I can’t wait for startups to die.
Sure, I’m writing this on my Microsoft Surface Book 2 from a lively cafe in Budapest while staying in an Airbnb and tracking my activity with my Fitbit Aria. So yeah, I like the products of startups. But I still want them to die a miserable death.
I believe the peak of American greed and capitalism has found its golden child in the startup culture, especially as it is peddled by Y Combinator and their ilk. I daresay I need not explain what makes startup culture the quintessential embodiment of the failed American Dream. Shrink the corporate timeline down to a decade (ship it!), give the masses what they want (that elusive product-market fit), and sell at the peak (IPO FTW!). Unicorn hunters.
Startups make me sick, and I don’t think I’m the only one. The bootstrapping movement is much easier to swallow from a moral and historically-informed vantage point, but it’s still just startup culture on a smaller scale. When notoriety, global reach, and exorbitant wealth are your end game, your ambitions are vapid. No matter how good your product is, it’ll never be anything but a trinket.
The world benefits from toys. I like toys. And it benefits from the capitalism that startups are founded upon.
But that doesn’t justify the means. The reason startups should die is because they cease to be artists (if I may personify them for a moment) the moment they bring on investors and drive everything for the sake of profit. In the beginning, startups are gloriously chaotic environments —like stepping through the enchanted wardrobe into Narnia where everything is fresh, uncharted, and dangerous. Pure optimism, coupled with life-changing vision, fueled by all-or-nothing courage. It’s magical.
And then the magic fades, and the reality of a startup sets in. Seed rounds, profit-driven bottom-line decisions, bringing on a board, giving away your equity, managing PnL, hiring, firing, marketing, selling, incorporating, taxes, keeping customers happy, scaling, etc. The business of a startup kills the creative spark that ignited it. Art is transformed into business; creativity into capitalism.
But what if the choices weren’t solely between founding a startup, becoming a freelancer, bootstrapping your business or working a 9–5 job? What if monetary gain and the bullshit around running a business (I know, I’m a co-owner of one) could be removed? What if the magic of a startup stayed magical . . . because money was never allowed to be either the goal or the master?
What if there was a fourth alternative: the Creative Studio. Here me out on this.
I recently had the privilege of seeing some of Leonardo da Vinci’s horse sketches (and potentially, his only surviving bronze sculpture) in the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest, Hungary. As I walked through the very well-crafted biography of this (potential) da Vinci sculpture, I witnessed the deep struggle between artist and human. Leonardo had to survive and provide for basic needs (especially his life essentials, such as wood panels, clay, pencils, oil paints, etc.), and this came about through the most common form of funding for art in human history: the commission. A patron commissioned a piece to immortalize themselves, their spouse, their family, their estate or any other whim of fancy to display their wealth and power. And so, Leonardo complied (more towards the beginning of his career. In his later years, he was picky because he could be.). They provided the capital, and he provided the art.
The striking contrast between this approach and today’s Venture Capitalists (modern-day benefactors) is the intentions behind it; while benefactors seek to display their already-attained wealth, venture capitalists seek to 10x it. VCs exist to create wealth — not use it.
And this is why artists are able to maintain their creative spark within a benefactor model as opposed to the oppressive, capital-driven dictatorships thrust upon the startup world: the art is an end in itself. The wealthy patron displays the art for all to see; he does not seek to get a return of 20% by selling it to the highest bidder. The art is valued as art. Benefactoring inherently values the artist and his work; the venture capitalist (and therefore, startup) values what the artist’s work could add to their investment funds.
And this changes everything. When a creative talent is respected, their process is respected. When their process is respected, their art flourishes. They aren’t driven by deadlines, market demand or any other external factor. They don’t exist to make other people rich. They are respected to create and focus solely on creating.
But why hasn’t this crossed over into how art is created in the 21st century? Technical startup founders are brilliant creatives. They take their digital medium (code, hardware, data science, etc.) and create something truly original. They paint themselves into their code. Yet they are treated as entrepreneurs, not artists. And as such, they are forced to follow the predefined path of capitalism.
So why do talented, smart, creative artists continue to throw the best years of their lives at the siren call of the VC? Why do they willingly shipwreck their lives upon the shores of the capitalist regime, only to find that the treasure promised wasn’t worth the slavery demanded?
Because the beckoning of wealth, fame, and power blinds them. They don’t want to create something beautiful for beauty’s sake: they want a shortcut to renown.
Or perhaps it’s because there is no currently viable fourth option. They have no choice. But I think there is a fourth option. Like Clair Underwood embracing her own identity apart from her tyrannical husband and assuming her power in the fifth season finale of House of Cards: there is a fourth wall to break. There is another way. You can be a technical artist and not start a startup. You can be valued for your work without sacrificing it upon the alter of the VC gods. You can have your cake and eat it too.
After all, a man cannot serve two masters. You will either serve your art or serve the system.
I want to build a Creative Studio for the 21st century. I want to empower the modern artist to just fucking create art while still getting all the benefits (financial included) of a successful startup — without sacrificing their art and lives in the process.
I’m going to start by curating a community of other technical founders and modern-day artists that are sick of the startup culture. It failed. It’s dying. The statistic that 90% of startups fail isn’t a badge of honor — it’s a sign of rigor mortis. I want to help people like me find freedom to create within a world driven by greed.
So let’s talk. Let’s dialogue. Let’s bring back benefactoring and prove to the world that startups aren’t the only way. Let’s create together.
Email me, leave a comment, reach out on Twitter. Whatever. Because if you are like me, you’ll want this as badly as I do. And I won’t need to seek you out.
P.S. Yes, I co-own and operate a startup. We’re about to launch. It’s what will get this new project funded so I can help other people avoid the pain and torture of what I went through. Don’t start another startup. Let me take one for the team.
P.P.S. I’m working with a fellow technical artist in Budapest, Hungary to get this started. It’s not just theoretical. We’re doing it, whether anyone else joins or not. Want in? Contact me.