There were days when I felt like I was part of something so special that I never before had and never would again be part of anything that worthwhile. The feeling usually came after getting up at six in the morning and doing a number of tasks that had nothing to do with my job title or at the end of a day when we’d accomplished some seemingly insurmountable goal. We’d sit on mismatched office furniture, beers in hand, and smile giddily at one another. A little later, when we’d taken it to the bar and moved on to liquor, we’d break off into pockets of two or three. The groups seemed distinct, but we were all tipsily whispering the same thing… “I mean, if this thing gets big… and I think this thing could get really big.”
Hibben once described start-ups as the type of place where they “make you drink the Kool-Aid.” If you don’t get the reference, she’s referring to that death cult where they all wore the matching sneakers and drank cyanide laced Kool-Aid and waited for some alien god to come rescue them from their miserable lives. Ok, after wikipedia-ing the Jonestown cult I may have referenced another cult when I brought up the sneakers and the aliens (Haley’s comet… I think?).
Whatever, “Drinking the Kool-Aid” is the best description of start-up culture ever. Don’t get it? Here’s the formula used to get a group of individuals to drink the Kool-Aid:
Make them believe that (insert here: something more amazing than anything else) will happen so long as they all do (insert here: something others would find insane).
Cult: Make them believe that the aliens will save them; Jesus will accept only them to heaven; they’ll die and be reborn as a Coppola so long as they all kill themselves; kill other people.
Start-Up: Make them believe that they are working for the next Amazon/Zappos/Facebook so long as they all give up their relationships/social life/ health/free time… basically their 20s.
New York’s growing start-up scene is referred to as Silicon Alley. In a city where 80% of the people on the street from 7PM to 7AM are drunk, the start-up employees of Silicon Alley are drunk off the Kool-Aid 24/7. If you haven’t worked for a start-up, you might not know what I’m talking about. Let me break it down for you – anytime you see a frantic 20-something wearing a blazer and flip-flops carrying a venti cup of Starbucks and an iPad, talking on her cellphone in what seems to be a strange language but is actually just a bunch of acronyms… that’s a start-up employee. Her dreams are big, her ambitions are high, her idea of disconnecting from her job is the anxiety-filled 20 minutes on the subway when her iPhone can’t connect to her Gmail.
I remember the first night I drank the Kool-Aid. I’d been working at my start-up for a couple of weeks and was trying to get used to working a ‘grown-up’ job. I was exhausted, but concerned I’d get fired for sucking. So, when the co-founder needed someone to stay late and do data entry, I jumped at the opportunity. He bought us some beers, we listened to rap and we talked about personal things – not things so personal that they were inappropriate, but things more personal than you’d expect to talk to a boss about. He was a cool boss… how novel! That night I was drinking Corona light, but I was also drinking the Kool-Aid.
The next year was a blur of hard work and excitement. I was in a leadership program, I was starting a department, we were raising more capital, the New York Times featured our CEO. Fuck, it was exciting. At the same time I was working weekends, holidays and only for enough money to barely survive my first year in the city. The funny thing about a start-up is that you’re not working that hard because your bosses are mean or they demand it; like a cult, you believe that this is The One True Way to your success as an individual. I felt so incredibly lucky to be able to work all day Saturday or to answer emails at 3AM.
These are the type of stories you hear from people who started at Amazon, at Zappos and at Facebook. They were so enthralled in what was happening (and so sleep-deprived) that everything felt cinematic. Everyone in Silicon Alley is sure they’re working for the Next Big Thing and that’s what keeps the effects of the Kool-Aid lasting for months and sometimes years through all sorts of unfavorable conditions and roadblocks.
The thing Kool-Aid drinkers never anticipate is that the delirium might wear off. For me it was almost overnight. One day I woke up, went into the office and instead of feeling SO INCREDIBLY EXCITED I was SO INCREDIBLY EXHAUSTED. I no longer believed that all of the other things I’d given up were worth it. I hoped it was just a phase at first; for all of the insanity my job brought to my life, I’d never imagined that I’d want to leave. But I couldn’t stop feeling that way – I was off the Kool-Aid and I’d developed some sort of resistance to it. No amount of company happy hours or national press mentions could make me want to stay there, even though I so badly wanted to want to stay there.
There was one feeling that didn’t wear off immediately: the feeling of impending doom I got every time I thought about my life outside the start-up. I worried they’d create the position I’d been killing myself for right after I left or that I’d find my new job so stuffy and boring that I’d miss the chaos. I had this list of fears, the biggest of them being that I’d regret leaving because I’d miss start-up culture.
After a month of being at a non-start-up, I’ve had lots of time to think about start-up culture. It’s this mystifying combination of Kool-Aid ingredients. For every awesome Kool-Aid ingredient, there’s also a little bit of bad. I’ve started compiling a list, and I’d like to think it applies to most start-ups… Ok, maybe some of the bad ones are limited to my experience, but I know a couple other ex-start-up employees who tell similar stories.
Here’s what I’ve got:
Awesome Kool-Aid ingredient: We drink together! All the time!
Hangover-inducing badness: Drinking with your bosses = telling your bosses stuff you tell people when you’re drunk. Do you want the CEO of your company to know that if you hadn’t gotten THIS job, you’d probably be a stripper right now? No, I can assure you that you really don’t.
This shit is strong!: Everyone is so smart and talented and driven! The energy here is great!
Wait, is this everclear?: Everyone is battling to prove that they are the smartest, hardest working, and most in love with the company by putting in as much face time as possible. Have you ever sat in a room at 7:30 PM on a Friday when you’re completely done with you work, but you’re so determined to not be the first one out of the office? I used to try willing my coworkers to leave. My friends would be texting me all the fun things they were doing and I’d be glaring at the person in front of me yelling with my brain, “JUST FUCKING LEAVE!”
I really love you guys, and I’m not just saying that because I’m drunk: You get to work with highly experienced department heads who pass their sage knowledge onto you.
Uhhh, my stomach doesn’t feel so good: Start-ups don’t always make the best hires and if they make the wrong one the “highly experienced” department head who becomes your boss may turn out the be a highly inadequate bitch from hell. You go from loving your old boss to wanting to jam pencils into your eyeballs every time your new boss says your name. You have nightmares about her asking you to step into the conference room and have a ‘quick chat.’ Even after freeing yourself from her reign of micromanagement and terror, you’ll never look at conference rooms the same way. Conference rooms are the place where your soul goes to die.
Wooooooooooooooo!: The office space is so open and unconventional!
Ugggghhhhhh: The lack of basic amenities. Do you have an office coffee pot? NO! NO! That takes away from margin! What about a fridge? There’s a mini fridge. It’s for 35 people. If you don’t like it, you can suck it up and go buy a burger at the McDonalds every day for lunch, because really, that’s all you can afford.
When you’re Kool-Aid drunk, you spend a lot of time telling yourself, “This will all be worth it!” You fantasize about being on the top floor of the corporate skyscraper. Sure, right now you’re doing manual labor while your friends are getting drunk at brunch, but you’re sure to be in the 30 under 30… or at least the 40 under 40. Is there a 50 under 50? You’re definitely going to be on that.
I mentioned earlier how scared I was that I’d regret leaving my start-up. I also worried that I’d regret putting in all that energy without it catapulting me to the top of the corporate ladder at an early age. In retrospect, I can honestly say that I have no regrets. In a year and a half I got an education I wouldn’t have at an entry-level job at some big company, and working non-stop helped me determine my own personal priorities.
Ok, so maybe there’s one thing I don’t love about my start-up past. I still flinch when my new boss asks me to step into the conference room for what has, thus far, only turned out to be staff birthday parties… but we all have our battle wounds.