The Startup Story and how bullshit it is

I’ve been reading Jason Fried’s ‘Getting Real’. It’s great to read books and articles that speak honestly and take a position. It’s been a long time between drinks. I think the only two other books about entrepreneurship that have really spoken to me are ‘The $100 Startup’ and ‘The Lean Startup’. Plus ‘The Innovator’s Solution’. I am looking forward to reading ‘Rework’. I made it half way through a Masters in Entrepreneurship and Innovation, and can honestly say this kind of book wasn’t around then. It was all macho and legendary. I have worked for myself on and off (mostly on) for more than fifteen years and the macho stuff just isn’t real to me.120313-231115

Putting together a new business, as well as a new business concept, is fraught with frustration and anxiety. On the one hand, traditional business principles say you must know your customer to make money, and on the other, lean startup method says, put your concept out there, get people to respond to it, that’s the best way of knowing what the market wants. There’s a line you have to walk between your own vision and the customer’s vision.

People, when they are changing, need support. Change is difficult and meets resistance at every step, especially from your own self. Innovating is creating change somewhere, somehow. It is almost automatic to seek the support and understanding of family and friends, but, unless you come from a family of entrepreneurs, that can be counter-productive.

My mother is a painter. She spent a lot of time making abstract paintings and has only recently found her way back into figurative portraits. I grew up in a house where design was one of the most common topics at the dinner table. My father’s avocation was innovation in business. He shopped at Penhalluriack’s on Saturday afternoons* and bought Compass shares. He was always saying, “someone should invent a thing that does XYZ. They would sell a lot of them” or “What a good idea, locating this shop in this area, for this reason”. So I guess that’s where the entrepreneur in me was born.

Unfortunately, as my parents age, the conversations have become much more restrictive, as though creativity and innovation is too hard for them now. They mostly want to talk about the grandkids, which is normal and perfectly okay, I guess.120313-231122

I have lots of friends, some of whom are entrepreneurs but most of whom are not. Some of them are in the software business, but do not understand entrepreneurship. Some are in my target market for this new business, but do not understand software development methods or principles.

To most people, the principles of agile development and lean startups sound great, but are anathema in practice. You can’t hand them a rough draft of something and ask for feedback, because they proofread it and hand it back to you saying “I think you’ve got a long way to go with this, Jenny. You haven’t even got the writing correct yet.” They then treat you like someone who is a bit deluded, who needs to be steered back towards the labour market, needs to be shoehorned into a job – any job – before something seriously bad happens to you. If you counter with information about people like Jason Fried, or even – God forbid – Mark Zuckerberg – their belief that you have some problematic thought processes is simply enforced.

So when I propose to do something with my business, I mostly keep my own counsel. Which means, in the long run, I do in fact go a bit mad. To keep the conversation going, to get support for myself, I read a lot, and carefully choose people with whom I can discuss business.

I used to read lots of what I will call the Startup Story. It is mostly found at sites like and and Its target market is over-excited manboys with no dependents who would rather own a successful tech business than a hot car as a status symbol (but of course, having both would be better). ‘Independence’ is meant as a strength, not as a sign they have few responsibilities. For some, the simple act of being on the startup journey is a status symbol.120313-231126

I almost never read stories about men and women with dependents, or who are active parents, or who have other caring responsibilities. And it’s rare to here about the role that their supporters played in their success, unless we’re talking this kind of drivel.

Probably this is because in the Startup Story, it is usually an incredible, smart, creative individual as the protagonist – usually a guy, sometimes a group of guys, occasionally a young woman. The carers, the parents, the people with responsibilities, even if they make it into the Startup Story, will have their dependents and responsibilities reduced to badges of honour, medals. “He started with only $100. And he has a child with an autism spectrum disorder!”

I used to think, how could this protagonist in the Startup Story do it? Where is this partner they don’t mention? Where is the mum and dad who let him live at home without paying board? Where is the bit when they mention that Virginia Woolf was right, that one does need a room of one’s own, and enough time to really grok the problem at hand, to get immersed in it, to come up with something that is simple, innovative, helps people and makes money?

I stopped reading stories that distorted the whole journey for a lot of people. This coincided with my former partner getting his act together and having our daughter for weekends and holidays. I suddenly had whole 24-hour and 48-hour periods with no distractions.120313-231137

When I did this, I managed to have more conversations with other women entrepreneurs. I started to find the stories that did represent the reality. And I found some authors who could tell you how to do it sanely, grounded in reality, grounded in organic growth, bootstrapped, without the usual misdirections and unintentional insults of the Startup Story. So my conclusion is this: pick and choose the startup stories you listen to.

And if you have a blog about startups that is different from the usual, let me know.

*“You can get a screw on Sunday but you can’t get a screwdriver” – Derryn Hinch



8 thoughts on “The Startup Story and how bullshit it is

  1. Oh my god Jenny. You have articulated a lot of my floating thoughts about the Startup Story, or as I’ve called it in my head “the alpha male in business” story. I’ve had a few too many run-ins with these characters in recent years, all of them in publishing – starting up their own magazine empire. All total pricks to deal with because they believe their own swagger/publicity.

    The media makes a great deal of such entrepreneurship tales, which is galling for those of us with normal lives & responsibilities! I also call bullshit on the ‘women in business’ angle you read about a lot eg Natalie Bloom, Poppy King. Would be great to read about just normal people in business and how they actually do it (no wealthy partner, no significant parental investment etc). Also the ‘mum juggling a busy life’ thing has gotten old.

    This one was particularly irksome (I only clicked on it because of the pic of the puggie), and had no amazing insights or unusual twist:

    I’ll do as you do and stop reading and believing ’em.

  2. fabulous! I run a non profit community org, all on my own – have been trying to get funding since 09…must be doing something wrong. You’re observations ring LOUD bells with me and I look forward to picking your mega brain 🙂

  3. Here’s one from the Dalai I read today (a man not known for speaking crap):
    “The planet does not need more successful people. The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers and lovers of all kind.”

  4. Pingback: The Startup Story 2: success rates and faulty filtering of opportunities | So Much Palaver

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