UPDATE: after some more thought, and some rad editing and insight from my workwife Jetta, I’ve expanded and updated the piece.
If ever you’re unsure of how startup founders feel about their employees, look no further than this version of Settlers of Catan Reid Hoffman (founder of LinkedIn) commissioned this year, called The Startups of Silicon Valley. Hoffman has previously sung the praises of Catan as being popular with the “technorati” because it “closely approximates entrepreneurial strategy.” It should be noted that many of those words, whether strung together or examined individually, are just buzzwords, used to invoke the appearance of intelligence and superiority. It could be that the aspect of Catan Hoffman embodies most is his ability to speak a completely foreign language while living among the rest of us.
This leads us to further problem with StartUp Culture. If you’re not working 24/7, you’re dead and might as well give up. It’s a weird twisted headspace founders and indoctrinated into that’s designed to squeeze profit or gain out of every bit of your life. You’re not just playing a game, you’re learning skills to crush your competition. You’re not just watching TV, you’re analyzing the plot to see if you can learn something to give you an edge with an investor tomorrow. Meditation? It’s not an exercise to help you cope with stress, or gain a moment’s peace. It’s a tool you can use to make yourself even more productive, and clear headed so you can get back to writing code for another 8 hours. Enjoyment for enjoyment’s sake is verboten, and with sites like ThinkGeek, an entire cottage industry exists to sell productivity back to the workforce. Capitalism everyone!
While creating a special version of a game for your friends in and of itself isn’t really a big deal, it’s the changes made for this FounderBros™ edition that are liable to make one’s head explode with rage. To be fair, some of the changes make sense, such as updating robbers to disrupters, or havingproducts instead of settlements. Both of these updates take a big step away from the romanticized colonialism that is Catan’s stock-in-trade, and allow the game to be played without the nostalgia for conquering the untamed frontier.
Then there’s including customers as a commodity. Nothing makes your users feel warm and fuzzy like being the stand-in for brick. BRICK. I guess from most founder’s perspective, this is exactly what users are. The most important metric isn’t if users are loyal or if they’re actually using your product in a meaningful way, it all comes to ACQUIRE ALL THE USERS. In that kind of environment, where exponential growth is not only expected but required, why concern yourself with anything more than that user number going up and to the right.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the wheat commodity becomes talent. Not employees. Not people. Talent. There’s a shitty bit of linguistic gymnastics there, abstracting the folks who pour their blood, sweat, and tears into your company into talent. Looking at your employees this way discounts individual contributions and leads to “sanding off rough edges” (translation: getting rid of anyone who has skills that can’t be quantified). It seems to stand in stark contrast to the public facing appearance Silicon Valley likes to put forth, that of a haven for creative people and those who don’t fit in normal corporate culture, but in reality it’s the same old-same old with a fresh coat of paint.
PEOPLE. ARE. NOT. COMMODITIES.
This line of thought, that people as just one more resource to be exploited, is essentially the same mindset that leads to atrocities like human trafficking. “That’s not a human being I just sold, it’s a product to be sold to the highest bidder.” To a lesser extent, it’s what drives the culture of unpaid interns that companies now have. Far from being just a learning experience, many internships are designed to exploit the student (who may not know any better) and get thousands and thousands of dollars worth of free labor out of them. This attitude isn’t just limited to tech/corporate culture either. Thousands of migrant workers are made to work in deplorable conditions, held captive in remote, hard to reach locations, with only the company store to provide for them, abused, all in an effort to provide for themselves and their families. Sure, every year or so we read about the government stepping in and slapping fines on a company here or there, but it’s not as though anything really changes. Whether you’re talking interns, migrant labor, or even human trafficking, it all comes down to those in power having a sense of entitlement to the labor of others; that talent is a naturally-occurring commodity that just replenishes on its own and needs to be harvested lest it, gasp, go to waste without profit.
Sadly, this sort of attitude seems to be quite common in the startup world. Not a week goes by that I don’t hear some story about a founder who drives his people insanely hard. Statements like “I know what I want and will not settle for anything less” and “My way or the highway” are common in tech startups, as though every founder is a high-ranking mage who’s uncovered the secret to existence and in turn become the arbiter of success. Every startup assumes it’s an island, and unconnected to the industry around it, which gives it the incentive to boot people at will. In reality, though, much like Catan, it is part of a larger continent of economics, and the entitlement of one enables the entitlement and violence of all.
If, as a founder, you see your employees as talent, it lets you keep emotion out of things, and reduces human beings into one more lever you can push/pull to inflate your bottom line. Revenue dipping? Time to divest some of your talent. Things not moving fast enough? Force the talent to spend 80+ hours chained to their desk, labor laws/common decency be damned. If you think things this never happens, read some of the many horror storiesfrom game developers and startups in general regarding “crunch time“.
Along with several scandals relating to start culture excess, the tone-deafness of The Startups of Silicon Valley should cast serious doubt on startup culture’s claims of being a benevolent societal force; working for the good of humanity, or least making your life a bit easier. The root of the culture they’re creating and perpetuating is no different that the what’s been in place for hundreds of years: Exploit those who work for you as long as you can for as much profit as you can, their welfare be damned.
I get it: sometimes jobs require extra hours, that’s to be expected. There needs to be a distinction, though, between “this task requires extra labor” and “this culture/society requires this labor for which you will not be adequately appreciated for, lest you rock the boat of this perfect brand new society”. The people doing those jobs are still human being, and pushing folks to their physical and mental breaking points just can’t be part of business as usual or your success plan. It just can’t. If we, as a culture, are going to break away from this dark path we’re headed down, we have to start taking a stand and stop letting these modern day feudal emperors treat us like so much wheat.