The Startup Won’t Save Us

This is another post on Douglas Rushkoff’s new book, Throwing Rocks at The Google Bus: How Growth Became The Enemy of ProsperityRead more posts on the book here. Throw yourself headlong into the Rushkoff rabbit hole here.

There’s a chirpy critique of startups near the end of Throwing Rocks that makes for great reading. It amounts to an observation that starting a new company with the aim of sustainably delivering an excellent product or service, along with consistent dividends to investors, doesn’t work in a digital economy insistent upon unchecked growth. For many startups (and the venture capitalists funding them) like mobile game maker Zynga, the game is to grow as quickly as possible, then get bought by Facebook and cash out.

The acquisition or the IPO is not the beginning of their company’s impact but the end.

“Startups are not trying to earn revenue (which is a liability),” Rushkoff notes. “They are setting themselves up to win more capital. They are not part of the real economy or even the real world but part of the process through which working assets are converted into new stockpiles of dead ones.”

The goal is not to own a real company. The goal is to sell a fake one.

I read a steady diet of startup literature as a way of thinking about innovation in church life and entrepreneurial leadership. Pastors and consultants in the circles I run with throw around terms like “Minimum Viable Product” with ease. We listen to Tim Ferris and fantasize about having that many ideas and the energy to bring them to life.

But I’m not so sure where that’s getting us. If that game is rigged to convert everything to capital and to leave behind the empty shells of the projects we cashed out before we moved on, then why am I listening so intently to startup “experts?”

Where are the experts in making an enduring impact in the real world?


6 thoughts on “The Startup Won’t Save Us

  1. As one of the aforementioned pastors who throw around terms like MVP 🙂 , I’m gonna push you on that idea that “that game is rigged.”

    You’re only considering the start-up side, and completely ignoring what the long-term owners find to be valuable in the products/services these start-ups produce. I don’t think the game is rigged. I think that one set of folk are skilled in one aspect: building something of immense value. They are ill equipped to sustain it. That’s a shift few folk can rarely make. It’s not the game, it’s the players.

    I find a lot of value in start-up literature. Indeed, I would bank any success I’ve had on following it’s principles. But I’ve also had to recognize when the time is at hand to pivot (there’s another start-up word) to keeping the sustainability in the forefront, and that means slowing the growth because it’s unhealthy.

    The experts at maintenance are all around you. They’re the schmoes who haven’t built anything for years, or have never built anything in their lives. Frankly, they are the boring ones. They idolize maintenance because starting up is hard work, and full of failure. That’s why they sit back, buy up the start-ups, and leverage them for their own purposes. Is that who you’re saying you want to emulate?

    1. Absolutely not. I’m only now experiencing some ambivalence about the startup literature, wondering–per Rushkoff–if a lot of it isn’t biased away from creating long term value and towards growth for its own sake and the cash out. I want to emulate the people who are starting new and important ventures and also spreading ownership of those ventures deep and wide. You obviously don’t share my hesitation about the startup literature, right?

      1. That’s where Rushkoff and I are going to disagree, I think.

        I don’t think the literature is biased. I think the stories that tend to rise above the din are of folks who have used those insights to not the most noble ends. *Anyone* who is ultimately successful in business and new ventures will tell you that the long term strategy to take is one of sustainable growth. But the fact remains that there are builders and there are maintainers. Instagram is a great example. Someone built it and now Facebook is maintaining it.

        So, no, I don’t have the hesitation you do. Again, I think I’ve been pretty successful in applying the insights to my own work, and then pivoting to ensuring my organization digs deep to solidify longterm benefit.

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