I swear, if I read one more thing about how lucky we are to have so many entrepreneurs in Austin, I’m going to scream. This week has been especially annoying, what with a tone-deaf video promoting a group called We Are Austin Tech and an article gushing about a brand new pro-entrepreneur clubhouse in the middle of downtown. You could be forgiven for thinking, based on these media sources, that all it takes to build a thriving technical business is a plucky entrepreneur and a dream. Not exaggerating. Some choice words of wisdom from the video:
“We’re actually creating the future. And if it wasn’t for entrepreneurs, it wouldn’t get created.”
If that quote right there isn’t enough to keep you from going to work for anyone who calls themselves an entrepreneur then I don’t even know what the fuck.
I’ve made a decision not to work with or for anyone who self-identifies as an entrepreneur. It’s a little arbitrary, yes, because there are some good ones who’ve boldly decided to lump themselves in with the dickbaskets, but I trust myself to know when to make exceptions. But in a community that rewards people just for hanging that mantle on their little noggins, the term loses credibility across the board. Here’s why:
1. I make things. I want to work with people who make things.
My major problem with entrepreneurs under the current definition is that the only thing they appear to “make” is personal wealth. They move capital between entities, they buy low and sell high, they’ve created a very crafty way of purchasing “talent” (or, as we used to call them, people). And this makes them rich, and it makes investors rich. Unfortunately, all the cycle usually leaves in its wake is second-hand IKEA furniture you don’t have to figure out how to assemble yourself and a pile of XS and XXL branded t-shirts. These things don’t have to be tangible, but they do have to be valuable to everyone using them, and useful in their own right. Otherwise you’re not creating anything, you’re just using technology to skim a little off the top.
2. I want to invest, too.
I’m not talking about money. I’m talking about my time, creativity, credibility, and anything else I have to offer as a developer. I’ve been at companies where I always had one foot out the door because no one there seemed super interested in the long term feasibility of what they were doing. I find that waiting-around-to-get-bought feeling gross. It’s what I imagine it must be like to be inside one of the cartoon suits as Disneyland. You spend all day putting on this performance and then you go home and spend your paycheck in some dive bar, wishing your life had some meaning. Or maybe people really like working at Disneyland, I don’t know. But working for a company that discourages or disregards your effort fucking sucks.
The other problem with companies whose end goal is to get bought is that as an employee you’re literally a commodity. My understanding is that the itemized bill of sale for a startup is like:
14 – office chairs, Aeron
18 – laptop computers, Macbook Pro
5 – laptop computers, Macbook Air
2 – engineers, database, good health
3 – engineers, front-end, questionable health, cool haircuts
And if you think even making this a bullet point is silly, know that I’ve worked for more than one entrepreneur who literally collected engineers, doing nothing with them except maybe attempting to use them as bait to lure in other engineers, and at worst treating quality developers like office decorations. In the end (if you stick around) you get treated like a medieval princess and married off to Facebook even though you’re in love with Tumblr.
4. I want to work for people who know what a dollar’s worth.
The thing entrepreneurs seem to be really good at is acquiring money. Once they have it, though, they seem to be confused about what to do with it. I’ve known more than one to spend lavishly, then suddenly realize they’re burning through a lot of cash, dial it down, then get frustrated by what happens to morale sans both interesting work and a fully stocked kegerator, so attempt to recover by spending wildly again. The problem is, that’s fucking stupid. Not only is it wasteful for the business and a tiring cycle to be trapped in, it doesn’t accomplish what it should. It takes a confidence I associate with non-startups to pay employees the highest salary the business can afford and trust them to see through the more gimmicky competing offers they might get elsewhere.
This isn’t exclusive to entrepreneurs, but I also become suspicious when someone tells me, “We’re going to make you a really good offer.” That’s like the “high-roller” at the restaurant who, midway through an evening of boorish behavior and nursed bottom-shelf cocktails, assures you you’re going to be “taken care of”. People who know the value of the service you’re providing will demonstrate that in the only way that counts. Anyone trying to get you at a discount or on spec is deserving of your skepticism. Entrepreneurs still looking for that “first round” can fall into that category. I’ve had people seriously try to negotiate my salary expectations way down with, “but we’re a startup!” The fuck do I care if you’re a startup. All you’ve just told me is that you’re not my future employer.
5. A person who believes in their business identifies themselves by their business.
Calling yourself an entrepreneur instead of “CEO of Internet Fabulous Products, LLC” is like going to a party as your spouse’s date and introducing yourself by telling people what a good kisser you are. If you don’t take your company seriously enough to tell people your job is running that one company, why should an employee or anyone else take it seriously? And if you’ve always got one foot out the door, ready to sell, fuck over your employees, and move on to the next company, who’d expect the next company or its complement of hapless employees to fare any better?
6. People with no technical knowledge don’t belong in the technology industry.
It’s not enough just to have a good idea. If your good idea has a shitty implementation, other people will be along soon to eat your lunch. And your good idea will have a shitty implementation if the person in charge doesn’t know a single thing about how it should be implemented. It’s not merely laughable when a “technical entrepreneur” has no technical knowledge – it’s offensive. I’ve worked for businesses all my life. I don’t call myself an executive. If you merely use technology as a means to end, rather than creating technology, fine, you get a pass. But if what you’re creating is technology, if the limitations of hardware or software have any bearing on your design decisions, if there’s ever an installation, configuration, or download step, and you don’t understand it, I don’t want to work for you. Who built Facebook? Who built Google? Who built Microsoft? Those people, whatever else you want to say about them, deserve to call themselves technical entrepreneurs. By comparison, there are a large number of entrepreneurs barely competent to call themselves middle management.
Here’s a quote from the article I linked to at the beginning:
“The No. 1 challenge for tech startups in Austin and around the country is hiring critical engineering talent,” Baer said. “We are going to bring the best talent here for all these events we will be having.”
The best talent, huh? That’s a pretty big promise. Maybe it would be easier to bring in the best talent by publicly showing a little more respect for the work that they do, and a little more modesty about using other people’s money to purchase other people’s skills. Maybe there’s more than one of us who wants to work for a technically skilled boss who’s building the business he or she wants to grow old at and gets their hands dirty right along with us – not just another self-styled “entrepreneur”.