Reflecting on my practice – what to ask a start-up founder

Over the past year and a half, I took a series of notes on my practice. I gathered those in various documents, shuffled them around, and merged in older thoughts and reflections. Lockdown #6 was an opportunity to bring all this to shape. I am now sharing those thoughts as a series, forming a sort of mosaic on my work, and what has been driving it.

Start-ups typically fail. That’s entrepreneurship 101. Yet founders are typically deluded about the chances of their start-up failing. Worse, success may well depend in part on their delusion, their capacity to convince others, and to keep going against the odds.

When a founder presents their project, particularly when they want something from you, they will probably tread a fine line between honesty, and distortion of reality. Never believe that ‘90% done’ means what it sounds like – it’s often a polite expression for ‘we’ve kind of spoken about it once’.

I’m trusting by nature, and by choice. Working around innovation circles, I often hung out with founders – and learned some wisdom through naivety. From first and second-hand experience, I identified four areas where early stage start-ups are likely to fail, and founders to present a distorted image. I’m sharing those few notes here, in hope that they will be useful for others intending to join an emerging project.

Funding. Building a new venture requires competent people devoting long periods of concentrated time to a project. Those people will probably want some income to pay their bills – not to mention, pay for co-working space, materials, or other business expenses. Start-ups are typically money-poor, yet founders usually confident that the money will come. So, make sure you check how dependent progress is on funding, how much is in the bank right now, and how advanced discussions are with potential backers.   

Technology. Founders often have a distorted relationship to time. Present and future are not clearly distinct. Ideas are presented as complete plans; blueprints as tested prototypes. This confidence extends beyond the realm of the venture. Experimental prototypes from other companies are often identified and presented as available technology. So, whenever someone tells you they’re building a complex AI system, or whatever new piece of hardware or software – check the details of where exactly they’re at, especially if you’re not a tech person. Is there a prototype? Has it been tested? In what setting exactly? And what are the results?

Team. Start-ups attract exceptional talent, high achievers and award winners. You see those names and titles on pitch decks and investment documents. If they believe in the project, then surely, so should I? Except those names on file are likely not full-time workers, or even working at all. ‘Advisory board member’ might mean ‘pops a message once every six months‘. And all credentials are, most likely, inflated – or at least presented from the best angle. So, use the same wisdom you would on a dating app. Are those people actually in? Do they have other commitments? How accurate are their profiles? 

Culture. Start-up life promises a certain form of freedom and excitement. There is often much talk about culture, working to your strengths, and supporting a great team to do their best. This, however, is likely to clash with the founders’ narcissism, quirks, or simple human limitations. So, check in very carefully before committing. How exactly will you be valued? Will you be listened to? Will your needs actually be met? Importantly – try raising the question of power. When push comes to shove, who makes final decisions, and if there is conflict, how will it be solved?

If the founder refuses to give you details on any of those matters – take it as a warning. Yet, remember – they’re more invested than you are, and their delusion is a condition of success, so don’t be too harsh. Risky as it may be – betting on founders may still be the best option we have. Hey – did I mention I’ve been a founder myself?

Reflecting on my practice – a difficult transition 

Over the past year and a half, I took a series of notes on my practice. I gathered those in various documents, shuffled them around, and merged in older thoughts and reflections. Lockdown #6 was an opportunity to bring all this to shape. I am now sharing those thoughts as a series, forming a sort of mosaic on my work, and what has been driving it.

Our modern society was born of energetic abundance. This is not something we can rely on long-term, not even to the end of our lives. On the one side is climate risk. On the other, even if the climate was stable, we are running out of fossil energy, with no clear prospect of replacing it all with renewables. Not to mention the exhaustion of other natural resources.

We will, at some stage, come to a new regime. We can continue on our course, wait for the crash and hope for the best. Or we can focus our efforts on smooth landing.

If we want to achieve the latter, time is of the essence. We need to work decisively and fast towards a new stable state that is less wasteful. The less fossil energy remains, the more carbon is in the air, the more the climate changes, the more people will suffer and die.  

Our challenge, then, is to negotiate a radical transition as safely as we can. In this, we face three major difficulties.

First, we need a new ‘we’ to take form. The change needed exceeds the mandate of any company, state, or even region of the world. It requires most of humanity – if not all of us – to coordinate our activities. As we come together, we will meet and we must confront the wounds of the past, of colonialism, war and ingrained inequalities, and overcome the mistrust and resentment that is their legacy. We can do so in conscious collaboration, in a constitutional act of global peace-making and reconciliation. Or we can do so by force and cunning, through mass surveillance, physical threat, mind-numbing and propaganda.

Second, technology will play a role in whatever new system we create, and in negotiating the transition. But that role is ambivalent. We can make more efficient machines, to capture energy from renewable sources, store it, and transform it to our benefit. We can use digital technology – Blockchain, Internet, Artificial Intelligence – to think, exchange and communicate more effectively, and to better coordinate our actions and those of our machines. Yet because technology can do so much, we are at risk of leaning on its promise, meanwhile neglecting the human software, and overshooting our window of opportunity. And, we’re at risk that a handful of people will control and optimise technology for their short-term gains, rather than creating a desirable new balance and negotiating the transition for an emerging global ‘we’. 

Third, and most worryingly: we don’t know who to trust. The task ahead has no precedent, and we face it because our elders have failed us. The people in power today, or in the recent past, have a proven track record of radical failure. They did not shift the course of society nearly fast enough or sharply enough. People who never held power have no proven track record of achieving anything. As we look around for prophets and leaders, or struggle to get things done without them, we are at serious risk of falling prey to madness – and give up on the task through sheer overwhelm. 

On reading Harry Potter

Over the course of lockdowns #5 and #6 – and that short nondescript period of time in-between – I ran out of gay fiction to read. To keep myself sane, I turned to that millennial classic, and finally read the seven volumes of Harry Potter.

For about a year, I have renewed my commitment to writing fiction. The exact project is still taking shape. It started as a climate change revenge tragedy, and evolved into rom-com. It has, however, prompted me to read genre, unashamedly. Since March, I have devoured gay literature. Much recommended in times of pandemic. It started on a high with Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda, and slowly went downhill from there. Before trying my luck with How to Bang a Billionnaire, I thought I would take a pause.

Harry Potter was referenced in almost all of the books in my gay rom-com pile. I missed that train at the time – but it struck me that I could not really understand my own generation without reading Harry. And that it could even make for a good time. Well it did. And it prompted a few reflections. I have not engaged with the fan-fiction, or any critical reading, so I’m sharing impressions here in a loose manner, somewhat unsure how much of this will be somewhat original, or totally self-evident. If the latter, I hope at least it will show the ongoing relevance of the book.

From about the end of volume two, I started telling my partner: ‘I think Harry Potter is about climate change.’ Of course, I’m biased – it’s a key preoccupation, and the latest IPCC report is not helping. But bear with me here. Isn’t Voldemort all about unrestricted appetite for power, and contempt for all life-forms he perceives as below him? And isn’t that the precise ideology that has led us to climate change? A sort of coal-based dark magic, that will not recoil at destruction and pain, let alone consequences, to get its way?

Then come the Horcruxes. Claim immortality by tying parts of your soul to precious material objects, and lose your human shape in the bargain. Isn’t that exactly what Western boomers have been doing, trading their conscience for jobs in the system, to buy SUV’s and house extensions with the cash? A vain attempt at immortality.

I recognised a lot of my own feelings in Harry’s experience – I’m only two years older, after all – particularly the lack of elder support, and a sense of betrayal from those in power. Ministers are not to be trusted. ‘Wait a minute,’ I thought, ‘I’m sure Scott Morrison was imperiused by Gina Rinehart and the coal barons.’ That’s what Dark Money‘s all about, right?

The book does encourage a healthy mistrust of power. Our politicians would rather force youth into silence than acknowledge their own limitations, past errors, or present fear. Large parts of the population side with them. Those who don’t are soon disposed of, or drained of their souls by the media dementors.

The final heroic triumph of youth, however, gave me some hope. Go Greta, go the climate kids! Maybe you can defeat evil. Painting youth triumphant is part of the young adult trope, certainly. What I enjoyed in Harry though is how this youth is trained, not purely naive. Knowledge is part of the package – enter Hermione, saint patron of nerds – and knowledge is something you learn at school.

Hogwarts is a the core of the series. It is a school where people actually learn things, and what they learn is useful in the world. It is what all my friends working in education and edtech are looking to build. A place where you develop the skills to change the world for the better, build deep companionship and a sense of identity. Note how, as part of the package, Harry Potter values teachers. McGonaggal is fierce. Even Snape knows how to turn a good potion. None of that ‘those who can, do; those who can’t, teach’ bullshit here.

Beyond this clear respect for knowledge, I enjoyed and celebrate the book’s radical technophilia. There’s no wizard without a wand. And good magic is not purely about the mind. It involves matter – knowing plants, spells, and the structures of the real. It involves objects, and learning how to use them appropriately. To defeat the Voldemort’s of today, and their armies of doom – vampiric boomers and Fox News dementors – the path is not to retreat into the forbidden forest, and embrace centaurian arrogance. It’s about building tools, learning to use them, and take over from evil through better magic.