It also has a deep sexism problem bubbling up from the male-dominated computer science departments and VC firms which compose this entrepreneurial scene.

Besides the systemic problems, from a selfish point of view, I don't fit the West Coast stereotype either. I'm not male and my parents aren't ever going to fund me. I attended a well-ranked liberal arts college, but not Harvard or Stanford. (It was a women's college; that probably doesn't help!) I'm a geek, but I don't really know how to code (yet!). I have a strong allergy to buzzwords and zero allergy to bootstrapping. I'm motivated by the dream but I'm well aware that few things are truly world-shockingly revolutionary. (Fortunately, things don't have to be world-shockingly revolutionary to still be awesome.) Ego is certainly also a motivational factor for me—I enjoy being independent and "self-standing"**—but mine can't compare to the true delusion you often find in this scene.

I just like doing startups for the opportunity to build something awesome, something better than anything else out there, something that people like and use. It's that simple. I like working with great human beings; I like to see it when the good guys win. Screw the stereotypes. Screw the buzzwords, and the hype, and the machismo. Screw the entrepreneur-bots. I know there are real, live, good-natured humans who are also startup entrepreneurs; I've met and worked with some. Though they're fewer and farther between than I'd like, that's the scene I want to inhabit, the people I want to recruit, and the new stereotype I'd like to develop.

* I used to work tech support. Seeing how many bugs were left to fester while the devs pumped out new feature after new feature drove me mad. I never want to be continually embarrassed by the product I'm supposed to represent ever again.

**The Danish word for "self-employed" is "selvstaendige", pronounced much like "self-standing".