Why “It’s A Startup” Is Bulls**t

By Michael Kilcoyne, - In Entrepreneurs

Why “It’s A Startup” Is Bulls**t, Well just look at this crazy guy who think's his new idea will be big and make him loads of money

Photo Credit: gratisography

“You always align yourself with somebody, rise and fall with them. If people see you trying to make friends all over, then they think you have something to hide…,” recalled Kool J, in a conversation with Columbia sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh.

“See, that’s what makes the game the game,” Shine jumped in. “You live and die with those around you. You just have to be real careful when you’re juggling a lot of balls at once. People want to know where you stand…” (From: What Do Thugs Think of The Wire?)

These were two high-ranking gang leaders and ex-cons and they were of course, referring to the critically acclaimed HBO series The Wire but they might as well be referring to anything — relationships, careers, friends, anything.

Or startups.

The Startup Shoulder Shrug

Picture of a never ending view down some bentches in a city

Never Ending Loop

We were meeting over lunch, and he mentioned that he works six or seven days a week, every week, and like 30 or 40 hours a day, and that, essentially, he was always on.

After all, he was in a pretty prominent position at a startup that’s either going to become a multi-billion dollar public company or is going to fly directly into the sun and burn up into a million different pieces and all of the energy of said company will dissipate throughout the universe and likely form tiny little startup planets where people don’t eat or sleep or live they just startup.

(I’d like to believe it’s the former, but who knows. Even venture capitalists are wrong most of the time.)

I suggested to him that he might get burnt out — he says he doesn’t get burnt out, and having seen him work his face off at a previous company and not really get burnt out, I was inclined to believe him.

I get burnt out because if I don’t get my several hours of Wet Hot American Summer in every day I’ll get cranky and refuse to follow directions.

At some point, he said, “it’s a startup,” and just kinda did that shoulder shrug that people do when they can’t really explain something. Checkmate.

I used to believe that: it’s a startup, so…

As if it was rationale for: ludicrous hours, horrible working conditions, forcing employees to eat garbanzo beans off the floor, working in a closet, not being able to pay anyone anything for any amount of work (i.e. $0 for all of the work). It’s a startup, we’re in that starting up phase, SO HANG IN THERE, HOSS. (And it’s funny because apparently startups can be like ten years old and have billions in funding and still be considered startups.) 

As if it’s rationale for accepting certain transgressions. Every shitty interview process and explanation begins with it’s a startup, so… and then they proceed to explain why something they’re doing that is totally batshit insane and nobody would ever accept as okay, is completely justifiable.

It’s like if I murdered somebody and then somebody asked why and I just said I’m still figuring out this whole morality thing, [shoulder shrug].

Now, I’m a lot smarter.

(Sidenote: I’ve worked for a number of different startups — my own, rocket ships, super-duper early-stage ones, just feed the machine so we can get funding types of startups. A bunch. Some of them were wonderful experiences, others I wanted to scoop my eyeballs out with a spork.)

Because here’s what they’re really saying when they say it’s a startup: We probably won’t be around in a few years, but I hope you’re in it for a fruitless ride with people you’re going to quickly learn to hate; or, we have a shitty product that we’re shoving down customer’s throats so we can sell traction to investors even though our customer retention is literally 8%, fingers crossed; or, I hope you don’t care about your family because you’re never going to get to see them again over the next few years.


Any startup that you can question and you don’t ultimately believe in — I’d imagine that had a lot to do with Color or Sean Parker’s Airtime — is probably destined to lose your interest in just a few weeks, and then you’ll want to do that whole eyeball spork scoop, too.

Startups are cool. Startups, entrepreneurs, solopreneurs and the like are the reason we’re not extinct right now. They’re the reason we might not be extinct in the next 100 years (again, fingers crossed). Elon Musk might single-handedly save us from our own hubris.

Still, that phrase — it’s a startup? That all-encompassing shit-storm of an idea?

It’s a deadly one.

Why It’s Dangerous

Saying you work for a rocket-ship startup has a lot of cachet. In a college-graduate’s eyes — someone who will literally eat their own feces if you can convince them that those feces options will be worth millions in the long-haul — working for a startup, and especially one that’s ultimately successful ordestined for success because a bunch of investors said so, can feel like owning a unicorn farm. (Only to find out that it’s actually just a bunch of jackasses with horns glued to the side of their heads.)

Because corporate life is totally whack, right?

But startups can be just as sucky. 95% of them don’t make it. 75% of the venture-funded ones don’t make it, either. In the startup world, everyone is wrong. Uber is one of the most valuable pre-IPOstartups the world has ever seen, and even it might collapse under the weight of its own stupidity.


To someone who hasn’t been working in that sort of environment for a while, anything can seem like an attractive offering. We’ll pay you. You’ll get some food. We might have parties. You’ll work with people your age. You might even hook up with some of them.

And then you quickly realize that, the job itself is likely not hugely differentiated from any of the other work you’ve done previously, and you’ll realize that the long-hours, sometimes poisonous culture and absurd expectations are not dissimilar from that Applebee’s position you took in high-school because you wanted beer money.

Time Warner would label themselves a startup if they could get away with it.

Because sometimes startup is just a label.

Burnout And Startups

Picture of a burn out man because he's been working too hard with no rest at his startup


When Charlie Hoehn was working on the launch of a Tim Ferriss’ headlining event called Opening The Kimono, he took what was essentially the equivalent of brain-cocaine, except that it lasted longer, was much less expensive and didn’t require you to shove it up your nose or into your gums.

It was just a pill.

And the pill helped him stay up for 60+ hours straight while working on the event because he had to, you know, work, and stuff.

And still, even with the equivalent of brain-cocaine fueling his work, he felt completely overwhelmed, as he writes in an article detailing the chaos leading up to that event, and following.

The four-day event went off without a hitch, in part because Hoehn was taking those brain-drugs every day during the event, and absolutely on top of his game. Like Bradley Cooper in Limitless, he suggests. Throughout the course of the event, he slept six hours. In the past four days, I’ve slept like 32-hours.

No thank you.

After the event, when his body was finally able to recognize the devastating damage that he had wreaked upon it by limiting his sleep intake to an hour a day, he realized something:

“For the first time in my life, I felt completely and utterly burned out.”

Losing Balance

“I just couldn’t stop myself from working all the time. I wanted to be indispensable, the best in the world at running operations. It didn’t matter what else was going on in my life or if I started feeling sick; work was everything to me. Practically everyone I met in the tech scene behaved the same way.”Charlie Hoehn, on why he couldn’t stop working so hard.

He admits that, within a few weeks of that event, right in the middle of working on the 4-Hour Chef, the followup to the 4-Hour Body, he was totally fried.

He felt sick, lethargic and nothing felt fun anymore.

So he called a meeting with Ferriss: “I can’t do this anymore, I have to quit,” he said.

And then he took another job in a startup, turned that into a hyper-success with a combination of gallons of caffeine a day and his workaholic tendencies, and had to quit, again.

And then he was totally lost. Just spinning around in the universe like a lost startup-soul looking for his startup-planet.

It took him a while, he admits, to finally get over his workaholic tendencies and live a life that he ultimately enjoys where he isn’t pulling 100+ hour weeks and his identity isn’t 100% wrapped up in his work.

Because his identity was so wrapped up in working ridiculously hard and in being that absurd over-achiever that when he wasn’t doing that every day, he felt totally lost.

Since then, he’s become the author of a best-selling book Play it Away, a super successful entrepreneur and an advocate for an anxiety-free lifestyle since, as he admits in a lot of his writing, he knows how crippling that can be.

What Causes Burnout?

Quantifying something that is quite subjective like burnout is tough.

In 2003, Leiter and Maslach developed a scale to bring some context to the issue of burnout that they ultimately labeled the Areas of Worklife Scale (AWS). In it, they looked at six areas of worklife —workload, control, reward, community, fairness and values — to develop a testable model of what some of the greatest causes of worker burnout were.

As they conclude in their research, workload and adjusting workload to be relative to expectations is easily one of the most manageable parameters:

“An organization can enhance the energy levels of employees by managing workload to be compatible with their expectations and capacity. This apparently simple advice holds huge implications for organizations operating in a fiercely competitive global market, or for public services attempting to address growing demand with shrinking resources. The challenge of managing workload is enormous. But the persistent relationship of unmanageable workload with exhaustion, of exhaustion with cynicism, and of both with performance problems, underscores the necessity to address this area of job-person mismatch.”

Burnout, then, is just a matter of miscommunication — of inadequately communicating expectations with workload.

If your startup is a sweatshop where you expect people to grind their gears and move the cogs of the machine, shoot them straight.

“That’s What Makes The Game The Game”

“Fire people who are not workaholics…. come on folks, this is startup life, it’s not a game. go work at the post office or stabucks if you want balance in your life. For realz.” — Jason Calacanis, founder of Mahalo, the next Google (that last part I added).

There’s this commonly held belief that the harder you work and sweat and bleed all over your desk and sleep in the office, the more likely your vision, product, startup — anything, really — is going to succeed.

That mentality is so fundamentally untrue it’s frightening that people still believe it. See here. Here.Here. Here.

And while many startups and entrepreneurs tend to err on the side of sweatshop-ism, David Heinemenheir (apparently the most interesting dude in the world) co-founder and partner at 37Signals, creator of Basecamp, argues against mentalities similar to Calacanis’s.

On the 37Signals blog, he writes for the firing of workaholics:

“People who always work late makes the people who don’t feel inadequate for merely working reasonable hours. That’ll lead to guilt, misery, and poor morale. Worse, it’ll lead to ass-in-seat mentality where people will “stay late” out of obligation, but not really be productive.”

This is especially endemic in law-firms and investment banking (particularly in places like New York). As one former investment banker, Henry Wong, writes in a response to a question asked on Quora about why bankers work such long hours: “Bankers are poor managers and generally do not respect other people’s time.

And, so, they force their junior bankers to work absurd hours (often 100+ a week, and sometimes 120+ a week, he acknowledges) to make up for their general incompetence.

The same can be said for startups: there’s a herd mentality that has caused it to be generally acceptable to work however long to get whatever done. 

Which is problematic, because it becomes hours worked =/= output. (See: the Pareto principle.)

Your startup is not a sweatshop.

Your Startup Is A Cult

Picture of a woman with her fingers made into circles around her eyes like glasses


“Why work with a group of people who don’t even like each other? Taking a merely professional view of the workplace, in which free agents check in and out on a transactional basis, is worse than cold: It’s not even rational. Since time is your most valuable asset, it’s odd to spend it working with people who don’t envision any long‑term future together.” — Peter Thiel, Zero to One. 

My experience at Singleplatform was certainly cult-like in a lot of regards — they recruited people with similar personalities, encouraged teams to hang out with one another and we often believed in a lot of the same things. A lot of my good friends in New York — shit, most of them — were part of the Singleplatform cult.

And I was a happy accomplice to that cult for a while. Most of the people I worked with were ridiculously smart, driven and fun to hang out and drink with. (And that might have something to do with what it was ultimately acquired for way back when.)

Here’s what they expected of us: work ridiculously hard within the limits of an 8-9 hour day, and then go home.

And now, they’re part of and/or lead some of the smartest, most capable sales teams throughout the New York area. Chances are, if there’s a fast-growing startup in or around the New York City region, its sales team is run by someone who once previously worked at Single platform. (That might be a bit of a stretch due to the sheer size of the organization, but still.)

But that’s rare. Most startups don’t reach that level of success. Because most startups aren’t a cult, they’re struggling ideas, leaky cash machines or MBA-experiments disguised as one.

If your startup:

  • Recruits mercenaries.
  • Has people who view the day-to-day as just another job.
  • Hires people who aren’t obsessed with the vision of the company just to pad their numbers.
  • Directly correlates time spent working with total output.
  • Explains anything with an aww shucks, it’s a startup, type of response.

It’s a sweatshop, not a startup.


Mike Kilcoyne is a writer and speaker on his own website, sharing ideas on resilience, dealing with stress and being a badass.