Sadly, Startups Are All Just Clones Now

How startups went from having anti-corporate manifestos to all playing from the same wannabe corporate handbook.

Startup Clones Twins

To me, startups have always been built on the foundation of one very important principle: breaking free of the prison that is the office cubicle. To be fair, these values seemed to have lasted for quite a good run, but as they say, nothing lasts forever.

Nowadays, every startup, especially in tech, follows the exact same boilerplate, using all the same buzzwords, all the same marketing, all the same tools, and all the same methodologies. And whether they intend to or not, every “new” thing they add back into the structure of the company, is just another bar on the cage of the cubicle that they’re putting us back into.

Hiring

Job Listings

We Work Remotely has become one of the most popular go-tos for posting tech jobs. Luckily, this at least ensures that jobs really will be remote, as opposed to companies that only wish to appear innovative and flexible, but actually pull a bait and switch along the lines of “Oh sure, the job can be done remotely, but you still need to be local to our city.”

The problem starts with the actual listings, where they all use the same kind of job titles and outline language. Titles like: “Developer Ninja” or “Design Rockstar” or “Customer Happiness Engineer” 🤮. Outlines include language like: “We need someone who wakes up with a smile everyday, and doesn’t look at problems as something that holds them back, but challenges they’re excited to conquer!” or they try to be hip and funny “Bob’s our senior developer, but don’t ask him questions too early in the morning before he’s had his coffee… unless you have a cat gif ready to go. He sure likes his cat gifs.”

Most job listings read like the person who wrote them just looked at all the other listings to see what they said, as opposed to actually having something original of substance to say, based on a company that really has true freedom and values to talk about. They all talk about how cool they are, what a great culture it is, the flexibility they offer, and make the same “we’re a fun and friendly place to work” cat jokes.

Job Applications

They then send you to a third-party form to apply, one of several commonly used like Workable, because modern startups have an unhealthy addiction to adding yet another app, service, or piece of software to handle some menial task (more on that later). The application itself usually has all the same questions: “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?,” “What’s an exceptionally tough problem you had with a customer and how did you overcome it?,” “Why do you want to work here?,” or “What salary are you looking for?”

And look, not all clichés are bad; sometimes there’s a good reason that something is a cliché, because it’s useful, but there are always a few questions on these applications that are rude or pointless, meaning they’re only asking it because they’ve seen that it was asked on other forms, not because they have some deep psychological analysis that they’re doing.

I’d confidently put money on the fact that they quickly skim over some of those answers because it doesn’t actually mean anything to them or whether they’ll hire you or not, because they themselves were only trying to appear “smarter” or “professional” to someone above them by padding the listing and asking what other popular companies ask.

The Test

Next up, you’ll receive a follow-up email after about a week (after sorting through the often hundreds of applicants), letting you know whether they’re interested or passing. In my case, they’re almost always interested because I generally only apply for gigs that I’m perfectly suited for, if not over-qualified for in the first place.

I would only be guessing on this part, but I think the fact that I don’t care whether they hire me or not (I’m usually just taking a flyer on something to see if it’s a good fit and somewhere I might actually enjoy working), helps in terms of confidence, as opposed to the desperate “I’ll jump through any hoop.” mentality of a normal candidate.

At this phase in the process, they’ll typically give you one final test before getting to the true interview. The test is usually designed to give them an idea of your skills or common sense. In other words, they’re weeding out the dumb-dumbs that lied about their experience.

The Interview

If you make it past the Indiana Jones like booby traps, you can now set a day and time through yet another third-party app (something like Calendly) before moving onto the final boss, which is the inevitable video interview (which is almost always done through Zoom) with the big man himself, which is often the CEO (on a side note, can we stop with all these archaic, overblown titles — I’ve started many businesses and I’ve never once called myself the “CEO” of it).


A Word About Zoom

This should really be its own article, but seriously, fuck Zoom; we need to talk about this. Would you install a mandatory keylogger on your computer imposed by a company? Then why in the hell would you ever install Zoom, a far worse form of malware. Zoom records your “private” meetings. That means video and audio of you, and everything you’re doing and saying, and outright using and selling that data. This is common knowledge and most people in general heard about it in 2020 during the massive uprise in its popularity due to the virus, which came with much more scrutiny of its weak security (Zoom is not end-to-end encrypted) and its even weaker company policies.

I can understand how a lot of organizations like companies in non-tech industries, schools, churches, etc. continue using the software because they may not know any better, but tech companies who definitely do know better, also continue to force their employees to use this software. I’m really not sure how that’s legal to endanger your people’s right to privacy like that, but I’m no lawyer. I’m not a fan of this style of communication for all my own reasons anyway, but there are always safer alternatives.

The problem, as is usually the case when it comes to privacy issues, is complacency. People don’t care about their own privacy, let alone other people’s. It’s also harder. I’m not perfect; there are many ways I could improve upon my own bad habits, but acknowledging the problem is at least better than nothing, and it’s never too late to improve, even if it’s a slow process.

One of the best parts of working on a remote team was getting to work at home, rolling out of bed, not worrying about how you look or your stinky cat walking around in the background, playing in your unmade bed. But now, in this new move to devolve remote teams back into “the office experience” as much as possible, we’re forced to stick a camera in our face to do our work? It’s just creepy and I refuse.


And we’re back.

Aside from the technology being creepy, I can at least understand that the main point of this step is that they want to “meet” you, see your face, hear your voice (though for my own privacy, I’d rather they not). While I personally don’t give a shit about this (when I hire someone all I care about is that they can do the work and have a good work ethic), I’m not a complete monster; I get it. It really is just the tech that makes it creepy.

Imagine going into a real, physical office to have an interview. Sure, you might be nervous, but it’s a fairly innocuous experience overall. But, now imagine that there’s some lady standing in the corner with a camera on a tripod recording you, while she also takes notes. This is going to be pretty awkward and you’re definitely going to ask.

You: “This is being recorded?

Them: “Yes.

You: “Why?

Them: “Oh don’t worry about it. We record all of ABC Inc.’s meetings.

You: “Do you work here? Is this for training purposes or something?

Them: “No, we don’t work here. ABC Inc. has just given us permission to record all their meetings.

You: “For what purpose?

Them: “For marketing and research purposes. By entering this room, you too have agreed to these terms.

You get the idea. It’s definitely not okay. Not to mention that the company you’re working for itself is likely keeping a copy of the recordings (they legally have to disclose this by the way — that doesn’t necessarily mean they will though), and storing it forever for reasons that benefit you in no way whatsoever, including for potential legal purposes to be used against you later if there’s a dispute.

Another big purpose of the video interview is as a precursor to the unwritten policy of…

Company Culture

Because of discrimination and harassment laws, they can’t come right out and say it, but another common theme in this new startup boilerplate model is culture. That is, more or less, you need to be able to be friends with your co-workers in order to be accepted onto the team. Rather than being something that occurs naturally among co-workers if it’s going to happen or not, which is fine too, it’s now kind of a requirement.

If like me, you’d rather just keep your head down, get your work done, and keep your personal and work life separate, it could honestly mean you’re not getting hired or you might not last there very long.

Retreats

A major new fad for startups, but an age-old staple of the corporate world is the retreat. Flying the team out for a week-long work vacation to some domestic or exotic tourist destination. There are a lot of things at play here. Most likely, the boss has read about how team-building exercises out in the wild can improve productivity in the “office.”

I’m not going to argue the pros and cons of this. Certainly, there may be benefits for a certain kind of company, but tech teams really don’t work shoulder to shoulder together where those benefits would be most useful. In a tech company, everything is extremely compartmentalized, and everyone is doing work that’s highly specific and tedious to just them. The only communication really needed is just to let each team member or department know your ETA for X or if you’re having issues with Y.

In any case, I don’t care what the benefits might be, I’m not into it. And even if the retreat isn’t mandatory (it often is outright stated that it is in fact mandatory), going back to culture, it really just is. If you don’t “fit in,” you might find yourself being pushed out or just quitting because you’re tired of being forced to have play dates with your co-workers.

There’s a reason I work remotely in the first place. Having to leave home, travel to the airport, get on a plane, and then spend a week in a house or hotel with essentially strangers is the absolute antithesis to the joy of working from home. I’d rather they just took that couple grand they spent on each of us for a retreat, and give us half as a bonus, gaining happier employees and saving money at the same time.

The Work

This is what it was all about, the work; the joy of the project. But, being able to do that work with complete autonomy and time flexibility. Not being micromanaged; not being fixed to any kind of 9-5 like window; just being able to work in your own way, using the tools you like to use, and in your own time. It didn’t matter where you were in the world, what your sleep schedule was like, as long you got your work done within every 24-hour period, and as long as you checked in every now and then and obviously respond to any direct communications to you.

Autonomy

The freedom to keep it simple and use the tools you want to use.

Startups no longer build their own tools or methodologies to keep it all sane and less convoluted. They all just use the same obligatory third-party services:

  • Google Workspace
  • Slack
  • Basecamp
  • Zoom
  • Help Scout

I’m not saying that I don’t also use some of these tools, or that there’s inherently anything wrong with them, but the point is all about how every startup now is just a carbon copy of one another, instead of doing things in a smarter, simpler, more minimalistic way. To stop doing things like the corporate dinosaurs of the past.

Flexibility

The freedom to wake up at whatever time you wake up wherever you are in the world, whether that be 7am, noon, midnight, or whenever.

And it didn’t matter because you got your work done within the 24-hour work cycle. You don’t need to commute anywhere, you work with people all around the world with all their own varying schedules, so it just didn’t matter. That’s how time management is supposed to work.

Now, the modern startup keeps chipping away at those freedoms to return to the traditional corporate regime of being available between 9-5 in whatever timezone they decide to designate (usually where the boss lives) and to attend incessant meetings, that have been proven to not increase productivity, and in fact, just waste time.

Conclusion

What the hell happened, why, and can anything be done to stop it?

What?

Whenever there is some kind of anarchy or push back against the ways of old, those systems eventually catch-up and find a way to appear as the new thing, while still implementing their control to serve their bottom line. It happens with all things, from cable to streaming, from books to audiobooks, from radio to podcasts, and from corporations to startups.

In the end, the old always finds a way to get its claws into the new.

Why?

I think the fact that being a nerd has become cool plays a big part in this. There’s Nerd Classic™ and then there’s the new class of nerds, who are often just Jocks 2.0™. Originally, the Jobs and Wozniak dynamic was common among tech companies, but for a short while the Wozniaks took over, and everyone on the team was a Wozniak.

Where rebelling and quitting your day job to revolt and go into business for yourself, to show the dinosaurs in suits that you could do it better, with less bullshit and red tape used to be what a startup was all about, but the suits and conmen caught on and now they play the part of a Wozniak and call their corporations startups for the trendiness of it.

But, while no one’s looking, they keep peeling back the ideals of a true startup, and still touting the claims about being open, fair, free, autonomous, flexible, original, and innovative, are sneaking all the old ways in through the backdoor. The reason for this I think comes from two places, money and ego.

Money

There have been a lot of innovations in business, mainly what a waste of money it is to lease office space. If they can cut costs on all that, but also keep tabs on you with tools like Zoom (the modern equivalent of taking a stroll through the office and watching people work over their shoulder), win-win. Save money, but also keep control? Sure sounds good for the bottom line.

Ego

Admittedly, we might have taken the whole “everyone is equal, no one has a job title” thing in the beginning of the revolution a little too far. I think there has to be some kind of hierarchy to keep the train moving, but there’s definitely a balance. On the opposite spectrum, we see people starting very small independent projects and giving themselves the title of CEO.

It’s just a little much. I think there are people who start projects that already have delusions of grandeur and then sometimes, a Wozniak becomes a Jobs type character after making a lot of money. Money changes people, and they suddenly feel self-important. I think there’s a certain make-believe aspect to it. To appear cooler, more sexy, I think a lot of these people like to play the role and be seen as aggressive, business-savvy operators.

Stop?

Can it be stopped? I don’t see how. That said, I’m sure there are still rare gems out there that really are a joy to work for still and truly offer freedom instead of a corporate repackaging of it where all the same buzzwords are used, without any of the actual freedoms.

Of course, history repeats itself over and over and over. At first, innovations like tiny houses, nomadic van life, and startups say “Fuck you and fuck your rules; we’re going to do it our way.” But eventually, the monster catching you and eats you and the revolution is now just the new norm, and it too, will need to be rebelled against.

All I can say is that whenever I hire someone, I do my best to get the hell out of their way. That’s my idea of win-win.