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Tech Confidential (Part Three)

Edited by Nan Wiener and Jenna Scatena | September 20, 2012 | Story Tech World

The initial appeal of working at a startup was being part of a cool, creative, smart environment, where my ideas coud be heard. It’s what startup founders promise you—that and great stock options. But it was all completely elusive. All of it. I took a big pay cut to come to this marketing job, because the founder said my stock options would be worth something one day. I was really excited about it.

But the reality is that startups are no different from any other workplace. These companies are the founders’ little pet projects, and they want to have control over everything. The main difference is that there’s no in-house HR department, which makes it like Lord of the Flies. I mean, the level and frequency of blowups is absurd. The intense passion and pressure—coupled with the fact that you only have so much funding, and if it doesn’t work you’re out of a job—make for an explosive work environment. Once, our project manager went nuts. He slammed doors, threw things, even punched a wall. Just crazy shit that at a normal company you’d be fired for on the spot. But here there’s no authority to say “no.”

There’s also this plague of delusional behavior. Everyone is told they’re exceptional—and that’s just a disaster. People get wedded to their ideas, and even when one’s obviously not working, they’ll hold on to it. There’s this pervasive urge in the startup industry to move forward against all odds.

Romantic relationships are to startups what being gay used to be to the military. Not that we’re being shat on by the world, but it’s an uphill battle. People just don’t like to invest in a startup where the founders are in a romantic relationship. In fact, my girlfriend and I are starting to treat it in many cases as a “don’t ask, don’t tell” situation. Partly, it’s just that being in a relationship is very foreign to the startup world, which is often made up of goofy, single nerds. But also, the investors and advisers, many of whom ran startups themselves early on, remember the stress of starting a company. They remember being awkward twentysomethings, working 20 hours a day and having no time for relationships, so they can’t imagine how it might work. For most of them, true love was the startup, whereas my girlfriend and I are splitting our love between each other and the company.

The only hard thing is that sometimes we find ourselves at dinner with nothing to talk about but work. We’ll just sit there for five minutes, and then start giggling and realize there’s nothing else going on in our lives, at which point we’ll vow to watch more Breaking Bad or go on more bike rides together. But we’ve been saying that for months, and it never happens. Maybe the answer is kids. We really won’t be able to ignore those. Maybe, in fact, that’s the next startup. We’ll have kids, and we’ll talk about changing schools the way we do about startups, like “pivoting their educational opportunities” and “field measuring lean startups in early childhood education to give them a boost.”

The tech industry in Silicon Valley is earning the name “Valleywood.” It’s become a Hollywood stage, and everyone wants in—and everyone wants to get the leading role. But just like the real Hollywood, there are a lot of wannabe actors who won’t get the part, and only a few real stars.

I don’t know if it’s something wrong with Gen Y, or a result of the intense competition in the tech industry, but people are flat-out lying on their résumés. It’s a pandemic. Someone at another startup told me a candidate claimed he graduated from b-school at Wharton, only he never even went there. Another applicant said she was fluent in Spanish, but after hiring her, I discovered she only knew about enough to order a beer. You can’t even just check references anymore; you have to check the references of their references. And since your startup team usually has only about four people, if you hire someone and they can’t deliver, you can burn hundreds of thousands of dollars in resources, or even go under. It happens all the time.

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