Travis Kalanick of Uber. Picture: Rex

START-UP

What I've learnt from two years working for a start-up

Start-up life is tough, says Marisa Bate. But it's not a license to be an asshole

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By Marisa Bate on

Perhaps this is what it felt like when Henry Ford starting making cars or Hollywood grew out of a desert – a moment in time when America's pioneers discovered something that would change everything for everyone for ever. In our lifetime, aside from electing bat shit presidents hell bent on war, it’s Silicon Valley,  an industry so large it helped turn California into a state richer than France. But like an automobile or a moving picture, its significance is far greater than the wealth it makes: it changes how we live our lives. It’s a line in the sand. The advent of tech companies has permanently altered our axis – right down to how we use our thumbs and our spines and our brains. 

This is all well and good and, yes, we should be in awe that we’re witnessing one of those line-in-the-sand moments, but, but, but... this revolution, this chapter in the history books of years to come,  is primarily led by douchebags.

The New York Times calls them CE-bros: “Usually a young man who has little work experience but is good-looking, cocky and slightly amoral — a hustler.” Reviewing Upstarts by Brad Stone in the New Statesman, a study of the brains behind Airbnb and Uber, Ian Leslie calls them “assholes” (with a particular reference to Uber boss Travis Kalanick who you may recognise from this video when he is a Next Level Asshole to one of his own underpaid drivers).

They are, for the most part, men in T-shirts, making large sums of money because they’re the first ones to speak a language that the entire world will soon be reliant upon. And maybe this power and wealth, maybe being on precipice of a new frontier –an essential ingredient in the great, although increasingly fragile, American dream – creates douchebags.

 The thing is, even though your arms are tired, your legs are tired, your lungs are empty and your reserves are empty, there’s something so exciting about this bloody hill

I work for a digital start-up. But I don’t wear grey t-shirts (I prefer navy), I abhor bro-culture, particularly the word “dude”, and I’ve never created an app that’s made me a millionaire. But I have spent the last two years discovering a new way of working. And whilst I can’t condone CE-bros behaving like children, ignoring women and being stupid, I do understand that it’s not like a normal job. 

Imagine pushing something really fucking heavy up a really fucking steep hill. Imagine doing that whilst trying to reply to emails and meet two or three deadlines in a day. Imagine doing that whilst trying to fix the printer and find somewhere quiet enough to write and have coffee with people to tell them about the really fucking heavy thing you’re pushing up that really fucking steep hill. And imagine whilst you’re pushing that really fucking heavy thing up that really fucking steep hill, with minimal sleep, a lot of stress and an unrelenting news cycle, you’ve got to remember the basics, like washing your clothes and washing your hair and cooking dinner.

And as you’re pushing that really fucking heavy thing up a fucking steep hill, you’ve got no idea if you’re going in the right direction. This path hasn’t been trodden before. There are no tracks to follow, there are no handover notes or templates. There’s just you and your brain and your fingers and your sheer will because you’ve heard it’s really fucking great at the top of the hill. 

And the thing is, even though your arms are tired, your legs are tired, your lungs are empty and your reserves are empty, there’s something so exciting about this bloody hill. Yes, you’re doing the job of three people and you and your colleagues are tired and hungover and lost in the Content Management System which is literal but also code for Having A Breakdown, but you’re there, doing it, doing something so hard but making it work and work and work. And every day is an achievement because everyday you’ve done something you haven’t before and god forbid, you’re even starting to get some strange kick from writing at the speed of light and pitching 20 ideas a day and working at the capacity of three people. Because you feel like you’re making something and you feel like you’re starting something and you’ve written things you didn’t know you had in you and people are actually reading them. And you’re physically and figuratively building the company every single day. 

And all of those awful cliches about climbing mountains, normally reserved for those awful books about starting your own business, become dazzlingly true. 

And maybe you get completely carried away and think you’re invincible and start acting like an asshole. Except you don’t. Because this digital start-up is run by women, it’s founded by women, it’s created, shaped, moulded by women. And I’ve never even heard of such hard-working people who give more to their jobs. And you realise that you’re part of something transformative: it will change you, you will discover bits of yourself – like courage and a voice and an ability to speak internet. But you and your colleagues don't become assholes. And then you’ll look at the actual assholes riding “the biggest tech unicorn in the world”, worth $69 billion and you think: "you don’t deserve these jobs and these teams and the incredible experience of building something with every essence of yourself". And you worry, like Ian Leslie worries in his review, that “Hard though it is to admit, sometimes progress is driven by assholes.” 

But hey, this isn’t Silicon Valley, it’s not a chapter in America’s history as vast and dramatic as its open plains and mountains and oceans. But working at a start-up is your own frontier. And sometimes it’s more of a fucking nightmare than a dream, but after two years I can safely say this: I have no regrets, and it’s never, ever OK to be an asshole. 

@marisajbate

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Travis Kalanick of Uber. Picture: Rex
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