Startups: The Passion and The Paradox

Occasionally I get asked this question, “Why the Marilyn Monroe quotes/fascination?”, along with the second question, “Why are you so grumpy?”

The second question is easier to answer first, I’m the grumpiest man in Yorkshire, I’m opinionated and when I have something to say I’ll say it. No way am I on par with Jamie McDonald, the “crossest man in Scotland” (clip NFSW, you were warned), but there you are.


The first question is slightly more difficult. This is a lot more to do with psychology, the art of persona and the willingness to play the industry at their game, Hollywood wanted a simple blonde but strip away the actress and you have someone far more in tune, complex and intelligent. And no I don’t fancy her, this is about the internal not the external.

Do Your Passion?

A lot of books preach this “do your passion” thing, not “build something that will create sustainable revenue”. We’re reaching a point of “peak startup” very similar to wedding photographers in Northern Ireland, there came a time that there were more, what felt like, more professional photographers than population. I think the same is happening with tech startups. The people that peddle the “it’s great to be a startup” either aren’t working in one, are getting a stable salary or work for the public sector plumping up the PR press releases that we need an “entrepreneurial mindset”.

If you think of a rock band, they want to do stadium shows and sell platinum albums. A story writer/actor/actress will be looking for the Hollywood blockbuster with record box office takings and a startup will be looking for the billion dollar exit (that may be running the company, merging or selling on). All possible but all highly improbable.

Wherever you look on this path to enlightenment you’ll come across the same pattern, someone will want to be in the middle to help you on your journey.

  • The rock band needs a record label.
  • The film folk need an agent.
  • The startup needs an Incubator, Hub, VC or Angel.

Now here’s the rub when you have one of these guys in the middle of you  and your dream there’s a good chance their motives will not always aline with yours. A record label will want control of the music you product, the band now builds product to order, “what the kids are listening to is this…. could you be a bit more like Lady Gaga’s early days?”.

Startups look at VC’s, investors and angels as the towering oracles of mentorship, advice and all knowing omnipresence. Not many will do that, they have job to do, make money. I only know a few VC types I could walk up to and ask what companies were they in when they exited?

Many VC’s are like doctors who can’t take the medicine they prescribe. Let’s quickly remind ourselves of what a VC actually is, they put money (usually other people’s) in to ventures they believe will give a return back to the fund. I won’t start on management fees per quarter or the high probability you’ll be ousted as CEO real quick once the VC takes a board position, as hopefully you know all this already. If not, then I suggest you start reading and quickly.

There’s the lean movement, investor readiness programmes, funds, proof of concept programmes, accelerators, hubs and they’ll all feed the notion that your startup is great, brilliant and worth the 20 hours days, progress reports and so on. Let me add this notion, they’re paid to tell you you’re great so you keep on coming back.

At no point did anyone say, “for f**ks sake stop!”, because they all know there’s the 10% rule in any given city that you might progress further. To a VC you are a bet, a risk with a 90% chance of failing. And they won’t be there to brush the dust off your shoulders when it all crumbles around you, by that time they already invested in another 20 companies in the two year space and you’re a mere after thought, “Did that company make us 5x? Nope, move on”.

VC’s and investors have a name for their pool, “captives”. I’ll leave that statement at that, make of it what you will.

A Note To The Accelerators, Hubs and Programmes

I know you have a job to do, I understand that it’s a numbers game, in order to get more state money you need to put n startups through the programme (the end results of those startups isn’t really a talking point). One thing  I ask, honesty. Not to me, or the public, but to those who are putting their lives and sanity on the line. Don’t sell them false hope, or the notion that they can “make it” when you full well know they don’t have a cat in hells chance. The paradoxical statement of saying something is right when you know it’s wrong.


Best, finest surgeon accelerator programme, come cut me open….

Here’s the big Marilyn chink, opening up the huge notion of what the startup is, the business plan or executive summary and finding out there is nothing there. Nothing but sawdust as Marilyn put in her diary of the dream she had.

Depending on the location accelerator programmes will be choosy, or not so choosy, like I said before it’s a numbers game and you, dear startup, are just a mere number. Yes the accelerator will help you but don’t discount the fact that they know you may be a on road to nowhere. What’s the loss to them if the 20-30k your getting isn’t theirs, there’s no loss so there’s no connect between the money and your performance in their terms.

Many books claim that the “Surgeon Story” recalled by Marilyn Monroe was a recollection of a nightmare, others say that it was a description of a mind control session.

Best finest surgeon—Strasberg
to cut me open which I don’t mind since Dr. H
has prepared me—given me anaesthetic
and has also diagnosed the case and
agrees with what has to be done—
an operation—to bring myself back to
life and to cure me of this terrible dis-ease
whatever the hell it is—(…)

Every Startup Is  A Marilyn

The startup might be hurting like hell on the inside but you’ll do anything to be noticed. You’ll go to all the networking events (casting calls), talk to all the “right” people and go for all the parts you can get your hands on (funding applications). And after years of pain, rejection, more pain, hard work, alienation and the rest of it you’ll happily play the blonde bimbo role to be noticed.

If a programme says, “well if you just changed this aspect of your business plan then you might get money”, from that point on you’ve sold your soul. The first puppet string has been connected from them to you, they can tug and you will react.

Here’s my advice, take it for what you will. You need a circle of friends you can trust to be honest with you. For this I am blessed, seriously blessed, I’m honest with them and they are honest with me in return. And I don’t mean people that just say, “that’s a great idea, you should do that”. That’s not an answer.

The Silicon Valley way has perhaps done more harm than good in terms of what’s attainable, like I’ve said nothing is impossible. Many countries focus on the Valley as a beacon of how it should be, regardless of cultural norms, available money and so on. The bottom line is it’s quite expensive to act like Silicon Valley. That too is a personified blonde bimbo actress with a serious complex.

At the end of the day the decision is really yours, what’s good for you, your team and how you deal with the day to day. Just make sure you know your VC/Accelertor/Hub/Angel inside and out.

Yes I’m grumpy, risk averse and 100% equity as rule and with good reason. I’m not looking for Strasberg or Kris like help only to watch the guts of the company go to them.

I’d rather be a small, mobile, intelligent unit than under too much control from someone else. It’s ridiculous and goes against the current trend of raise this and VC fund that, but I’d rather be ridiculous and me rather than what someone else wants me to be.


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