This morning I was asked why I like startups, as opposed to co-operatives or any other kind of organization that builds software or technology. It's a fair question: I'm hardly a free market capitalist (in that I care very much about providing a social safety net and have no interest in small government), and much of my work has been a poor fit for venture capital.
First, some clarifications:
Being a startup and being a co-operative aren't mutually exclusive. The definition of a startup is an organization that is still trying to figure out what it will be - whether that's a Delaware C-Corporation with a board or an anarchist collective is up for grabs. For it to be venture investable, it would probably need to be the C-Corp, because that's what venture capitalists expect; if it's finding sustainability on its own terms, it could be anything.
I'm certainly interested in the mechanics of how an organization that builds technology can find its way to sustainability. Sometimes you can get something off the ground without taking anyone else's money, but there are some ideas that require expensive development, and people come with different financial contexts. Particularly in the US, where commercial necessities like health insurance push the cost of living higher than places like Europe, some investment is often required to give you the time and space to do a project justice. Venture capital is the version of this that has the highest profile in the popular imagination, but it's far from the only way. Revenue-sharing continues to grow in popularity. The Zebra movement is inspiring. And for some mission-driven projects, grants are available. You can have non-profit startups. It's all valid.
So, understanding that startups don't have to be venture funded C-Corporations, why am I into them?
The short answer is: because they're exciting.
I'm not excited by the financial fundamentals of the venture treadmill (make your stock progressively worth more so that people who bought in earlier can make a profit). I'm also not excited by building something to get rich. But like I said, that's not actually core to the definition of a startup, and there's something fundamentally appealing about people coming together to figure out the nature of the problem they're trying to solve, and then finding creative ways to solve it, all the while testing to see if they've got it right.
In the same vein, I'm not excited by coding for its own sake. I'm just not. I'm excited about solving human problems with technology, scrappily, with a mixture of every interdisciplinary skillset you can bring to bear. For me, technology is only really interesting when it finds its way into someone's hands, and the core mission of a true startup is to make something as useful as possible while also ensuring you can keep making it.
If I can work on that kind of mission full time? Make it not just a hobby, but a full-time job where I get to make something that I devised that becomes useful to more and more people? That sounds like heaven to me.
It's not about hockey-stick growth. It's not about finding an exit. It's not about being a financial vehicle. It's about building something meaningful, using all the skill and creativity you can muster, and getting to keep doing it. That's why I like startups.