Why startup culture is such a fragile and precious thing

By Francisco Dao , written on August 13, 2013

From The News Desk

Have you ever wondered what creates startup culture? Most people associate it with words like “scrappy” and “passion” but never explain what drives people to be scrappy or passionate in the first place. It has become one of those terms that everyone tosses around and pretends to understand while nobody comes clean because they don’t want to be the first to admit they don’t know what they’re talking about. People assume all startups are naturally endowed with some kind of pixie dust that makes everyone love what they’re doing so much that they’re willing to work 80-hour weeks, yet it’s never explained where this magical culture comes from.

At its core, startup culture comes from having a genuine relationship with your work. Entrepreneurs are intimately invested in what they do in a way other people rarely are. They are much more prone to saying things such as, “I’m married to my company” than someone clocking in at a 9-to-5. It is this personal connection to work that we find so attractive about the culture of startups. Much like we admire and envy people who have found true love, we also aspire to having a similar emotional relationship with our work.

But emotional relationships are fragile. In the same way marriages often lose the spark that makes them so special, it’s all too easy to lose the spark that keeps you excited about your company. And as countless divorced couples can tell you, once the spark is gone it’s almost impossible to bring it back.

There are two primary ways we lose the emotional spark of startup culture, “crushing heartbreak” and “dulling grind.”

Crushing heartbreak can usually be pinpointed to a specific painful moment such as a disastrous demo day, losing the funding you need to keep things going, or finding out your co-founder has betrayed you. It is the equivalent of coming home and catching your wife in bed with another man; a moment so defeating you lose all interest in carrying on. Crushing heartbreak moments hurt like hell and make you question everything you’ve done, but they are the lesser of two evils. They usually happen quickly and definitively, within months instead of years, and they help you fail fast. While painful, they can provide a moment of clarity and revelation.

Far more damaging is the dulling grind, the slow disillusionment that steals away your excitement in imperceptible bits. Unlike crushing heartbreak, the dulling grind never gives you a clear sign to stop and move on. It takes forms such as a zombie startup that grows just enough to keep you from quitting but not enough to be successful, grinding stress that wears you down, or slowly declining morale that makes you dread coming to work. Since the dulling grind never gives you a clear reason to walk away, it also fails to show you what went wrong. All you know is sometime over the last months or years, you lost the spark, and the love you had for your company turned into a dead-end relationship that you just couldn’t quit.

It might seem strange to describe startup culture as an emotional relationship with work, but what better explains the irrational bond founders have with their companies? As much as anything else in an entrepreneur’s life his startup is his partner, his passion, and his primary relationship. But as with all relationships, that passion is emotionally vulnerable. Sometimes the spark is lost in a moment of crushing heartbreak. Other times it fades away quietly over months and years. And when the spark is gone, it rarely ever comes back. It’s the risk you take for caring deeply about the work you do. And it’s why startup culture is such a fragile and precious thing.