He was guilty of it too — treating tech news like a reality show. It always seemed somewhat surreal, almost like a fantasy, even though he knew many of the people he read about. It was probably because everyone put on airs trying to reinforce what the bloggers wrote about them that made it seem okay to comment on everything as if it was all just a big spectator sport. But now that he had taken the leap, he realized it wasn’t just harmless gossip and entertainment. This was his life.
His company was still a startup, just a few people. But it was different now. He used to think of entrepreneurs and engineers as characters in a story, but these were actual people who counted on him to make good on their paychecks. One of the guys had a wife and kid at home and another baby on the way. He had never known the pressure of being a breadwinner for anyone but himself but now he had several families who had put their faith in him. The disquiet knotted in his chest, pulsing like a dull pain that was breathing out of sync from the rest of his body. He was never too concerned about himself if things didn’t work out, but he worried about sending people home on a Tuesday afternoon with a paycheck cut short and some office knick knacks packed in a cardboard box. He logged into the company bank account for reassurance. Most of the seed round was still there.
When did it become so real, he wondered. For a while, it all seemed like a big game. Every day TechCrunch announced another two dozen fundings and a handful of exits. Mononymous people like Jack, Ev, and Zuck joined the ranks of Prince and Madonna as people who only needed one name. Even Ashton Kutcher and the Justins, Timberlake and Bieber, joined the Internet party. For a year he basked in the reflected glow, following the news of who went where and sold what, and adding Internet entrepreneurs as Facebook friends. Then he jumped in with two feet and was hit by reality. Behind all the parties and flashy announcements was real work and real pressure that the critics and trolls never see.
Even though he had embraced it, he came to resent the public nature of it all. He wondered how many people stopped to think about the lives behind the stories and the ramifications of putting it all on display. Internet culture had turned everyone into both a public figure and a critic. Worse than armchair quarterbacks, the ferocity of people’s attacks made them more like armchair assassins. And the targets weren’t limited to tech celebrities, everyone was fair game.
Now he just wanted to build his company without the constant cycle of judgment and public commentary. He knew it was his own fault for buying into the hype but he couldn’t help himself. Another day brought another list of top 10 hottest startups, and he felt pressure when his company made the list, bitter when they were left off. Either way it distracted him from the work at hand.
He knew the tech press painted a perverse picture of Silicon Valley, focusing on the highlights and the cool kid cliques that roamed through SOMA, somehow always finding their way onto every VIP list in or out of the industry. Long before Bravo showed up, the tech community had created its own reality show with its cults of personality and constant drumbeat of VC rounds and exits.
But as much as he hated it now, he admitted he probably wouldn’t have taken the chance on becoming an entrepreneur himself if he hadn’t been reading about it every day. That was the rub. If he had grasped the reality of a founder’s life from the beginning, he wouldn’t have tried at all. He needed the stories, and now he was a product of the very thing he had come to loathe.
If only there was a way to tell the critics watching from afar, “We are more than what you read about. We are real people trying to do real things.”
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]