Startups, Unicorns and other Myths

In the startup community, startups that are valued more than one billion US dollars, are called Unicorns. They are therefore paralleled to a magical and mythical creature of amazing beauty! The “unicorn” term is also used in common language, to refer to the girl of your dreams that you cannot even get to go on a date with you. It’s that girl that you can’t catch. Everything about her is so perfect (divine, if you will) getting with her is unfathomable. From my point of view, a unicorn will always be a myth. And it seems like startups (let alone the ones worth a billion dollars), are just a carrot dangling in front of us, one that we chase with equal if not greater passion to the one for a woman!

Image taken from: http://www.ibtimes.com/real-reason-everyone-calls-billion-dollar-startups-unicorns-2079596
Image taken from: http://www.ibtimes.com/real-reason-everyone-calls-billion-dollar-startups-unicorns-2079596

I have been thinking a lot about startups for the past 3-4 years. Reading a lot, observing, learning and taking a close look at the Greek startup ecosystem from time to time. In Greece we do host some breathtaking startup ideas that I envy as hell, but then we also hosted some amazing failures over the past two years or so. Failures that raised like 500.000 euros or even more, and resulted into nothing. Or as we should say, resulted in lots of useful learnings! (cause it’s not a constructive thing to say that they actually failed big) 😉

So, ten or twenty people worked for a year on something that created value for no one other than themselves, getting paid for 20.000-30.000 per year, and now they’re unemployed again, having wasted 500.000 euros! Sweet! And then, one can only wonder how all these well-educated funders did not see the black hole coming to swallow their money… Mmmm…

On the other hand, you have my mother’s cafe that cost us approximately 50.000 in capital and another 20.000 in manual labour (and even more sleepless nights filled with anxiety), and it has survived since December 2011, with my mother living off of it, and my brother working full time, myself getting the occasional payment and at the time of writing, employing another four (4) full time people. That’s like 6 full-time people for 4 years, or 24 people for one year, something like the startup from the previous example… So, how’s that for creating value and jobs? How’s that for contributing to the local economy? Why is the 500.000-startup that is now a mere memory, better than our humble little cafe? It’s actually not. It’s different and it can too offer solutions…

So, I am wondering if startups is just another vehicle for giving money to a community of researchers, college graduates, PhD holders and other beasts, just like EU-funding has been for so long (and still is). Startups being a more practical, product & result-oriented and efficient mechanism, different than the EU-funded projects that have their own fallacies and problems. Or is this just a too straightforward of an analogy to be true? Well, it’s not and it’s actually true.

With all these thoughts, I have made up my mind for a thing or two, that I now (at least for the time being) hold near to my heart. My intentionally provocative “believies” (as the term was coined by Louis CK here), are the following:

  1. Startup is old as shit! Did you know that? It’s been here since I don’t know, the 1990s..? Maybe even before that! Reading this book, I found the term being used at least in the US, since 1995! Why is it revived in the last 5-7 years around Europe? See point 4 for the answer…
  2. Starting a business now, is as difficult as it ever was. You can’t get a cash flow going, but ok, in the 1950s you would have the cash but you would not get access to a global clientele as well as the thousands of resources everywhere. So what’s worse?
  3. A good idea never dies. Unless you manage to kill it! If you come across one, you have to be sooo stupid to blow it. So, all the methodologies and crap floating around, are nice, useful, etc. but they mean nothing if there’s no idea in your head.
  4. Startups are here to save a hopeless generation. It’s a thing. It’s something that keeps some people from fleeing to other countries, jumping from roofs, etc. It seems like the thing that this new hip generation of anticonformists needs in order to hop on the capitalism train. No?
  5. Startup is short for “Business for dummies”. Thinking like a conspiracy-theory fanatic, it seems that all this overpromotion of this startup concept and all the methods that come with, is just an effort to open up business and management stuff to the wider public. Why? To switch from the notion of the civil cervant and golden boy (that cannot be served by the economy as it is) to a notion of a self-employed, independent, fucking awesome person.

I’ll just stick to those five “believies” and go no further, for the time being. I am not saying that entrepreneurship sucks. I am not saying that everything is hopeless or anything. I am an entrepreneur myself, although not with a tech startup, but merely with a family business which is also my load to carry. I know about uncertainty etc. I use techniques from the best books in the trade, don’t get me wrong. I actually read them and review them passionately. And I do think constantly of my own self as a startup. I actually believe that Nikos Palavitsinis is a startup, cause he too operates in a highly competitive and uncertain environment with limited resources… How’s that for a definition?

My point here, is that we should really look around us but also take a harder look inwards. Startups are not the solution to everything. Design thinking techniques, lean boards and business models are mere tools. And most of the times, they are the same things that people have been doing for ages now, just with different names and labels! The hype of startups, the venture capitals, the business angels, etc., are things that were already there in different forms and shapes. They are not this brand new, new-car-smell awesomeness that is here to sweep us off our feets and land us ass-first on a pile of cash! There’s failure involved and nothing is for everyone. Difficult to say to anyone that they should not chase the startup dream as well, but you can actually set the records straight, so they don’t dreamwalk or even worse, moonwalk (excuse me MJ).

So excuse me if the image of the startup unicorn in my head looks a lot more like the following, but that’s how my mind works…

Image taken from http://www.psmag.com/nature-and-technology/your-sock-company-is-ridiculous-just-give-up-now
Image taken from http://www.psmag.com/nature-and-technology/your-sock-company-is-ridiculous-just-give-up-now

I do want to ride a beautiful unicorn all the way to Silicon Valley and live the hype myself! I do want to own a beautiful MacBook Pro filled with awesome stickers of non-profit foundations and act cool when I pull it out my bag to check my e-mails. I definitely hope that reality will defy my provocative position and startups will be my vehicle to something better. I sincerely do.

For the time being, I follow my own system. It’s all about keeping my head down, working, reading and writing, trying to understand first of all, the world around me (still). Trying to grasp enterpreneurship and equiping my arsenal with all the tools that may be needed on my way to professional accomplishment. Overall, it’s all about hard work, as it has been with our family business. Making mistakes, going for easy-fixes and sometimes quick-and-dirty solutions, but also working hard when needed. The problem with the startups, is that in the minds of people, they usually coincide with the word “shortcut”. A shorter way to easily make lots of money while being cool about it and not the traditional stepping-on-bodies enterpreneur of the past. Opposite to that, I keep my system and time will show if it’s a system worth following or not.

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