Talking about weeds apparently stirs up some shit.
Two weeks ago, I wrote about the response of some in our Cedar Rapids/Iowa City startup community to Bob Dorf’s post about his visit – “The New Iowa: Where Startups Are Growing Like Weeds.”
Overall, people were excited that Dorf visited, and that he wrote what he wrote. The issue was the weeds analogy. Startups are good! Weeds are bad! Why taint startups by comparing them to a nasty, unruly nuisance?
Bob Dorf was kind enough to comment on my post, and he agreed with a quote I grabbed from blogger and venture capitalist Fred Wilson – that weeds are a very appropriate analogy, since weeds don’t need a controlled environment to survive and thrive in conditions of uncertainty. (My post is here.)
All good, right?
But then some other voices spoke up.
Their rationale: Startups ARE like weeds, because weeds are bad and startups are bad.
Worse yet, this reaction came from people I work with. People I respect. People I work closely with – literally. They both have desks about 30 feet away from mine.
Justin Houtz and Matt Thiessen are both applications developers at Fusionfarm. Good ones. They’re both smart, interesting, talented guys who have rich set of skills outside of development. Justin, for example, shot and edited much of this video on the Startup Weekend event held in Cedar Rapids in early March.
Both of them, as Matt says, “have seen our share of startups.”
The conversation started Google+ (you can see it here), and then continued in good old-fashioned face-to-face space. They can both speak better for themselves than I can, so, excerpting from their comments:
Comparing startups to weeds is actually very poetic. The constant pop-up-and-die, pop-up-and-die cycle of startups causes a flood on the market with solutions of no economic value; diluting the integrity of established commercial practices.” – Justin
“Weeds don’t produce anything of value. A good crop comes from planning, hard work and being in the right place at the right time.” – Matt
“But building a community to do what? To create whimsical crap-apps?” – Justin
“I want to put them (startups) in the same category as friends and family who need technical support. You could provide an endless supply of help, but don’t look for much in return.” – Matt
“Startups also foster the belief that creating a job is better than finding a job (yep…stole that one from Social Network). It’s a new generation of kids who look at the job market and the jobs we NEED as a county (healthcare, infrastructure, blue collar manual labor) and say instead, “F— that. That looks way too hard. I’ll just invent an app reminds me when it’s time to clean the lint out of my toes.” – Justin
My first response was heartfelt, but knee-jerk in retrospect. BUT BUT BUT! Studies show startups are the top source of job creation in our economy! Successful startup founders are some of the hardest working people I know! Startups have created an incredible array of products and services that are helpful, useful, and improve our quality of life!
That wasn’t the right approach. I believe in the truth of what I said, but I wasn’t hearing the issues that Justin and Matt were raising.
And their frustrations were driven by real issues they had experienced.
One of the reasons I started this whole blog was to connect to other people who were thinking about the similar issues, and by doing so grow my own understanding. After talking with Matt and Justin: Mission accomplished.
I’ll try to summarize as best as I can, but for me it broke to two general issues.
1. We are not a mature startup community yet. We’re making some rookie mistakes that can create distrust.
I see tremendous potential in our nascent startup community. But it’s a relatively new startup community, and we make mistakes in how we relate to each other that at least don’t seem to happen as often in more mature startup communities.
In startup communities in general, young startups are encouraged to look for help. This is healthy. Advice and feedback, in startup communities, is generally given for free.
And that works if you’re just asking someone for feedback over coffee. But major jobs, like designing a website or writing a big piece of code, aren’t “free.” In mature startup communities, this is understood, and compensation for this type of work — whether it is in shares or cash or beers or whatever — is agreed on up front. It’s not impolite to insist on this. It prevents misunderstandings down the line, and keeps those misunderstandings from poisoning the ecosystem.
Maybe it’s a function of being “Iowa Nice,” but there seems to be a taboo at times about talking compensation up front. Often compensation gets discussed only vaguely. The people involved feel uncomfortable nailing down specifics. And then frustration sets in later when some of those vague expectations end up amounting to “working for free.”
Part of the responsibility for fixing this lies with the Matts and Justins of the world, and they readily admit as much. They’re talented. They’re nice guys. When asked for help, they’ve had a tendency to say “yes” and ask questions later.
But the bigger part of the responsibility probably lies with potential founders: if you expect to receive value, expect to give value. Or if you’re looking for work for free, be completely open and honest about that at the start.
2. There are elements of the startup community that can feel disingenuous.
Again, I’ll start with my disclaimer: I’ve met a lot of talented, truly impressive people by becoming involved with our startup community. People who I probably wouldn’t have met otherwise.
That said, like every startup community, there are certain types that can be a turnoff. The get-rich-quick dudes who talk endlessly about exit strategies but never about building anything. The people who don’t really have any interest in startups but really love the startup lifestyle. (Posters! Stickers! Launch parties! Coffee! Work? Huh?) The jargonistas who quote The Lean Startup like it’s a religious text, not a collection of useful principles that are supposed to help you think critically and solve problems.
The cargo cult aspects of the startup world are real, and they’re what inspire shows like HBO’s Silicon Valley. (Which is a brilliant skewering, by the way.) They aren’t going anywhere.
My advice to Matt and Justin was that if those aspects of the community were frustrating … don’t deal with them. Life’s too short to spend your spare time doing work you don’t feel is rewarding. My take is that I tend to judge the community by the best people I find in it, not the ones that are shallow and superficial.
In the end, though, I’ll say what I said to Matt and Justin. I’m glad they read the post. Even more glad they cared enough to engage. Happier still they taught me something. I realize I’m a cheerleader for our startup community – but I can be more effective at helping it if I see it as honestly as possible, warts and all. I need more conversations like that.