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What's Happening to Early Startup Magic?

Profit margins are becoming more important than values.
What's Happening to Early Startup Magic?
Image credit: BraunS | Getty Images

Lately I've been wondering if I have become irrelevant. I have been wondering how startups, once known for driving economic innovation and social change, continue to find new ways to make our heads shake and mouths drop. I’m looking at you, Uber and Thinx. I’m almost 40, and while I helped build some pretty magical startups, I keep wondering, "Do I still fit in here?" 

I was on the founding team of a well-known, now publicly traded startup. I was around when we traveled to events in different parts of the country by train or bus, lugging tents and suitcases full of promos we handmade. We crashed with local site community members who would have us. We stood under a leaky tent in the rain for 10 hours, grabbing passersby to get them excited about our crazy new startup. I left this marketplace after five wild, fulfilling years of building community and education initiatives. I was proud to watch us grow into a "grown-up" company.

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I moved on to a subscription startup where I built the customer service and social good teams from scratch -- in a hot, cramped Chinatown office. It was another magical period where I was able to launch, pivot, build and see my work impact the success of the company immediately, not to mention the internal and external communities some of our products supported. For others who have helped build something from nothing -- especially something that was challenging business-as-usual -- whether you are a founder or team member, you know how motivating these early days are. I did my best work. 

Are we still welcome here? 

Last week, when I watched a dramatic change in leadership at my first startup -- and with it, 8 percent of the team laid off -- I felt their pain. I saw their coworkers, still at the company, feeling deep survivor’s guilt from watching this. And I noticed users, who make a living through this site, concerned with what might happen next. 

Here’s what concerns me most: I see very talented, creative, passionate, empathetic, loyal brand and community-building people who may now be wondering if the cards have been re-stacked. Do profits always trump people and ideas?

We’re told our crazy ideas and values aren’t sustainable; they’re immature -- but thank you for having them when the company was small enough to need ‘em! These drive you in your early 20s. But look out. Real life and real money is here, and we have to grow up. Standing up for your values or the needs of your community over profitable initiatives will get you on a fast track to being the first to get laid off or to be reorganized under a manager with a unique talent for soul crushing. Every magical idea or solution you bring to the table may be met with “Will it scale?” or “How do we measure this?”

I’m not going to say this magic doesn’t still exist in the startup landscape, and I’m not going to try to convince you that these companies are now only driven by profit, investors demands or public earnings statements. I will say those of us who are fueled by -- and created -- that early magic have to adapt, leave for new challenges (and the companies that still want to conquer them), or find a way to stay relevant when measurements of success shift. How do we manage up and motivate others to care deeply about our value-driven, community-supporting, economy-changing, people-powered work?

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You see, some want our cake -- and also want to know how to make it in batches and sell it to the masses. I see companies trying to dissect the magic trick and find a way to bottle that passion and motivation that got these crazy ideas off the ground. They bring in branding teams to craft missions and visions and whole departments to spread the word that you are a values-driven company.

And sometimes it works. Sometimes you squeeze a good idea out of a team of thousands, and you put some magical people in the perfect configuration, and oh, earnings go up. Everyone is happy, for a quarter. I see no real big moves being made, just basic quarterly-earnings driven decisions being made using the same formula at the risk of vision, mission and community. And I sit here feeling like the crazy one?

What can we do differently?

There’s a point in most of these roles where I see a false choice show up. Two ways to steer the company, one where we follow the hand-crafted, audacious ideas that got us here and the other a more practical, grown-up direction that shows data that reflects seemingly definite growth. As you might imagine, the path that is easier to justify is usually taken.

What if we let those wild ideas and pure values grow freely? What if we asked what exponential value we could be providing our employees and community this quarter? What if we stop trying to bottle magic so hard, and instead support the magicians who built the thing from an earnestly mission-driven place to begin with? You want crazy growth, but you can’t handle -- or fully understand/justify -- the big ideas and unconventional people who make these early victories happen. This work can’t be bottled. The ideas can’t be recreated by analyzing the data and then adding cold brew on tap. 

Of course, I’d like to think that the wild horse I always bet on in these situations will take the lead in this race, but we’ll never know. Even having a horse in the race, however, is what keeps this magic alive. Finding space for those crazy ideas and people, where both choices can be tested, is vital -- along with a little bit of trust in those who run your community and have an almost psychic connection to your users. A lot to ask, I know, especially with those Q3 goals looming. But this is the magic you can’t bottle, you can’t build a process for, and you can’t always measure.

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Not all who wander are lost. I still see big companies with big goals that manage to keep just enough of that hand-crafted magic infused in their culture, work and communities. AirBnB comes to mind as a company that values keeping a creative hand-crafted spark in their growth plans. They understand this magic is integral to exponential growth -- growth that only happens when you put trust in people powering your mission.

Long time friends, teammates, founding startup team magic makers -- take that spark, that love, that care for community and people and real mission and values, and move forward. Find those companies that still value magic and creativity -- the ones that, yes, want and need to scale, but also still show they're making big moves. Join forces with others who are motivated by mission, community and innovation. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re irrelevant. We need you now more than ever. There’s a bubble burst coming, and only the strong-willed, grit-filled, creative, idea generating beasts who refuse this false narrative will survive.