On Startup Culture

I admit to being skeptical before about startup culture in the technology sector, for a few reasons:

  • It smells of a gold-rush, a way to make a quick buck. I was brought up with an ethic to go and do your day’s work, work hard, get paid, and play your part.
  • This is inter-twined with rush to commercialise the Internet. This is not new, but it is eroding into the idealism of the early days of the Web when it was supposed to be the great equaliser in society, the open information platform.
  • To scale, you really need to get investment, which means compromising and handing over rights to your business and ideas.
  • I’m a software engineer, and solve problems presented by others. I don’t see myself as an ideas person, or at least don’t have the urge to act on ones I do have.

To make an analogy, startups to me are like young footballers who dream of playing for Manchester United or AC Milan or Real Madrid. Or indeed, even to play professional football at any level. How many make it? I don’t know, but I’d say less than 1%. I suspect the number of startups who are successful comes in at around the same percentage.

But in the last couple of years my thinking has changed. To counter the points above:

  • Startups are hard work, well if you are doing it right they should be.
  • If we strive to keep the Web open, then making money is fine. We all need to, right?
  • If you are smart, you can negotiate a good investment deal. The sheer number of investors out there means choice. Or, bootstrap and scale at your own pace.
  • Sometimes engineers come up with the best ideas, because they understand some of the real-world problems that need solving and find opportunity in that.
Spice World
Image by King Molan via Flickr

I could name other reasons, with their counter arguments, but you get the picture. A couple of weeks ago I attended the Dublin Web Summit, very much a startup event. After not living in Ireland for over 10 years and being completely out of touch with the tech scene, I was greatly encouraged by what I saw. The tech sector is one of the things keeping the Irish economy afloat. But it’s foundation is foreign investment by large companies, usually American. Companies like Microsoft, Dell, and Intel have had a presense there for a number of years. Newer comapnies like Facebook and Twitter have setup their European headquarters there. They do so because of a young, skilled workforce and incentives provided by the Irish government including a low corporate tax rate.

Yet now, there is a realisation that this is not a solid foundation for the future. Large companies can move out at any time, pulling the rug from under you. People are starting to do things for themselves, setting up their own companies more and more. Irish people have always been resourceful but there is nothing less than a culture shift happening. There is a real energy. Even the government, who have shown before to be notoriously short-termist, have many initiatives to help small and medium-sized businesses. Yet more work needs to be done. For example, the bankruptcy laws need a major overhaul to shield entrepeneurs more from risk. I definitely like the direction things appear to be going in however.

In this spirit, I applied to be a WebFWD scout and have been accepted. The application form posed the question “Why do you think you would make an awesome WebFWD Scout?“. Here is what I wrote:

I have been an Open Source enthusiast and supporter all my career. I speak at Open Source conferences. In Slovenia, we have a thriving Web and Startup scene, and I attend events and keep up to date. I have mentored at Seedcamp events. Moving further east, I am a member of a group called New Europe Startups that covers Central and Eastern Europe. There is a real hunger here, something that has been observed less in Western Europe. This is something that can be tapped into for the advantage of the Open Web. I’m a firm believer that our future economic health will be based on entrepreneurial talent that challenges and ultimately usurps incumbents who have a stranglehold on many industries. Last but not least, I have faith in people which drives everything I do, and have a knack for connecting people to do interesting and I hope great things.

So I urge you all, if you have a passion and think you have something that will make people’s lives better, go out and start something, work hard, and keep dreaming.

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