These days, if you have a great idea for software — maybe an app, maybe some "Software as a Service" — you'd be forgiven for thinking that what you really ought to do is start a startup. Startup culture is pervasive in tech, to such a point where startup values are tech's values. If you follow tech industry news, it's hard not to buy into these values implicitly, because you'll find them everywhere. There's not much alternative.
Merriam-Webster defines "startup" as "a fledgling business enterprise", but it's more than that. Forbes says, "One thing we can all agree on: the key attribute of a startup is its ability to grow... a startup is a company designed to scale very quickly. It is this focus on growth unconstrained by geography which differentiates startups from small businesses." So startup culture is built on the core idea of rapid growth.
Going hand-in-hand with growth is a fixation on money — how much you've raised, how much you're making, how much you made when you sold. Personal value in the tech industry comes from being a founder who has raised however many millions of dollars in investment, or has had their startup acquired by someone else worth even more. If you're not a founder, you must work for someone who fits these criteria. If you buy into startup culture, be prepared to be valued by the biggest dollar value metric for your company.
The industry's required path of taking venture capital to grow — raising all that money at that big valuation, to the admiration of all your peers — erodes the autonomy of startups to choose their own path and retain their own values. Investments require returns, after all, and eventually those VCs come back to collect what's owed. If you haven't prioritised making money above all else, eventually this priority will be chosen for you. In the best case, you may be pressured into ethically murky business practices you're not comfortable with. In the worst case, your company could be sold out from under you, without you seeing a cent. A sustainable business, built to last, that won't ever produce a 10x return on investment is anathema to a VC.
Startups are also not as anti-establishment as they think they are. The glamour of doing your own thing and being your own boss, creating something unknown to the world, outsmarting and out-manoeuvring The Man and his slow-moving corporation, is more nostalgia than reality. In the same way that mainstream media co-opts and then waters down alternative culture, making it palatable for the masses to buy, the original idea of startup culture has been co-opted and sold on as far more radical and revolutionary than it is. It is the "alternative" option that's now so acceptable that your mum and dad are so proud of you, son, and are hoping you co-found the next Instagram. Whole industries exist to "help" (read: exploit) young, idealistic founders. Forbes has a good series on how entrepreneurs are now basically a labour pool for investors to capitalise on. Congratulations, you ended up working for The Man anyway.
Buying into startup culture can be fine, if it's a choice explicitly made. Many tech business ideas only prove themselves at scale. If scale is what you need, then you probably want venture capital and all the rest of it. I am not trying to argue that this set of values should not exist at all.
But it should not be the default choice. Too many new business founders are charmed by the allure of "starting a startup", trading their ethics and values to pursue funding and growth, and thinking this exchange is necessary. But it's not. There is a more human, less capitalist alternative, and we need to encourage it. We need to make founders aware that it's okay to be indie instead.
The indie tech culture I'm imagining draws from established indie music culture, which Wikipedia describes thusly:
The term indie rock, which comes from "independent," describes the small and relatively low-budget labels on which it is released and the do-it-yourself attitude of the bands and artists involved. Although distribution deals are often struck with major corporate companies, these labels and the bands they host have attempted to retain their autonomy, leaving them free to explore sounds, emotions and subjects of limited appeal to large, mainstream audiences.
So what does this look like in practice?
Instead of big budgets, indies embrace a low-budget, do-it-yourself attitude.
Instead of giving power to VCs, indies embrace autonomy and the ability to choose their own future.
Instead of profit above all, indies focus on doing business in a way that respects their users.
Instead of trying to scale to huge audiences, indies prefer personable, human-scale interactions.
Instead of trying to water down their personality to please everyone, indies are just themselves, humans with their own interests and values.
Instead of planning to sell out, indies try to grow sustainable businesses that will stick around for the long run.
I doubt I will convince anyone who is starting a tech business primarily to make money, but my hope is to sway those who already had niggling doubts about startup culture. You don't have to buy into it. We can be the alternative.