2014-03-25

Searching For The Soul Of Startups

Tech founders make a choice between creating something meaningful and looking for a quick buck.

I recently moved from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to Silicon Valley. I traded in my agrarian upbringing for a glimpse into the belly of the beast: the startup scene. And what I saw, shocked and surprised me. Many startup founders and entrepreneurs that I met rivaled those in finance with their sense of entitlement, outlandish parties, and insider rhetoric full of vacuous promises for “disruption,” “pivots,” and “growth hacks.”

Contrary to my Amish roots, in San Francisco, emphasis is not placed on elders, but on youth. If you turn 30 without having started at least two companies, you are socially dead. The tech industry is awash with happy-go-lucky wunderkind. Those that build apps, code until dawn, and end up black-out drunk and naked on beaches in India. But the more time I spent in the Valley, the more I asked myself, where is the soul in startups?

At times, the startup scene seems utterly myopic: everyone trying to imitate a tired Zuckerberg-inspired formula: drop out of school, wear a hoodie, learn to code, start a company. But beneath the surface there is actually quite a real culture war going on, a war between those founders truly trying to change the world (and leave humanity better off) and those merely riding the wave of the tech bubble.

As consumers impacted by many of the pet technologies of startup founders, we are overwhelmed with push notifications, transactional online relationships, and addictive user design. It makes me wonder: who within the startup scene is developing technology for us to amplify what it means to be human? Where is the moral compass in tech?

Evgeni Kouris is a Berlin-based startup founder. His company Toywheel builds digital toys. Last year, Kouris visited San Francisco after winning a startup competition put on by hy! Berlin. He was inspired by the trip, but also skeptical of the American Gold rush culture of Silicon Valley. “If anyone says this is the new future, then everyone starts working on it. There is lots of enthusiasm. But things seem pretty short-term.” Kouris tells me how many of the entrepreneurs he encountered in Silicon Valley are more focused on getting their next exit, rather than building something that works for generations. He loved the energy of San Francisco—and the American attitude of risk taking—but felt that a lot of that energy was channeled into short-term technology that didn’t seem to contribute to humanity’s evolution.

By contrast, Toywheel is focused on bringing more of a human agenda into digital. “We need to get rid of the zombie element of a lot of technology that is turning us into drones. How can we adapt technology and learn to use these tools without losing our human core?”

As a company Toywheel often takes decisions that might be bad for business, but good for kids. Its toys are rooted in Goethe’s philosophy of “giving children roots and wings.” That sentiment carries through into product design where they aim to develop “endless play without addiction.” That means getting rid of ads, addictive game design, repetitive loops, high interactivity, “winning and losing,” and other elements that might have a negative impact on children’s development.

Another startup entrepreneur I met in San Francisco is Zach Verdin. Verdin is the co-founder of New Hive, a platform offering a “blank canvas” for self-expression. Unlike many other tech platforms that were founded for the sole purpose of making money or were mere ego projects for young ambitious founders, New Hive has a soul. Its first iteration was called AReflectionOf, and was built on the desire to get people to reflect and tell their stories.

“We never talked about what we were doing as a startup. We were on a mission to change the world and the web for the better,” Verdin told me. Verdin and his co-founders lived on a remote island off the coast outside Seattle, armed with only a Wi-Fi connection. In exchange for taking care of one cat and 13 chickens, the team was given shelter and a space to incubate their Internet venture.

“Being isolated gave us time and space to discuss our different ways of seeing the world, get a lot of work done undistracted, and meditate and brainstorm on long walks in nature.”

Today, the New Hive team is in San Francisco. Their office is in a garage they converted, which Verdin informally calls “the cave,” paying homage to their hermit roots. Part of me wonders if New Hive wouldn’t have been better if it had stayed in its modest Seattle surroundings, but Verdin likes the idea of infecting culture—and San Francisco offers a portal for influencing the future tech landscape. New Hive is on a mission to keep the Internet weird and the company is in San Francisco for many of the same reasons that I left Pennsylvania behind. I wanted to be closer to where things are happening, to engulf myself in the present economic moment, and watch culture unfold with an insider’s view.

In my role as witness, sometimes I’m frightened by the myopic nature of the tech industry and its bro culture. But the crux of much of the douchebaggery of the startup scene may actually be the adjacent douchebaggery of finance. The impurities of the financial sector may be having a “spillover effect” on the tech scene.

In a conversation I had with Douglas Rushkoff, he critiqued tech entrepreneurs for being beholden to an outdated financial infrastructure. When I asked him what advice he had for tech founders he said, “The fact is that you are not disruptive, you want to run into the arms of Goldman Sachs as fast as they will embrace you. And that’s because you are using technology to preserve their sick old exploitative model of reality rather than to build the one I know is in your heart and head.”

But there could also just be something innately egocentric about the life of an entrepreneur. Zach Klein, the co-founder of Vimeo, spoke to me about his own personal struggle with entrepreneurship. “I often felt so powerful, operating with this sense of entitlement and feeling that a lot of the rules didn’t apply to me.” Today, Klein is working to bring more humility into his life. “My life is slower now. I spend time with a fewer number of people. Gardening has become one of my greatest joys."

Klein has also been working on a new platform, DIY.org, a site that allows users to build skills and up their craftsmanship, while connecting to a bigger maker community. The site allows users to hone their archery or survival skills, learn to beatbox, or make jewelry, amongst other things. Like Toywheel, DIY.org is a nice blend of the analogue and digital realms, encouraging users to go out and make things, while offering a supportive community online. It brings Klein’s passions for community building and craftsmanship together.

But all too often, tech’s courtship of spirituality and wisdom is an awkward one. Is spirituality just an offset market for entrepreneurs? Or a mere utilitarian calculation to enhance productivity? In San Francisco a number of experiments have formed to help bridge the hippie spiritualism of the city and the tech industry. One such experiment is run by Levi Felix who hosts regular “digital detox” trips for entrepreneurs to escape and unplug. He’s also launched a summer camp in the redwoods for adults called Camp Grounded with a similar intent. Registration is now open for their summer sessions.

As Felix told me, “When fast-paced entrepreneurs and hyper connectors of Silicon Valley are able to step aside from the over-stimulated reality of tweeted personal brand identities and Instagrammed sandwiches, they are able to truly think outside the inbox, once again tasting life as it is: simple, quiet, beautiful, dynamic, and full of gratitude. It's important we press pause on life and ask the big question of "why?" And it's in the moments of asking "why," appreciating the space with which we find ourselves, that we can rediscover how we want to fill it.”

I’ve always thought about work through the lens of vocation, a sacred calling. In many ways I feel my own calling in exploring this dialogue around the role (and impact) of technology in society. I may have become disconnected and, at times, felt a bit constricted by my Amish heritage, but I’m far from running with open arms into techno-optimism. I’m deeply frightened by the malaise and “me-too” copycat attitude that a lot of startup founders seem to fall into. I crave a different kind of tech industry, one that is more purposeful and self-aware; where the tools unleash our most powerful human aspirations for self-expression, meaning, and belonging.

There are so many times where after playing a game on an iPad or scrolling through Facebook on my computer where I feel a sense of self-disgust, even loathing. Binge-streaming episodes of Homeland or searching Twitter for RTs, bring us into our most base human condition. It’s not a self or version of me that I’m happy with. And so we need more soulful startup founders to reconfigure our tools to amplify our humanity.

The Amish Futurist is a believer in the power of buttermilk. She is a Silicon Valley transplant via Lancaster, Pennsylvania. You can follow her on twitter @AmishFuturist.

[Image: Abstract screen via Shutterstock]

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5 Comments

  • Thank you for having written this. There is so much content that keeps singing the glories of tech startups that your attention to what really matters is truly a breath of fresh air.

  • The NYC tech startup culture is much like that--a little less young, but very male and looking for the quick money. It's a little less obvious, but in tech and healthcare tech, women strive to get above second class citizenship and it doesn't have much to do with intelligence. The funders don't like to see women up there at the pitches, no matter how intelligent. And when you get older (anything above 35), third class unless you have your hooks in a company, are wealthy or extremely connected.

    The devices and toys the boys are inventing are designed to dumb down and yes control minds. Example: Mark Zuckerberg, who wants to tell you what to do and when to do it. There's no uplifting there nor will there ever be. Amish, the longer you stay there, you'll gain experience, but risking your soul. Before you find yourself at the plastic surgeon's door, catch the plane home. Or East. Just get out of there.

  • I love this - I love that somebody is even asking the question.

    This last year has been my first real exposure to the start-up culture, and specifically the fund-raising scene that prevails in SF...and it just felt weird. I appreciate seeing some of the vague thoughts I've been having get articulated.