If You Do Something, Stand For Something

Posted by Matt Farmer on April 22, 2013 · 8 mins read

Startups are a wonderful thing. When startups get to solve a problem that hasn’t been solved before or they get to shake the cages of the establishment to spur innovation, they’re at their best. When they’re playing with a formula that’s already been done a hundred times, they’re at their worst. Somewhere in the middle is where you find most startup companies.

The problem with the middle is that it’s both highly lethal and highly intoxicating. It’s highly intoxicating because being somewhere in the middle will usually provide a degree of predictability in terms of profits. It’s lethal because hanging out in the middle makes it difficult to recruit excellent engineering talent across generations. The trouble with this mental model is that there are plenty of people who hang out in this space who do fine. (Anchor Tab certainly does to a degree.) Can trying to maintain a balance really be that bad?

This entire post stems from an experience I had in November and December as one of the kickoff members of a startup company. I was the de-facto primary architect for the time that I was there, but I was miserable. I sent in my letter of resignation the day after Christmas. I’ve battled for a long time over the difference between my experience at OpenStudy, Anchor Tab, and Elemica, and my experience with this company, who I’ll call Widgets Inc.

After a lot of internal processing, here’s what I came up with: the teams I’ve loved working for said something. They stood for something. As a quick overview:

  • OpenStudy: Real substantial learning can happen in an online, realtime context.
  • Anchor Tab: An email marketing tool can be a quality piece of software that is beautiful, cross platform, and useful.
  • Elemica: Whether it’s official or not, I feel like there are a lot of people on our team who are passionate about going to great lengths to break the negative connotation with enterprise software. I certainly am, and that drive has taught me more about the Scala language and the JVM in the past few months than I could have ever learned on my own.

The result of standing for something is that the priorities are always clear. And let’s be clear about this: the thing that your company stands for is not the same thing as the problem your product solves, because if that’s all your company stands for you’re entirely at the mercy of your customers. If what I stand for is to solve your problem, but I don’t solve your exact problem, why shouldn’t I change my product to meet your needs? Also, why bother investing two days to invest in the solution that’s 800 lines of code less than the original one? It doesn’t gain us extra dollars!

My line of thinking, much inspired by 37Signals, is that the product should be made with a vision, made with something that it stands for. Either a feature fits with that, or it doesn’t, and that’s something to be weighted when considering the addition of new features. And, as the 37Signals guys, if our product doesn’t meet your need because it’s out of line with our vision, that’s fine. I’ll happily refer you to some of my competitors who can meet your need. No hard feelings.

At Widgets, we never had a mission communicated to us. We knew what we were building, but our CEO didn’t give us something to stand for. So, do you see what happened? Yep, you guessed it. We were in no-mans land.

  • Leadership communication was a disaster: no mission was communicated. As a result, my coworkers and I developed different ideas about what our priorities were and wasted valuable engineering time arguing. We knew the problem our software was supposed to solve, but we failed to agree on what it was supposed to say.
  • Engineering decisions weren’t made by engineers: we were sticking with the one formula that had worked in the past above all else. Management dictated a formula that had worked in the past because that provides the most predictability in the terms of profits. We were given very little breathing room to innovate. This stunts the opportunities available to recruit top talent in the young generation because it gives us no more control (and by extension ownership) over the product than we would have at an Oracle-sized company, and stunts the opportunity for recruiting those in an older generation because they won’t tolerate the risk of a startup if they don’t get to play with the technology side of the equation. It’s not worth it to them. Sure, you’ll get engineers, but you won’t have the truly talented engineers knocking down your door. (Unless, of course, you’ve got a lot of hype around you after a successful exit.) 
  • Both points above yielded a team with absolutely no mutual trust or respect that was, in my assessment, dysfunctional.

Ultimately I decided to walk out, and it was a spectacular decision. I’m on a great team that I love, and I’m planning on being here for awhile. But, honestly, I decided to completely disengage from the startup community as a result of this experience, because I realized that so few startups in the Atlanta area are actually, as Antonio would say, “Doin’ it right.” I want a 37Signals of Atlanta – a group of code bandits who are serious enough about building a quality product instead of profiting off of the ignorance of their customers and making compromises until it, as it always does, blows up in their face. I’m sure there are people like me who feel that conviction in every corner of Atlanta’s technology sector, but where’s our bullhorn?

I want a startup community in Atlanta that’s vocal about standing for more than just getting the quickest profit. The profit-seekers have been getting the word out pretty well about how their formula is working out to their benefit. I say it’s time that we start getting the word out that it’s possible to do it right, and make a profit. Let’s expand the conversation about startups in Atlanta from mere discussion of rounds and exits, to discussions on bootstrapping, innovation, and long-term job creation. Will you be running twenty companies at once? Nope, you’ll probably only have enough hours in the day for one at a time. Will you be able to hide behind the twitter account with a cute headshot and nice one-liners? Negative, you’ll need to be three-dimensional and really get to know the people around you, but in exchange you’ll have an opportunity to impact the community around you for decades to come.

My name is Matt Farmer. I’m a Christian, amateur photographer, professional instagrammer, music-lover, coffee/beer-snob, and a Software Engineer. I’m one of a group of dreamers working on a project that aspires to help promote and encourage this type of conversation in Atlanta. Dreams are infectious. Will you dare to dream with us?