- Earlier, I consciously thought a phrase I never would’ve imagined uttering: “Man, I really wish I had a travel agent right now”. Spent a frustratingly large chunk of the evening booking numerous airline tickets for an upcoming stereotypical post-grad world tour. In the process, navigated some rather treacherous looking websites — I’m really processing this much money on a site whose error messages I can’t even read? And thanks to overzealous credit card fraud departments, I got to see plenty of them. It was a good reminder that technology doesn’t necessarily eliminate the advantages of being able to pass things off to a real person. Being able to find all of my flights on ITA is now easy; the remaining task of repeatedly slogging through the booking “portals” of various small regional carriers is not my idea of fun.
- I’m graduating soon. Yale is winding down. I wish it weren’t the case, but it’s been ending with more of a whimper than a bang. I wonder what predominant emotions I’ll associate with this time in memory — I hope it’s more joyous and reflective than the gnawing FOMO and the distraction of all the commitments that need to be wound down (and those others that need to be spun up). I somehow doubt Myrtle will be a time of deep philosophical reflection, but hopefully we can all squeeze some in before families descend for commencement and it’s really over.
- There’s already so much I can’t remember about myself. The visa application required for the aforementioned trip asks about the last time you were in China — when, where, why. I had (and still have, despite my journeys through the depths of my old emails from two Gmail accounts ago) no idea when this pretty significant trip happened. Middle schoolers, clearly lacking foresight, didn’t keep Google Calendars or check in to new places or Tweet their vacation Instagrams or jot down packing lists in Evernote. I even tried to log into my old Hotmail account, the furthest back in time I think I could reach, only to find that it and everything preserved in it had been quietly wiped out as Microsoft upgraded their account system. I wonder if my relatively more diligent (or at least more prolific) record keeping these days will eliminate these moments in the future — will I ever not be able to know where I was or what I was doing? It’s comforting to have reliable records, but on the other hand, it’s also nice to be able to outgrow and shed your old self. (Future Me is probably reading this and cringing in exactly the same way I did when I unearthed some of the oldest emails, about things I had legitimately forgotten ever caring about)
The remainder of my college career is shorter than Ikea’s return policy. In 82 days, I will be ceremoniously kicked out of the ivory tower. In 96, I’ll be a full-time member of the workforce.
In an attempt to slow the roll (at least psychologically) of this home stretch, I’ll be posting some sort of lesson/aphorism/tip/trick/cheat/thought that I’ve picked up over the last four years—one each day. Although sometimes it doesn’t feel like it, I’m pretty sure I’ve learned at 82 things (less than one per week) here. Note: I harbor no illusions of being representative of most (or any) people, so I don’t expect or intend this to be a prescriptive exercise; this is more of a cataloging exercise than anything.
When imagining this semester, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about the impending end. On one hand, after finally learning how to play the game and adapting to this uniquely contrived environment, it’s frustrating and anxiety-inducing to realize the clock is ticking down and that you’ll never get to the depths of your to-do list while you’re here. On the other hand, I’m ready for something new. And I know what’s coming next, and I couldn’t be more excited. I’m still not good at change, but I think I’ve managed to find the right combination of having-been-here-and-done-that, appreciating-the-little-time-I-have-left, and being-ready-to-start-real-life.
Everlane is a “new kind of retail experience, one that exists 100% online and bypasses all the middlemen to create luxury essentials at truly disruptive prices”. So far, they’ve done well with products like American Apparel-style jersey basics and canvas bags. I’ve generally been impressed by their consistent aesthetic, solid branding, and some really smart marketing moves.
This is the promotional message I received in my inbox earlier today:
A few thoughts:
- Why are they running the email campaign the day before? Based on the thoughtfulness of their other marketing tactics, I assume this was a calculated move. It seems like the email would be more effective in terms of driving sales if it were released on the day of the launch so people could actually click through and potentially buy something. On the other hand, the promo does prompt the recipient to continue to the site to see the collection; I find lookbook pictures to be especially effective in terms of driving my interest and likelihood to purchase. But even if I liked what I saw, would I remember to come back tomorrow? The release of a collection by a non-designer brand isn’t the type of thing I would pencil into my calendar (although the popular colorways of their previous offerings have sold out quickly enough that perhaps some diehards would). I guess the release of a collection isn’t necessarily a time-sensitive event (although their copy certainly emphasizes the date). Perhaps the point isn’t to drive sales at the launch, but to raise awareness of the line; attaching a timeline implies the exclusivity and limited-edition nature of a designer collection. If potential customers think it’s limited-time-only, maybe they’re more likely to buy even if not on the first day. Also, another benefit that designer collections enjoy and that Everlane could leverage: the cyclical refreshing means repeated purchases, which could be especially tough for a purveyor of basics.
- The rest of their site is essentially down as it’s being upgraded. I’m guessing it couldn’t be avoided and needed to be done in anticipation of the launch, but again, it seems like a waste of the traffic they’re driving to the site via the email. If everyone receiving the email is a return customer (I am), then perhaps conversion isn’t as crucial; after all, they should already be familiar with the product offerings. Perhaps, though, sales of existing items today would cannibalize potential sales of their new products (i.e., if I bought something tonight, I probably wouldn’t come back tomorrow and drop $$$ on the newly released stuff tomorrow). The new designs are notably more expensive, too; those sales would be better for revenues.
- How does going above $100 affect their brand? When their offerings were limited to basic knit tops (and maybe a few more things), price point was a big selling point for them. They differentiated themselves from luxury offerings by being affordable and from existing lines of basics (e.g., American Apparel) by branding themselves as “luxury”. The new collection explores new cuts (more structured pieces that are more involved from a manufacturing perspective) and new materials (guess: cashmere/merino, silk). Certainly, input and production costs are higher; the increased price point follows. Even at this higher price point, though, they remain affordable relative to comparable designer items. From their decision to breach the $100 line, we can hypothesize some things about their direction and how they want to differentiate themselves. They’re going after the experiential and value-oriented segments, not the performance- or price-driven ones. They’re not competing on price overall—it’s not a race to the bottom for basics. They’re encroaching on luxury brands, but appealing to consumers who are more quality and style-conscious than they are label-conscious—classier and yuppier than American Apparel, more early-adopter and web-oriented than traditional high-street, a better value and more timeless than designer. To return to the question, their brand promise isn’t undermined just because they’ve entered the three-digit range—their differentiation is through quality and style at a good value, not necessarily at the lowest price. The move upstream towards the higher end taps into the “luxury” part of their value proposition while continuing to deliver value.
- Changes in manufacturing and production have strategic implications. Disclaimer: the only knowledge I have in this area is from buying and wearing a lot of clothes and from my hobbyist sewing experience (which, while somewhat relevant, is wildly different from production); that is, I’m mostly just wildly speculating. Everlane has positioned themselves as a provider of basics. But not just basics in the narrow “100 variations on the t-shirt” sense—their product mix spans a number of categories. They sell t-shirts, belts, backpacks, and now sweaters, oxfords and blouses, all of which require different materials and different construction methods. They’re incurring initial design, sourcing, and prototyping costs for every new product and I’m assuming their runs are rather small. I don’t really know enough to speculate, but I wonder how their product mix affects their production and inventory costs/setup. How does the reduced overhead from being 100% online compare to these potential costs, their shipping costs, etc.?
- So, does this broad and shallow portfolio make sense strategically for them? Conventional business knowledge (or at least, the sliver of it with which I’m familiar) would suggest that there’s more to be gained in consolidating and leveraging prior experience, production resources, and economies of scale. However, considering their differentiation/value proposition as a brand, perhaps the benefit of having a diverse range of products available outweighs the decrease in cost efficiency. They’ve positioned themselves (or at least are trying to) as the place to go for affordable luxury basics—their customer is more quality and style-sensitive than price-sensitive. The marginal increase in cost incurred by not specializing as deeply may not even impact sales that significantly to begin with and is perhaps outweighed by the advantages of offering a wider selection. Offering “basics” in all categories (t-shirts, shirts, bags, sweaters, accessories, etc.) allows them to both cross-sell and up-sell. A customer in the market for one type of “basic” is probably likely interested in other types; after all, solid, timeless basics are probably the easiest type of clothing purchase to justify. As they extend the range of their offerings along the price spectrum, they can also take advantage of this to up-sell, as well as to continue to address the lower end of the market by offering the luxury experience at a lower price point. A wide range of products works well to encourage return customers—after experiencing and being satisfied by the quality, style, and customer experience, a happy customer might return to try other products. Introducing new styles is a great way to squeeze more revenue out of someone who’s already cleared the initial hurdle of trying the product. In this sense, while the diversified product line might not be the most efficient direction in which to scale in terms of production, the appeal to return customers does allow Everlane to consolidate along the customer acquisition and marketing dimensions. They don’t need to worry as much about appealing to all consumers and capturing more of the market (at least for now, to be sustainable) if they can continue to extract revenue from their existing base of customers. Rather than applying the idea of scaling to become the cheapest source of t-shirts and capturing a narrow market, they’re scaling as a brand. For them, it seems to make sense.
P.S. The tanks I ordered never arrived after getting bounced around in the postal system and returned to sender, so I honestly have no idea how their products rate from a fit, quality, fashion perspective. No actual experience with the product, but their business strategy and customer experience have certainly inspired a number of musings.
Unexpected closures probably aren’t a frequently occurring problem for businesses, but it’s interesting to see how they handled the storm. How can businesses best communicate with customers about time-sensitive and anomalous events? Where should that information be? How do crazy contingencies and corner cases factor into the overall customer experience?
For the smaller businesses like local restaurants, my first instinct was to check Twitter—after all, it seems like the medium most fitting for real-time updates. I was surprised to see that many of my local favorites favored Facebook pages over Twitter accounts for delivering information about their re-openings. Perhaps it would be different somewhere like San Francisco, where Twitter engagement is probably just generally higher than it is here, but I can see the appeal of Facebook to restaurants in particular.
The “like”/comment features better aggregate and display group sentiment. Not only do these features allow you to actually see the magnitude of engagement (it’s harder to passively gauge how popular a particular tweet was) but I would guess high-traffic posts are promoted within a Facebook user’s feed in a way that tweets can’t be within the stream. Occurrences of rebroadcasting aren’t leveraged to give extra attention to posts that are more popular (caveat: at least not within the stream and not for posts that are only mildly popular. It’s a different story if you can make it onto the Discover page, although I would still question visibility). Plus, while retweeted messages are brought into the stream and the recommender is identified, there seems to be less opportunity to exploit “triadic closure”, of sorts. If a Facebook post is popular among people you know, several strategies can be employed to leverage the increased relevance (at least statistically) to you: displaying their names adds personalization and signals popularity among peers, plus popularity among implied clusters (e.g., many of your Yale friends have liked this) can be converted into increased visibility for that post. As a result, the structure of Facebook posts and newsfeed may also offer a network-related advantage over tweets when it comes to discovery.
Plus, Facebook can take advantage of the particular flavor of the social networks represented. While Twitter is great for interest-based recommendations, given that I at least tend to follow people with similar interests, Facebook captures structural similarity. My Facebook friends are clustered into sub-networks that are most likely geographically based. For a local business, my real-life network is probably a better basis for recommendations, if only because it’s grounded in geographic accessibility.
Additionally, the timeline layout is perfect for showing off attention-grabbing food porn shots—great for restaurants advertising specials, for example. Seeing a picture from the Twitter stream requires clicking and potentially even being taken out of the stream; again, less passive. Plus, the timeline layout also imposes a curated information hierarchy of sorts by attempting to emphasize especially popular or engaging posts. When viewing a business’ Twitter feed, in contrast, you have to wade through all of their response tweets to find their outgoing information. Considering the company-to-customer ratio is one-to-many, this creates some interesting conditions for companies trying to boost their social media presence and customer engagement: increasing participation in customer dialog means cluttering their feed and decreasing the visibility of their own broadcasts. Perhaps there’s an advantage in appearing to be especially helpful and having followers passively and regularly observe your customer service, but I imagine it makes it harder for active information seekers.
Surprisingly, points to Facebook for group engagement, leveraging networks, being optimized for pictures, and Timeline maybe actually not sucking. However, there are also bound to be numerous disadvantages, or at least slippery slopes that may turn into disadvantages. The manipulability of post visibility offers plenty of advantages, but let’s not forget that Facebook controls that algorithm and can do things like alter it to decrease your visibility if you don’t cough up the bucks. While Twitter is also money-hungry and looking to build revenue through features like Promoted Tweets, there’s a difference between letting someone cut the line and changing the way people in line are served in an opaque, proprietary way that violates the expected behavior of a line. Just one of the usual considerations to keep in mind when ceding control to a third party; they need to make money, too.
To briefly return to the initial Sandy-related line of questioning, how do unexpected occurrences like this affect the customer experience? An event like a hurricane probably results in maximal local engagement—how much do you pay attention to local news and how observant are you about your neighborhood normally? Local customers are actively looking for information about things like re-openings. Are you prepared to engage them and convert that temporary interest into something more sustained?
Extraordinary circumstances are also a chance to do something noticeable. For example, today one upscale New Haven restaurant welcomed anyone to stop by and charge their devices. Not only do they earn bonus goodwill points (which is probably converted into increased sharing on social media), but it’s a great opportunity to reach new customers outside their usual customer base and even upsell people on food once they’re in the door and waiting for their phone to charge. During the evening leading up to the storm, another local restaurant popular among students continued to deliver even as Yale and surrounding businesses were shutting down. Certainly, safety should be a higher priority than PR stunts or squeezing out more revenue, but it did earn them multiple unsolicited admiring mentions on Facebook, thus building their brand among a core group of customers.
Yale’s current president has announced that he’ll be stepping down after a twenty-year tenure. As part of the search process, the Yale College Council circulated a survey to undergrads to collect student input. Rather predictably, the controversial issues among the 15.4% of students who responded included alcohol policy and athletic recruitment. Another surprisingly controversial topic, though, was STEM at Yale.
Some highlights from the survey report that YCC sent out today:
- Question: How should the next Yale University President approach educational offerings? 73% of respondents would prefer to “retain current model of Yale liberal arts system” and 30% would rather “include more preprofessional offerings (business, public health, engineering, technology, etc)”. I was surprised that students actually “expressed concern over the idea that focus on pre-professional offerings could ‘turn Yale into a vocational school.’” That’s a sentiment I’ve only heard attributed to the administration.
- Question: Which areas of study should the next Yale University president prioritize? 58% responded that they would like to “increase focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics)”. This struck me as somewhat inconsistent with the previous answer, although perhaps it indicates the strong representation of pre-med/biological sciences within STEM—I suspect these majors are more likely to continue into academia than industry and thus wouldn’t be as concerned with pre-professional preparation.
- Choice quotes from student responses, in rough order of increasing amenity toward STEM/pre-professional offerings:
- “The push for STEM is misguided. Yale must remain strong in the humanities and social sciences.”
- “We should also keep our liberal arts college structure – if people want a pre-professional education, they can go to a pre-professional school.”
- “Growing STEM on campus shouldn’t be at the expense of our other programs.”
- “While I think funding ought to be increased for STEM, I do not want this to come from the funding given to the humanities and social sciences. Yale is very strong in these areas, and keeping them strong helps distinguish us from peer institutions.”
- “I think that focus on social sciences – meaning political science and economics more than psychology etc. – could stand to be decreased, given the number of graduating Yale students who enter finance or politics immediately.”
- “With regards to a vision, Yale’s student/social life and undergraduate focus are what distinguishes it from other colleges, and these should be maintained. Investment in STEM has been enormous, and further campaigns to break down the stereotype of Yale as mostly a school for the humanities are needed.”
- “Improving Yale’s science/engineering education (especially at the introductory level) is crucial to our national image and the undergraduate experience.”
- “I’d like the next president to emphasize technology and entrepreneurship in a way that Stanford currently excels at – teach more classes about practical programming or programming classes that do projects that seem ‘real world’-like, for instance. Another sample policy would be requiring knowledge of a programming language to graduate. Both of these would go a long way toward preparing and encouraging students to pursue their ideas.”
- “More emphasis on science and technology for all students. Yale’s liberal arts curriculum is outdated and impractical.”
- Also quoted: One of the residential college’s college councils reported “concern that Yale’s science recruiting is outpacing the college’s ability to even support such a huge influx of STEM students.”
While the survey was administered in the context of the presidential search, it offers a rare glimpse into the wide range of student sentiments surrounding university policy and, more broadly, what Yale represents and should be. Regarding STEM, it raises numerous interesting questions that I plan to continue discussing in a series of posts here:
- What are the costs and benefits of STEM for a university?
- Can strong STEM and liberal arts programs coexist?
- Is the expansion of educational opportunities a zero-sum use of resources?
- How can STEM growth and strength be facilitated at a policy level by the administration?
- How does culture affect STEM programs and vice versa?
Especially as job applications/interviews/midterms/general workload has picked up—and with it, my compulsion to distract myself—I’ve been reading more and consuming more podcasts on top of the usual TV. Here are some highlights.
- Competitive Advantage, Michael Porter. Expands on Competitive Strategy, the classic business strategy text that launched a thousand case interview frameworks. Must read (anti-MBA startup people, I’m looking at you).
- Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott. Charming, self-effacing, down to earth, beautifully written guide to the process of writing. Applicable to any iterative, creative pursuit that requires quashing your inner paralyzed perfectionist (another parenthetical reference to startups). If my endorsement is insufficient, I hope you’ll at least take Amy Poehler’s word for it. If you won’t, I’m not sure we can still be friends (or ever were).
- Learned Optimism, Martin Seligman. Why you should be an optimist and how to become one. I tend to consider myself a “realist”, but would like to tap into the productivity and happiness benefits of more positive thinking.
- “The game that can give you 10 extra years of life”, Jane McGonigal. TED talk about using games to leverage scientific research about resilience. Walks through four easy daily quests to boost your physical, mental, social, and emotional resilience.
- “How to build your creative confidence”, David Kelley. IDEO founder’s TED talk discussing creative confidence—building it through guided mastery and its compounding effect. Cool case study about redesigning the user experience of a hospital’s diagnostic imaging for kids.
- The Critical Path, episode #56: “Strategic disadvantages”, Horace Dediu. One of my favorite strategy/tech thinkers discusses Apple’s vulnerability to low-end disruption with James Allworth from HBS. Points to strategic missteps by former tech titans as example of what not to do. Plus, makes some interesting points about the future of interfaces and speculates about the inevitable next disruptive development.
- Freaks and Geeks, episodes 1 & 2. Probably tops my list of favorite TV shows—and I’ve seen a lot. Finally streaming on Netflix. Painfully, hilariously awkward yet poignant depiction of high school in 1980s Michigan. Veritable who’s-who-before-they-were-big: Judd Apatow, Paul Feig, James Franco, Jason Segel, Seth Rogen, Linda Cardellini, Busy Philipps, John Francis Daley, Martin Starr, Rashida Jones…just off the top of my head.
- The Heist, Macklemore + Ryan Lewis. Debut album from Seattle rapper-producer duo, hit #1 album on iTunes when it dropped last week. Honest, leave-on-repeat-able, independently produced.
So many thoughts, so little discipline when it comes to writing them down. This little monthly project is an attempt to remedy that.
It’s been two months since I left San Francisco and True and Nodeable and my beloved intern family. I’m back at possibly the most opposite place I could be, and scarily, I’m already halfway through my penultimate semester here.
I live in a sorority house on a campus full of future bankers, consultants, and teachers for America and major in something from which I feel increasingly disconnected. I’m tired of stale, stressed, self-absorbed conversations. It sounds ridiculously overprivileged and 1%-y, but increasingly, Yale just isn’t doing it for me. I really miss being constantly surrounded by tech and startups and design and people with similar interests and just general newness.
It probably doesn’t help that my diligence in going to class and keeping up with assignments has slipped as the weeks go by, but I miss the sensation of constantly having new thoughts and stories and paradigms and frameworks crammed into my head. The frequency and rate and regularity with which my mind gets blown hasn’t reached True-level peaks since, well, Thursdays at True.
This exercise is my attempt to bring that back. Stay tuned.
(Also, I keep writing in cover letters about my “collection of writings, projects and past works” on this website, so I figured I better actually make good on that.)
At an intern event last week, a well-known Silicon Valley figure dispensed advice to an audience of eager college students. As someone who’s seen the inner workings of scores of startups, he was well-equipped to address the challenges a founder might expect to face. Sometimes, he warned, one might unfortunately have to waste time resolving tedious, frustrating, even frivolous issues: office space eviction, payroll complications, sexual harassment allegations. Cue the understanding laughter from the audience.
If you don’t see the problem, you wouldn’t have been alone. Let me spell it out for you, then: sexual harassment isn’t a punchline. Sexual harassment isn’t a punchline. Sexual harassment isn’t a punchline. I don’t know what disappointed me more—that my fellow interns took it as a joke, that this experienced entrepreneurial role model set it up as one, or that no one seemed to bat an eye. Like all chicken and egg problems, this culturally institutionalized insensitivity is seemingly undisruptable. It’s perpetuated by all participating parties—teenage interns are already in tune with it when they arrive, the grownups signal that it’s okay, and the bystanders just stand by. That this little humorous comment went unchallenged (if only I thought more quickly, it wouldn’t have) suggests one of two losing explanations: either it’s too commonplace to draw ire, or no one registers it as offensive.
Countless articles and blog posts pontificate about the peculiarities of startup culture: the gender imbalance, the frat-house-meets-computer-lab culture, the laundering of New Money. The issues faced by women in tech seem to get raised monthly in a public interest piece in some publication or another, ending with a superficial call for more intro classes or scholarships or mentors. I certainly don’t disagree that these are all important efforts, but they start to look like attempts to put out a forest fire with a garden hose—fighting the symptoms more than the causes, and not too effectively.
Frustratingly, the sexual harassment comment wasn’t the only observation at this event that left me disappointed. Afterwards, a friend who was also in attendance entertained us with the story of an encounter she’d had earlier in the night. A guy had walked up to her, introduced himself, exchanged a few pleasantries, asked for her email address, and immediately followed up with an invitation to get coffee. Thrown by his abruptness, she called him out, asking if he did this to everyone. His response? “Only to cute girls.”
Maybe he meant well and had nothing but the purest, most professional intentions; maybe not. Maybe I’m overreacting and overreaching to make a point. I would bet, though, that he wasn’t intentionally trying to create an uncomfortable environment for her and perpetuate the unconscious, vaguely exclusionary mentality of the Valley boys’ club. He just wanted her number. The problem with behavior like this in aggregate, though, is the message it sends: I’m more interested in what you look like than what you have to say. I think you’d make a better date than peer, co-worker, or business partner.
Among our intern class, we’ve turned these types of encounters into a game—”Networking or Hitting on You?”—in which we share these types of situations and try to decide what the intentions were. It’s been more than a little amusing. But the same ambiguity that makes the game entertaining makes the receiving end of these interactions a disconcerting place to be. You don’t want to jump to conclusions, offend, and come across as vain and standoffish, but you also want to be taken seriously, not taken advantage of. You don’t want to reward this type of behavior by enabling it, but you don’t want to make a scene and burn potentially valuable networking opportunities. For anyone prone to over-thinking, it adds an unnecessarily complex and distracting layer to an already overwhelming networking game. Considering the plentiful external pressures, women in areas like tech or entrepreneurship don’t need any more potential reasons to question their value-add, legitimacy, or inclusion.
I’d like to think this environment isn’t an intentional creation. This isn’t the playground where you have to keep the girls out to protect yourself from cooties. These particular anecdotes are manifestations of a problem that’s the result of oversight, not malice. And economically, it makes some kind of twisted sense. Hiring for startups is already complex enough, between the talent search and culture fit. In a company of five, there’s likely not a dedicated HR person, let alone department. When your primary priority is shipping a product, crafting a nondiscriminatory and universally accessible culture slips down the To Do list onto the wishlist. For young, hip startups, company culture is more about branded swag and happy hours than personnel complaint policies and diversity initiatives. In an ideal world, companies with a hostile culture would reap what they’ve sown when they can’t attract talented female key hires. Until the pool of qualified women is large enough, though, marginalizing them won’t feel like a threat. There’s little incentive to create a more aware, politically correct culture when the cost for not having one is low.
The hostility of startup culture to women, to the extent that it exists, is passively unfriendly more than it is actively malicious. Not that that’s a valid justification, but it exists because no one really thinks about it. Solving the problem can only occur once it’s recognized as a problem. Maybe we’ll arrive at a more favorable cultural equilibrium in time, but that’s not something I’m willing to wait for. If I were the type to patiently be satisfied with the status quo, I wouldn’t be interested in startups in the first place.
Women are underrepresented in tech and entrepreneurship. The logical extension—although I suspect there are those who will disagree—is that we should want more women in these areas. Encouraging more participation means lowering the barriers to entry. I’m not advocating lowering quality standards, but the mentality that you need to earn the privilege of being taken seriously and at face value has bled over from the professional arena to the personal. No one should feel out of place simply because of gender, especially in an industry that prides itself on its innovation and progressiveness. The burden shouldn’t fall on the uncomfortable party to just toughen up and be less sensitive about it; crafting a culture that attracts, not alienates, talented people should be a savvy, obvious business decision. I want to work in an industry where—paradoxically, considering the subject of this essay—things like gender don’t matter, where I can attend a networking event without being subject to off-color jokes, where I don’t have to second-guess intentions. My hope for a startup culture that’s welcoming to all who seek it is at least on par with any of the other seemingly delusional visions of changing the world that people seem to have out here. Sometimes they even come true.
I like things like structure, right answers, efficiency, straightforwardness, and purpose. I don’t like things like self-promotion, competitiveness, bravado, and bullshit. I’m notoriously bad at shipping, risk averse, indecisive, and skeptical of everything, especially my own judgement. At least on the basis of personality, I would be a weak founder. Certainly, there’s much, much more to the startup culture/industry/experience than being a founder. But so much of the culture and mythos of Silicon Valley is oriented to venerate the founder and cultivate the person who thinks (s)he can be one that I find it irrelevant at best and grating at worst. Strike one.
In some ways, the culture reminds me a lot of Hollywood. There’s a small cabal of people (males) who hold the money, power and influence. It attracts scores of naively optimistic people who believe that they’re special, that they can make it and become the Next Big Thing. Of course, there are always a few who do, and when they do, their returns are huge, which only perpetuates the dream. The industry is fueled by hype. Success is all about who you know; things like reputation really count. It’s not a culture that I naturally understand or feel comfortable in.
Working on a project that’s not clearly monetizable, for which there’s no clear customer demand, and that adds negligible value to society shouldn’t be magically legitimized by the fact that it’s a startup. I’m well aware that a lot of ideas (arguably the best ones) initially seem crazy or lack traction, but I also know that most startups go nowhere and die. Statistically, there are just too many people in the latter camp who think they’re in the former.
Startup culture encourages people to be both delusional and stubborn. A less critical person would probably say “visionary” and “determined”. There’s no clear line between the two cases, though—the distinction can really only be made in retrospect. A visionary is just someone whose delusions came true. I think a high tolerance for failure is an invaluable cultural trait, but I also am convinced—albeit probably naively—that the rate of failure is artificially inflated by people who don’t know what they’re doing making mistakes that could’ve been avoided.
I’m also skeptical of the reasons some people get into startups. Too often it seems to be a choice motivated by personal desires: not wanting to be stifled by a big company, wanting to be in control, wanting to try something new. While I’m all for making self-aware career choices, these motivations are not exactly the most solid foundations for a successful company. Certainly, I’m not really in any position to judge others’ motives (not that that’s stopped me, apparently), but starting a company has started to look like the quarter life crisis’ equivalent of buying a motorcycle. I believe in learning experiences, but I also believe in the importance of weighing the opportunity cost. I’m not convinced devoting your life to a failed startup results in more learning than another job or opportunity could have taught you. Besides, how much of that learning is reinventing the wheel and how much really moves the industry forward? Again, the benefit of the exercise seems largely personal.
The thing is, this whole startup thing makes a lot of sense from the venture capital perspective. The blockbuster portfolio model means it only takes a few huge successes to return an entire fund. It’s actually probably in the firms’ interest that founders are delusional and stubborn—it increases the chance that that one crazy idea will get developed enough to pay off. And as long as you have a few winners, it doesn’t really matter that most of the others probably lost it all. The people actually in the trenches are devoting their lives, time, and other resources to something that’s just one longshot bet among many.
I’m too risk averse to find that deal attractive. I can’t expect to fail and still irrationally hope to win, and it causes me a surprising amount of stress to be surrounded by people who can.
tl;dr I’m a bitter pessimist who doesn’t fit in.
(Caveats: Let me be the first to volunteer that I could expound for at least twice as long about the positive aspects of startup culture. Being out here through True Ventures has been both and invaluable and incredibly enjoyable experience. Besides, every culture has its warts. I’ll also be the first to acknowledge that these are speculations, sweeping generalizations, and simply the feelings of one highly biased person.)
I just recently got hooked on CBS’ The Good Wife after reading a piece in The New Yorker complimenting its treatment of technology. I’m a sucker for good TV and current issues in technology. I’m also a sucker for realistic portrayals of strong, ambitious women. And even in the small handful of episodes I’ve seen, The Good Wife delivers.
In the latest episode, a sharp, hungry, perfectly coiffed junior associate abruptly leaves the firm after discovering she’s pregnant, instead planning to get married and be a mom. Her rationale:
“But I want to choose. Maybe it’s different for my generation. I don’t have to prove anything. Or, if I have to, I don’t want to.”
On one hand, this doesn’t sit well with the fortysomething associate and mother who has recently returned to the workforce or with the sixtysomething name partner. What about feminism, and breaking the glass ceiling? What about the generous maternity options intended to serve precisely this type of employee? What about personal accomplishment and ambition? They don’t hint at it explicitly, but what about independence and financial stability—what about the risks of relying on a spouse as the sole breadwinner? In fact, Alicia is a perfect warning sign. After her marriage fell apart under the strain of public scandal, she returned to the law after fifteen years out of the office. Convenient personal connections in the office aside, she’s starting at the bottom of the ladder, while trying to support two children and afford a new place after her current one “goes condo”. In fifteen years I suspect Caitlin, like Alicia, will be fine, but for the average person in the current economic climate, a fifteen-year gap in employment is probably not a helpful thing to have on a resume. Just think about the opportunity cost—not just in wages, but in advancement foregone, experience lost, skills never developed.
On the other hand, the show’s writers put it best:
“I’m not sure the glass ceiling was broken for this.”
“Actually, it probably was.”
Isn’t the goal to give women choices and agency? Part of that, though, is supporting individual choices. To decry a storyline (and the personal choice at the heart of it) as “anti-feminist” is short-sighted. Since when is choosing a more desirable lifestyle over the long hours and late nights of a high-powered law firm is anything less than a personal, individual decision? Just because Caitlin happens to be a woman (particularly, a pretty blonde one) and a good lawyer doesn’t mean she should need to prove herself , prove a point, or carry the torch for her kind. Certainly, given the dearth of female role models in such areas, someone should and more people need to, but to expect it of an individual at the expense of their personal happiness is unpalatable.
In the wake of on-campus recruiting for junior summer internships, I see nothing but desire and perverse enthusiasm for working banking hours and paying one’s dues at top firms. Maybe it’s the biased sample, the slightly-too-young age group, or the unbridled ambition of Ivy League econ majors, but on the face of it, I expect most of those I know would share Alicia and Diane’s reaction of disbelief and subconscious disdain. However, I doubt this is the last we’ll see of this—I’m interested to see what happens once relationships get serious and two-year entry-level contracts expire.
Hell, I’ve never even worked full-time. What do I know?