Why we need startup lies

Photo by Sally Crossthwaite

A lot of people have got very frustrated with the tendency for successful startup founders to embellish their company's creation myth until it becomes an outright lie – Pez dispensers anyone? I'm driven crazy by the misinformation floating around too, but I'm wary of destroying the beneficial aspects of the startup culture in an attempt to stamp out the lies. As Tom Evslin puts it "nothing great has been accomplished without irrational exuberance". If founders were truly sensible, all of us would be squirming our way up the corporate ladder instead of trying to build castles in the sky, the probabilities of success are way better.

These thoughts came to the front of my mind when I read The Grandeur of Glory, an exploration of the role of stories based around a research paper on sheep foraging patterns. The conclusion of the study was that you need a certain number of 'risk-taking' sheep who will wander widely to find new patches of grass, along with a large population of more sedentary animals to safely graze the known resources. What's intriguing about stories in human cultures is that they're almost exclusively dedicated to lionizing risk-takers. This might seem a given, but there's no fundamental reason why we should find Achilles a more interesting person than someone who's spent an uneventful forty years in accounting. My favorite definition of drama is simply "There's a problem". Our stories all center around characters tackling those problems, people with something at stake, taking risks, and Brendan advances a theory about why:

"Does this suggest that humans are too predisposed toward meekness, so that we require cultural encouragement to develop a sufficient number of risk takers to sustain the species?"

This feels intuitively right for the startup world. Everybody in positions of power has an interest in encouraging young entrepreneurs to jump in and take risks, so we all tell stories that at the very least involve some creative editing to paint a rosy picture of the process. The obvious downside is that we may be driving people with slim hopes of success into sinking their life savings and endangering their relationships in pursuit of a mirage.

To my mind, that's a price we have to pay. I grew up in Britain with a much more 'sensible' culture, and the priority given to safety drove me crazy. I need some risk in my life, and startups are a great way of channeling that tendency in a way that hopefully benefits society at large. The romanticization and mythology that surrounds the work that I do is definitely part of why I stick at it. I love having interesting stories to tell, it means I get something from even the most abject failure.

My hope is that we can unearth more complex, true-to-life tales from the startup world. I find it a lot more inspiring to hear from someone who's been repeatedly knocked down, and picked themselves up every time, than a sanitized tale from a founder who seemed to stumble across a winning formula with no false starts. Encouraging more founders to blog would be a good start, Tim Bull's site is a great example of how this can work. What we shouldn't aim for is the eradication of the whole mythology that has emerged around startups. It's actually the main reason we have an entrepreneurial community here in the US. The stories we tell each other (and ourselves) may be misleading, but they're necessary.

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