The Heedless Overuse of Certain Words: Start-Up

If you are a small business owner and are serious about your work, never use this term. 

Here in Silicon Valley, we originate and perpetuate our own brand of bullshit. Words that sound like they indicate "business" or "money" or "technology" are released from the Valley of Heart's Delight onto an unsuspecting nation that has lulled itself complacent with the common parlance. This phenomenon bloomed to maturity in the 1990s, of course, when Silicon Valley ruled an imaginary kingdom of wealth and beauty - a kingdom that only recently fell apart, but which lives on in the hearts and minds of the people here as a high watermark left behind by the destructive power of the imagination and the human capacity for self-delusion. 

During that era of greedy innocence, one term that was loosed like a mighty falcon across the vast plain of tech-boom hyperbole was "start-up."

"Start-up" inspires many questions, including the following:

  • What does it start? 
  • When does it start? 
  • What does it look like?
  • Does it only start and never stop? 
  • Does it only start and not do anything else?
  • Is it a thing I can put in my pocket (sounds small)? 
  • Is it a place to buy things? 
  • Does it make money? 
  • Who does it make money for? 
  • Will I like it? 
  • Is it a place where mature adults apply skill and talent to solving problems through industry and commerce?
  • Can I get it to turn into something else - for example, a profitable and practical business?
  • Is it just a bunch of guys eating Tofutti and playing with Hacky Sacks? 
  • Is it something that exists only in the mind? 
The short answer to the last question is "yes" (elaboration to follow in a bit).
    The funny thing about "start-up" is how amateurish it sounds if you stop and take it at face value. It sounds like some guys in a basement, just fucking around with some stuff. And yet the connotation is that it is a heavily-funded venture that is certain to blow up into a massive enterprise in no time. 

    But what "start-up" actually means is this: a group of fast-talking tools who are working to gather the balls to pitch their concept to so-called venture capitalists and convince them to fund the operation to a certain extent, despite the fact that said concept only exists in their minds and has not sustained anything like the rigors of the marketplace.

    So yes, a "start-up" is a thing: it is nothing more or less than a shared delusion.

    And here is why: Because someone might decide to give a few hundred thousand - or several million - dollars to someone who persuades them to do so. Because "start-up" actually means a business that is not a business - it's an organization that has not weathered the true tests a money-making enterprise must take and continue to take, nor has it been subject to a pragmatic decision-making process that transforms initiative into marketplace viability.

    The fact that start-ups were a common feature of the wholly-absurd technology boom of the 1990s is not a surprise. The concept fits well with the opportunistic salesmen and wide-eyed techies who drove that period with a surreal combination of technical skill and mystifyingly retarded social skills.

    But now that we have seen the long-term damage wrought by that era of heedless, jingoistic fantasia, there is no excuse for the term "start-up" to exist at all, let alone the fact of start-ups themselves - entities that attract "investors" by virtue of mere rhetoric.

    As is always the case, the perversion lies not with the words themselves but with the thoughts that inspire their use.

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