Today I saw the movie “The Social Network” and while I am no expert on social networks (not even on facebook) the movie brought back my start up memories that I hadn’t thought about for a while.
A lot of times when something is fresh or as a loss you remember how it ends; like a break up or a graduation; and only later in life do you think about the day-to-day experience in a new light.
It was the early 90’s and we were a consulting start up company. Early on we were engaged in a split from another company (which went on to have a successful IPO and turned into a company with over a $500M market cap today) and had the usual threat of litigation hanging over our heads. When we started up it was very scary; we had a small (crappy) office near O’Hare and we bought cheap office furniture and set up the computers and systems ourselves. On the weekend I prepared the client bills and expense support (even though expenses were maybe 15% of the project costs, the clients obsessed about meals, hotels and air fare, so I ran all that and re-checked everything myself and we had zero errors as a result) after being on the road all week.
When we hired people many people participated in the interviews and everyone gave their 2 cents. Early on a lot of the consultants we hired had connections to the core group but later on we obsessed about getting the right chemistry in our new hires and the right attitudes. On Saturdays we conducted interviews and it really felt like we were all part of an expanding, growing business that while it might not change the world it would deliver quality services at a fair price and be better than our competitors.
That small group cohesion as part of a start up, working long hours and committing yourself totally to getting the job done right, as well as all the household valtabs tasks of running a business (like billing, recruiting, marketing, accounting, office management, etc…) consumed our lives. While it was a lot of work it didn’t seem as much like “work” because it felt like you were part of something that was going to be big and that you could be proud of.
In the end of course like most partnerships (we weren’t technically a partnership but were in spirit and also with ownership stakes) lots of the partners got forced out and relations in the end were terrible for many of the participants. I myself was bitter and it took years to fully get it all out of my system, and to focus on the good things and what I learned while being part of a growing start-up rather than thinking of how it all ended badly (like my reference to a relationship vs. the break up, above).
Obviously my start up experience was not a game changer like Facebook and I in no way compare our impact on the world but I do feel that my start up gave me some kinship with someone like him during the moments when he is late at work while employees are out partying and knowing that responsibility comes along with ownership. While the movie exaggerated this facet I do believe that many start ups aren’t immediately about money or success but about creating something special and being part of it rather than immediate cash or getting out of the business as soon as an offer comes along. Sometimes (such as in my experience) it may be “smarter” to cash out or go with the mother ship rather than the rebels but I understand the feeling of exhilaration that you get from being part of the rebel team, along with a small group of your peers / co-workers / friends. I can also sympathize with the bitter ending and fallout from that ending.