A Pessimistic Approach to Surviving the Startup Environment

Can an Educated, Experienced, Creative Professional (EECP) Survive in a High-Tech Startup?


There are, however, a few simple rules that, if carefully followed, could extend your stay, and may even help you win some temporary recognition from your managers and colleagues.

Rule 1 Never expect recognition for anything truly significant.

Typical startup managers have no clue as to how to distinguish major accomplishments. More accurately, the only kind of progress they consider significant is the kind that immediately generates an incoming flood of money (and a bonus). Your technical proposals and results, however convincing they may look to real professionals, look unclear and suspicious to management. It’s not malice, they simply have no way to evaluate the content (due to technical incompetence) or assess its significance (due to lack of vision). As a result, only minor, obvious, and non-critical accomplishments get recognized. Any time you propose something new, unusual, or–Heaven forbid!–a breakthrough, managers (and colleagues) will get confused. In this state of non-comprehension, their fear-of-competition reflex will kick in and you will be at risk of being sidelined, silenced, and/or removed.

Rule 2 Never reveal your full thoughts and knowledge.

Twenty-five to thirty percent is enough. If you explain too much, they’ll think you’re “too smart”, get confused or scared, and won’t really listen anyway, partly due to incompetence and partly due to their ambitions. Providing extensive, well-grounded feedback on their vague, incomplete, and often irrelevant “professional” PowerPoint presentations will make enemies, and if there’s one thing your coworkers know, it’s how to treat enemies. That they know well.

Rule 3 Never openly criticize their projects.

Typically the “projects” they want you to help them with have been conceived and proposed (to investors) by one or two of those incompetent greedy people (IGP) who generally have no understanding of what their proposals are worth and how inefficient and/or unfeasible they are from technical and market points of view. (The ability to raise money correlates very weakly to the quality of proposals as Big Dogs (i.e. VC’s) have no intellectual tools to make fair assessments anyway.) The moment you start making skeptical comments, expressing concerns, or asking essential questions, the IGP- majority of managers and co-workers will immediately hate you. Reasons may vary, but usually include at least one of the following: 1) Lack of mental or tangible tools to verify your statements makes them nervous (“He may be right!”); 2) General dislike of skeptics: (“Hey, we know what we’re doing. We wouldn’t be around if we didn’t and we’re doing great. Period!”); 3) Fierce defense of paycheck stability (“To hell with the project, I’ve got a family to support!”). Threatening paycheck stability is the ultimate sin; even the hint of it will cause immediate resistance and antipathy.

If you absolutely have to bring something up, try to locate some remote, friendly-looking, inactive manager (facility guy or the like) and lightly mention your concerns in passing.

Rule 4 Never trust your co-workers.

They may be nice people, but they hate you (just like they hate each other). They hate you because they don’t know what you know. They can see your broad education, deep knowledge and creativity, and they don’t like it. They have careers to pursue and families to feed and you’re competition. You don’t talk the way they do. They hate your accent and your intolerance of bullshit (BS), which they produce in abundance. They know that most of their work is BS and they hate the fact that you know it too. They hate your independence and your expertise. They hate you with a passion.

The smarter ones may try to form friendly relationships with you, in hopes of “borrowing” smart comments for “one-on-one’s” with management or for use in their future careers. (None of them have confidence in their companies and all of them are constantly preparing for a switch). The friendly ones are most dangerous. Deceived by their friendliness you tend to open up and share your thoughts, results, and experience. It will not be to your benefit, especially if you talk about management, company strategy, or the like. They will report you immediately. Don’t make this mistake.

The best you can do is pretend to be friendly and play nice: overcome your natural resistance and participate in “small talk” (see Rule 8) and limit your communications to vague, optimistic feedback on any of their activities and questions. Never explain the essence, only a surface. Say, “Good job!” as often as you can, even if most of what you will see is garbage. Never share your honest views on management–or anyone else for that matter – except through commonly accepted BS like “Oh, he/she (manager) gave me a hard time…”, “I’m so busy now…”, “I’m gonna have to work on Saturday…”, etc. Stick to commonality, play one of them, and trust no one.

Rule 5 Take it easy. This is the way it is.

Do not expect your co-workers to be interested in actual results. All they care about is making bucks and building their career now (and this includes management as well). Most of America’s so-called high-tech professionals belong to the IGP-group with its common characteristics of either having no clue of what needs to get done for a project or exhibiting extremely low efficiency in getting things done (or both which is most typical). Their “skill”- set is typically either irrelevant to the specific assignment or doesn’t exist at all. All they posses is a sincere desire to make as much money as possible with the least amount of work.

The energetic incompetents with a well-developed sense for “booming” fields will put a lot of effort into making their resumes look relevant and marketable. This means that over eighty percent of their resumes consist of lies and wild exaggerations. They eventually interview with an equally incompetent hiring team and get hired as a result of successful smiling during talks, extensive BS on a theme of their numerous “achievements” (which would be easily discarded were an actual professional present and often “accomplished” by other people anyway), and displaying “easy-going” nature all the time.

Having been hired, the lucky IGP immediately resumes the process of career-building and preparing for promotion. To achieve his goals, he uses a well-known, efficient techniques which includes: establishing excellent personal relationships with all managers(both immediate and remote); fast responses to any manager’s request (most idiotic included); smiling all day long at everybody (including you), chatting with co-workers about “family” issues, sending out dozens of daily emails, making “smart” comments at meetings, demonstrating enormous dedication to the company’s business (while keeping his resume regularly updated), expressing “concerns” and so on. Any activity, no matter how meaningless, is demonstrated as “progress” and that’s just fine, since nobody around can tell the difference between significant results and garbage anyway. This is how it is so: take it easy.

Rule 6 Never say or do anything out of the ordinary.

This can be a general rule for living and working in the US. A startup is a perfect example of this rule. A startup’s environment is generally a mix of mediocrity and hostility. Most of the “players” there are secretive, incompetent, and greedy liars. Lies are the currency of start-ups: from the hiring process, through meetings and operations, to the product they “produce” it in greatest abundance. In spite of a seemingly friendly attitude to one another everyone is trying to compete and make others look bad. An individual contribution to product development is typically hard to evaluate due to the lack of clear project plans (with sequences of chaotic “trials” as the best-case scenarios), management incompetence and employee’s lying left and right.

By saying or doing something non-standard, meaningful, or (Heaven forbid!) creative, you are immediately at risk of either being labeled “too smart” (i.e. hard to work with) and/or of sadly watching your good ideas or good results being distorted and reduced to trash by a “brainstorming” process (more in Rule 8). Nobody will appreciate your inputs unless they are trivial and comply with a primitive “street logic” (see Rule 2). You can afford, perhaps, a few uncommon remarks per month; but please try to make them as vague and unclear as possible. In that case, you’ll be forgiven on grounds that “nobody’s perfect”.

Rule 7 Never openly disagree with your managers or executives.

At meetings with managers, behave! No matter how irrelevant or meaningless their comments are, do not react in any other way except approvingly. Ask nice “questions” (to help them feel smart) and keep repeating “Good idea!” Don’t forget that no matter how incompetent or inefficient they may seem, they own the business and they own you too! Don’t fall for popular slogans of “open-mindedness”, “teamwork”, “be proactive”, etc. It’s all BS. The only “proactivity” you can afford is to suggest some limited, ordinary actions (see Rule 6) to your immediate manager, privately or in the presence of a very small group of people selected directly by him/her. Never invite anyone else to a meeting and never surprise the manager, especially in the presence of others). For brownie points, try to present your inputs as a part of a team’s “brainstorming” (BS). Notice BS stands for both “bullshit” and “brainstorming” and that is no accident; for the latter is just another manifestation of the former (see Rule 9 for more details).

Most of the start-up executives occupy the range between downright greedy crooks and ambitious yet incapable “experts”, with the latter often providing “concepts” to develop. (The few exceptions who don’t count are the unfortunate real professionals, who will soon become subjects of the same talent-destroying rules). The distinguishing quality between the crook and incapable expert is the obsession with getting rich by any means necessary. The ability to lie and the absence of moral principles complete the picture. Most “big dogs” come to a given start-up from some small company, claiming countless achievements, most of which in fact ended in failure. They, however, convince themselves and their interviewees of their successes and leadership skills. After they manage to lie their way in, they take on executive level responsibility (and salary) and start “leading”, which is the worst part of all.

Lacking of both technical and managerial competence, top executives tend to choose subordinates among the people they feel most comfortable working with, fellow members of IGP type (see Rule 5 above). Anyone with real (uncommon) personality, especially one who dares disagree, deeply worries them, because they are incapable of assessing an individual contribution of their employees and, more importantly, they care no more about the results than anyone else does. All they care about is keeping their high compensation rates for as long as possible and maintaining their marketability to ensure their next startup will pay them decently as well. So don’t worry them!

Rule 8 Do “small talk.”

For some EECP’s this is one of the most challenging tasks. The thing is that “small talk” (ST) and socializing are actually as important (in fact, more important) as your technical skills and accomplishments. Since no one has an ability to evaluate the latter, the focus automatically gets shifted to the former.

The history is that once upon a time some IGP “experts” in hi-tech business, told some idiots about the wonderful concept of Team Work (TW). It has become a very popular hi-tech concept, and today everyone loves it, especially IGP s, as it gives them an opportunity to hide their technical incompetence and laziness behind a TW shield. All kind of tricks are in use, including delegating tasks, asking more competent peers to “review” results (typically messy and leading to no conclusions), and blaming other members of the team for delays and failures.

The typical strategy of a smartest IGP is this: walking around with smiles and “How are you?”‘s, asking unnecessary questions, sympathizing and–but of course–doing ST. “How’s your family (kids/house/car)”,”Oh, really?!” My husband (wife, son, dad…)” etc. It’s very important to go out for a lunch together or eating with a team in a local cafeteria, a true celebration of TW and ST. Unfortunately, given very different cultural and educational backgrounds there’s, in fact, very little to talk about, but they do it anyway. It’s a smart way to substitute for a lack of skills and capability. ST is king; make sure you’re part of it. It may be hypocritical, but such is the game!

Rule 9 Never laugh during “brainstorming” (BS) sessions.

One of the funniest parts of the start-up environment is the “brainstorming” routine. Everybody likes it and looks forward to participating. It is undoubtedly the best part of work for many, save for company’s picnics. What brains are they storming or what brains are at all present remain a mystery? Apparently, everybody there is welcome to come forward with “smart” ideas, propose things, find solutions etc. All are equal, smart, creative, knowledgeable, and insightful – no question about it. Who cares about minor things like education, experience, real problem-solving, analytical skills? That’s not the point! The point is, “Let’s do it together! (“Altogether!! Right now…over me.”) Let’s talk at length and come up with unique creative solutions and pat ourselves on our backs. Yay! Problem solved, case closed. Well, what are we going to do now? Obviously, we’ll do as the manager says anyway. But we like “brainstorming”, it’s very refreshing and we all have brains after all, don’t we?

The idiotic idea of “brainstorming” with an entire team is just another aspect of a universal teamwork approach that contributes dearly to wasting time, money and… professionals. This alone makes the majority of solutions used in a project unprofessional and inefficient. “Who cares? Let’s have a good time, work as a team, and we’ll get there soon!” Which is sort of true as investment is practically unlimited (investors can’t separate good and bad ideas anyway), “time to target” is undefined and, yes, after years of random (mainly meaningless) trials the result can be achieved. Who cares about the possibility of accomplishing all of that in less time and with less money just by using some expertise? At the cost of brainstorming – don’t even consider it.

But please, don’t tell them what you think about their brainstorming. You’ll make yourself an “enemy of the people” right away, even more so than you already are.

Rule 10 Don’t give a damn!

This is the key: The less you care, the longer you stay. The moment you take their business to heart, bad things start to happen. So don’t. Good luck!!


This guide was originally posted on robgilmark.posterous.com in October 2009 while this website was being developed.

9 Comments on "A Pessimistic Approach to Surviving the Startup Environment" »

  • Seth Smith
    October 10, 2009
    @ 8:02 pm

    Heh. If only managers realized how many more bonuses they could get if they freed their engineers and designers from useless meetings, brainstorming sessions, and small talk. Yet, it often seems that the very interrupters who do nothing but get confused and harass their coworkers are the ones most buddy buddy with the guys in charge.

  • vladimirk
    October 23, 2009
    @ 10:46 am

    This essay needs a preamble paragraph from the author – kind of: he himself went over a series of start up enterprises and accumulated that negative experience which makes him to spill so much venom on this industry. Also – a little more humor wouldn’t hurt in advising to the beginners – you can look at your ordeals more distantly now, Rob?

  • illar
    October 29, 2009
    @ 1:16 pm

    Wow! Never heard anything like this, is it what’s really happening? Too bitter to my taste.

  • kelly irvine
    November 5, 2009
    @ 9:39 pm

    what an interesting point of view, comes out a little ‘bitter’, but I can relate to it, and some of the points are right ‘on the money’… entertaining and impressive writing, which I am sure comes from a personal experience. The curious thing for me, however, is that as precise (allbeit satirically)description of the current start-up situation is, our economy is still the first in the world, so to me it means that SOMETHING somewhere in the ‘jungle’ of a startup world, people are doing the right things!

  • Pan
    November 6, 2009
    @ 12:26 pm

    Slightly exaggerated, but true. See the thing in larger companies and corporations. Would be laughing if only it wasn’t such a problem.

  • Rob Gilmark
    November 11, 2009
    @ 9:20 pm

    Kelly, you have a point. Unlike other systems which completely kill all chance of progress, the US still allows some progress to happen. It’s just frustrating knowing that we could do so much better.

  • Yury
    November 19, 2009
    @ 9:37 pm

    Although my company has long since stopped being a start-up, this article very accurately describes the state of affairs there. As a fellow EECP, it’s a relief to know that others feel the same way. In the end though, despite all the IGP’s, we still continue to make products and make money. Perhaps some of those big dogs actually do know what’s going on and choose to let the BS (both meanings) continue because, as first-generation immigrants, they think it’s just part of American culture and not worth fighting.

  • James Walker
    January 1, 2010
    @ 3:13 am

    Wow! Analysis of modern management practices from a whole new angle. I liked the ‘ST’ rule.

  • Saresh
    April 24, 2010
    @ 10:49 am

    I’m posting from San Francisco, city of the startup boom… of COURSE I’ve been part of a startup and it looks to me like at LEAST 8 out of 10 of your points I COMPLETELY agree with!!!

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