D'Arcy from Winnipeg
Solution Architecture, Business & Entrepreneurship, Microsoft, and Adoption

The Startup Lifestyle - Business as the New Programming and Why That’s a Bad Thing

Tuesday, April 16, 2013 11:54 AM


Anyone can be a programmer. Go to school, self-teach through books or videos, etc. The industry isn’t regulated like some other professions like engineering, trades (plumbing, carpentry, etc.) or architecture (the building type). But to be a programmer, someone that can make a computer do some useful stuff – it really doesn’t take much. And there’s a whole bunch of reasons why that’s a good and bad thing. Good in that there’s a low barrier of entry for people of any age to get into programming. Bad in that there’s a lot of people out there who really shouldn’t be programming for a living, but get away with it because there’s no agreed upon standard (and how we’d even implement a standard like that could take up a whole series of blog posts).

Over the last few years, we’ve seen a new movement emerge. If 2000 marked the decade of the Programmer, then 2010 kicked off the decade of the Entrepreneur. Where we had code camps we now have startup camps, bar camps, hackathons – events that, while they may include technology, have a decidedly business slant to them. We’ve moved from “anyone can be a programmer” to “anyone can own and run a business”. You don’t need experience or schooling; you don’t even need a business plan! Just follow some steps to register your business. It’s like hobby farming, but with businesses. StartupWeekend even states on their website:

No Talk, All Action. Launch a Startup in 54 Hours!

There’s this allure of what I call “The Startup Lifestyle”. It’s all about young, fun, passionate people making money on ideas that are realized at mile-a-minute speeds. It’s wealth generation on steroids – the ultimate get-rich-quick scheme but with way more cred. If this sounds like the plot of a TV show to you…well, in part its because it is. But it’s also the pipe dream that draws in people to the “startup lifestyle”. Note I don’t say the “entrepreneurial” lifestyle, because the reality of owning and running a business is less glamour and a hell of a lot of hard work.

Having more people engaging in the economy through commerce is, in and of itself, a good thing. But, like programming, we seem to be minimizing or trivializing the effort required in engaging in business professionally. Businesses have real implications: revenue, profit, taxes, insurance, liability, investment. There’s also the aspect of viability. Not every idea translates into a valid business. I’ve come to appreciate “Mr. Wonderful” Kevin O’Leary from Dragon’s Den and Shark Tank fame. He never holds back asking the tough questions around sales, profit, and market size. Too many buy into the romanticism of business and ignore the serious and sometimes harsh reality.

Technology companies like Apple, Google, and Microsoft don’t help any by pushing the pipe dream of success through their respective app stores. The message they all send is “If you can code it, you can sell it!”, yet they do nothing to help support their developer base emerge as smart business people. I approached one developer, who wrote a simple yet successful iPhone app, about speaking on his experience at one of my conferences. He declined, saying his experience was an anomaly and was not how people should go about building a software-based business.

In a perfect world, we would strip the word “startup” from our vocabulary. We’d replace it with “business”. Every business is a startup – in that it has to start somewhere. But an idea alone is not a business. A business is an organized plan and strategy to monetize an idea. In my experience with startup weekend-type events, I’ve never once heard the term “business plan” used. The focus is on the idea, the rush of creating and basing decisions on assumptions instead of analysis and research.

“Of course people will buy this!”

“Of course this will work!”

“No, we don’t have any competitors…I think…we’ll be better anyway!”

The allure of the life and overpromised success in a startup overtakes the serious considerations creating a successful business requires.

There’s also a personal danger that I see in pushing the startup lifestyle. Recently I met a young entrepreneur. Passionate about the local startup community, passionate about building things and creating businesses. A poster-boy for the entrepreneurial movement! I don’t know what happened, but my guess is that he burnt out – to the point that he tried to disappear: changed his cell phone, stopped answering emails, was impossible to get in touch with. The rise and fall of such young promise is disheartening to witness, as is the residual damage that goes with it.

We need to foster business development, but we have to acknowledge the responsibility that goes with it. Mentoring from experienced business leaders is crucial to ensure that we minimize the damage the startup lifestyle can cause. We need to balance passion, desire, and excitement with sober thought, reasoning, and discussion. We need to stop pushing short timeframes to startup success and embrace reasonable expectations and longer term business goals.

We need to talk and teach business, not wealth and fame. Otherwise, we’ll never see the long term economic impact that all these new businesses could provide. We’ll just see more casualties from the startup lifestyle.


# re: The Startup Lifestyle - Business as the New Programming and Why That’s a Bad Thing

Nice post! I was talking to my father (a long-time business man of over 30 years) about the recent startup movement and how business plans are the "vegetables" that startups don't want to eat and funding is "candy".

Kudos for calling people out on this. 4/16/2013 2:45 PM | Ben Barreth

# re: The Startup Lifestyle - Business as the New Programming and Why That’s a Bad Thing

I think you're missing a lot of middle ground here.

I agree that startup weekends, startup busses, etc, are all silly. Starting a business requires some thought. But I disagree on the emphasis of a business plan. Most of the elements of a business plan are a guess -- I'll have this many customers, spend this much on marketing, have this much overhead. It all goes out the window the second reality hits. And those hours you spent buffing that plan could have been better spent learning about your customers and what they want.

The middle ground I speak of involves solving a problem that exists and a reasonable stab at profitability. You don't need a business plan, you need an understanding of the pains the target market feels, some idea of how to reach them, and some time to build and experiment.

I started a SaaS app in my basement because I found something that people needed. No business plan, just a lot of hard work and a willingness to experiment. I later sold it to a VC funded startup who I now work for. I don't consider anything I did to be a fluke. It's not the way I planned it, but what I did is certainly attainable and repeatable.

I encourage you to read "The Lean Startup". It's a great book on iterating towards finding out what people want. It's as applicable to the 30 year old company as it is to the startup that was dreamed up at the bar. 4/16/2013 10:52 PM | Sean

# re: The Startup Lifestyle - Business as the New Programming and Why That’s a Bad Thing

Hey Sean,

No, I think (as a Twitter conversation I had after posting this echoed your comments) that I didn't communicate that I'm actually speaking from the middle ground. :)

I'm not suggesting we need reams of documentation up front (a-la Waterfall software development) to start a business, but like software you *should* have some forethought and research done before starting an endeavor. What I'm seeing are people that aren't even being encouraged to do that - that an idea alone is valid regardless of at least poking reality.

When I did my conference in Calgary last year, I hit a tonne of hurdles that I hadn't anticipated...ones that I may have avoided had I taken a bit more time in sober thought and consideration before jumping in. The *encouragement* to do that is missing from the startup community, and its a gap that needs to be plugged.

D 4/18/2013 11:09 AM | D'Arcy from Winnipeg

# re: The Startup Lifestyle - Business as the New Programming and Why That’s a Bad Thing

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2/20/2018 4:01 AM | nancypaul

# re: The Startup Lifestyle - Business as the New Programming and Why That’s a Bad Thing

Great post! But I completely disagree with the idea to 'Launch a startup in 54 hours'. Making money on ideas that are realized at mile-a-minute speeds is difficult enough. It's far better to have a plan. You can navigate to the best dissertation writing service to look at their project and you'll understand that any startup requires a lot of efforts, time and a hard work. Don’t hurry up, the common mistake of most 'young, fun, passionate' people is trying to force startup's growth prematurely.
2/22/2018 8:38 AM | Anastasia Beck

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