Slow Startups

Remember that time is money.
Benjamin Franklin

If there are two concepts that seem exactly contrary, it’s “Slow” and “Startup”. On the one hand an emphasis on quality, good living, carefully crafted products and relaxation on the other hand a focus on growth, traction and speed. But as we will argue in this post, the two can go hand in hand. Our vision is something like a “craft startup” that can be meaningful and disruptive at the same time. But first, let’s step back into history for a while:

It was Karl Marx who unfolded Franklin’s laconic “Advice to a Young Tradesman” into a theory of money, “Das Kapital”. And not even Hayek was able to argue away the disastrous idea of money being frozen time, when he advocated that economics was much more about negotiating value, instead of trading labour. Two hundred years after Marx, we still accept that taking a rush would stand for efficiency. Of course, you can’t spend a minute of your life twice. Thus, wasted time is irreplaceable, as Arnold Bennett describes in his wonderful “How to Live on 24 Hours a Day”. It is however much more than just a philosophical question, what wasted indeed means.

The startup world is full of time-saving concepts. We have incubators to grow newly founded businesses like mushrooms, accelerators, to speed up everything, from building the product to getting financed, we make our products an MVP, a minimum viable product, not really good, just good enough to see how much traction the startup idea can generate. And we’re doing all this based on the time-saving-philosophies of “Getting Things Done” in a “Four Hour Work-Week” mimicking the “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. By the way, the only really successful startup-related business in Germany is named Rocket, and true to their brand name, Rocket is proud to get a business up and running in less than 100 days.

On the other hand, the typical pitch decks presented by startups to potential investors tell a story of world domination by efficiency. Industries have to be disrupted. Nothing less than a revolution has to be delivered by your MVP; a revolution of just-good-enoughness. And one of the best points for convincing investors is that your startup enabling people to perform more tasks in less time or to not even need humans anymore.

”I think people in Europe are generally pessimistic about the future. They have low expectations, they’re not working hard to change things. When you’re a slacker with a pessimistic view of the future, you’re likely to meet those expectations.”

Peter Thiel is right. In Europe, we give our workers more than 25 days of paid vacations. All countries have paid maternity leaves, mandatory employer-funded health care, strict cancellation ruled for employment contracts, and reasonably powerful unions. This is hardly compatible with the glorious frontier, as which Silicon Valley celebrates itself.

But can we think of a startup culture reflecting our values of quality, social responsibility, and lifestyle? How could we slackerish Continentals sustain our businesses against the presumably overwhelming industriousness of founders, who are willing to totally exploit themselves and work 24/7?

“Work hard, play hard” is usually said about people who use drinking to attenuate the unbearable requirements of their work. If you found you own business, this is regarded as tough. The logic why it has to be seems to go like this: If it wouldn’t be incredibly hard, why would anybody still accept the boredom and humiliations of being an employee?

The idea of having to earn something instead of just being given it as a present is the core of the protestant religion. It is an ideology, a dogma, rather than a theory supported by empirical evidence. So maybe it is sufficient to just overcome this notion? Maybe we can just start to work self-determined, at our own speed, according to our own values instead?

This is where our Slow Media concept can translate into the idea of a Slow Startup:

1) Attachment instead of obsolescence

‘Getting things done’ is just the opposite of doing things. This is not just some shallow Zen truth. ‘Getting things done’ expresses explicit contempt for the process of making that leads to planned obsolescence. “If it works, it’s obsolete”, as McLuhan put it. Attachment is a feeling that is formed over time. To feel attached to your work and the products you make is in itself gratifying. Industrialization severed the workers from their product, disenfranchised them; Entfremdung, alienation, is Marx’ term for this. Maybe attachment is the first step to making your startup slower.

2) Craft instead of intellectual property

The value of a Prada bag does not originate in the fact that it is protected intellectual property. In fact, it is easier to buy a pirated copy of most luxury goods than the incommensurably more expensive originals, which are often only available in very few stores in the world. Of course it is necessary to defend your work against fraud and denigration, but this is certainly beyond the idea of guarding some obscure legal titles that draw their value rather from the ability of your lawyers (and the size of your legal’ budget), than from what you really created. Let’s sell our craft, let’s create goods, not commodities. Let’s create things that people would by because they are genuine, not because they fear prosecution.

3) Don’t lock-in your customers

The so called network effect is perhaps the most important reason for startups to do their business in such a rush. The network effect occurs when a company can set their solution as a standard, and then secure exclusive economic utilization. The curse of digital media is that they tend to support winner-takes-it-all games. When one service manages to gain enough advantage to its competition, the market tends to concentrate on this service. When everybody is on Facebook, costs of abstention are unbearably high, and spending your attention to a smaller competitor feels increasingly like a waste of time. If you choose Apple to run your things, there is hardly room for variety anymore. We don’t want to lock our customers in our products. We don’t want to force people to use a product we offer, just because they once decided to buy another product from us without realizing the consequences. We want to collaborate, to be part of an environment, not to pretend to be able to create the whole ecosystem on our own.

4) Be democratic, avoid brand fascism

We want to provide versatile tools, not totalitarian take-overs. We want to respect people’s privacy. We need to process data. We don’t want to take ownership of people’s lives by doing that. Our brand gives you trust that what you bought is worth its price.

5) Algorithm ethics

Be aware of value judgements. Just because you decide that a feature of your product seams logic they way you do it, doesn’t mean it is necessarily the only way it could work. Everything that is designed contains value judgments, arbitrary decisions made by the designer. Let’s make our decisions visible, let’s make our motives transparent. Let’s show the levers and set screws that govern the behavior of our product. Let’s invite people to hack our tools. Only what gets hacked eventually gets secure.

6) Accept no slavery

It is hard to imagine that any citizen of the 21st century would willingly accept others to be enslaved. Apparently, however, most gadgets are manufactured by sweatshops under unacceptable conditions. And lots of startups deeply depend on these global “bads”. Whole industries have offshored their manufacturing. Instead of valuing the production, the product itself gets commoditized. The manufacturer is just a random fab that was able to get the tender because it would undercut the competition. Let’s keep our product clean and bright, let’s not contaminate our work with the exhaust of those black satanic mills.

7) Be slow

“Those who live by disruption will die by disruption.” Our answer will be: “Go, disrupt yourself, while we are building something valuable.”

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