It was 5 pm on a Friday in the plant-crammed, industrial office of my former employer. The company was a shiny startup in its ecstatic infancy, touted by zealous tech reporters as the ‘millennial answer to X’. Investors were funnelling in money by the truckload, eager to snare a piece of a company on the purported edge of world domination.
I was huddled in the corner with a colleague who had just given their notice, discussing their next move between sips of beer. I asked if the company planned on hiring someone to replace her.
“Yeah,” she said, “but I think it’s a mistake.”
This surprised me. I asked why.
“Because you could do my job in about a day and a half. They don’t need anyone in my role.”
It dawned on me suddenly that I had no idea what this particular colleague did all day. They assisted someone, to do something, and was responsible for some sort of outcome? I sat directly opposite them every day. I’ve been privy to their weekly ‘standups’ with work-desk interlopers who penetrated my personal space as they stood to attention. I’ve seen them hammering away on their MacBook from 9 am to 6 pm and beyond. But still, no clear picture of their professional duties sprang to mind.
I spent several years of my career startup-hopping, and I observed the same pattern at all of them: in those first exuberant years, when growing companies are flush with investment money, they hire with red-faced fervour and bestow inflated, ill-defined job titles onto their burgeoning workforce. It may seem like an innocuous quirk of the breakneck startup world, but it actually has a more insidious effect – rudderless workers, confused by their own jobs and befuddled by the chaotic company structure, go from naively hopeful to bitterly disaffected.
It calls to mind a certain Twitter bomb dropped by anthropologist and Occupy figurehead David Graeber. Expanding on a 2013 Strike! Magazine essay of the same name, Graeber delivers a searing indictment of the modern workforce in his 2018 book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory.
Graeber posits that, despite predictions that the industrial revolution would slash the working week to 15 hours, newly-automated jobs were replaced by tedious, bean-counting, misery-making vocations in sectors like administration, human resources, public relations, and others.
These jobs, by Graeber’s estimation, are essentially meaningless – as in, if they all disappeared tomorrow, hardly anyone would take notice. The worst part? The workers performing these jobs know all this, and they’re essentially trapped in an economic prison of pointless labour.
It’s a powerful argument with startling reach: a 2015 poll conducted by YouGov found that 37% of workers polled think that their jobs are ‘not making a meaningful contribution to the world’, while another 33% say they don’t find their jobs personally fulfilling. That’s a lot of pencil-pushing.
While no research exists on the bullshit jobs phenomenon in the startup-specific context, I’ve observed a troubling trend over and over again during my time at VC startups – those ‘noisy,’ big-risk firms that play a perilous game of craps with mounds of investment money. These (mostly B2C) startups often lack structure or any clear direction, making them particularly prone to bullshitery. There are several reasons why startups are primed for this particular blight of the modern workplace:
They don’t know what to do with their money
The first few years of startup life are exciting: everyone’s ebulliently enthusiastic, the money’s flowing, and the future looks impossibly bright. Perched comfortably between investment rounds A and B, or B and C, or C and infinity, the company suddenly have more cash than they know what to do with. The logical answer? Go on a hiring spree.
Seems like a reasonable motive on the surface, but what happens when a company blows through their investment money, leaving a threadbare safety net for when things go a bit tits up?
“There’s this myth that you should come up with a great idea, write a business plan, raise some capital, and voila! You’re rich,” says John Mullins, Associate Professor at the London Business School and author of several books on the lean startup model. “Well, that’s pretty much a pipe dream most of the time.”
When this ‘go big’ approach to business tickles into hiring, a company may end up with role confusion or several workers performing different variants of the same job.
“Your workload becomes diminished by new hires, but you stick around because there might be a time when they need you,” says Adam Badger, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute. “So you’re on kind of a hiatus of bullshit.”
They want to legitimise their business
Startups trying to break into the big, bad market want to add a bit of professional gravitas to their portfolio. Obviously, hiring experienced, senior people can give their business the bona fides they need, but that’s not always an option for early-stage startups.
“The startup may be a venture that hasn’t been done before. And when you’re a very early stage risky company, you can’t hire senior people with lots of experience because a) they’re too expensive and b) your company is too risky for those people to bet on it,” says Mullins. “So, you hire young, smart, enthusiastic people who will learn on the job.”
Growing companies often double down by giving their inexperienced workers inflated jobs titles, which also works to compensate for their frequently-paltry salaries. In the past few years, the startup world has seen a ballooning of ‘creative’ job titles that are meant to signal value to outsiders. You could be the Director of People Happiness or the Czar of User Experience and Unicorn Farts.
The problem is that the people performing these jobs have no idea what they’re meant to be doing – after the initial jolt to the ego wears off, the cazars, ninjas, and gurus of the startup world are left doggy paddling in a sea of bullshit, grasping for any concrete semblance of their professional duties.
They invest in talent as a selling point to investors
A startup’s ‘company culture’ tends to become consecrated in the perpetual hiring mill, where new employees are brought on because they’re a good ‘cultural fit’ – i.e. someone that management would want to sink a few beers with. A company’s ‘cool’ factor – buttressed by their black-clad workforce – becomes an integral part of their brand.
“Startups are quite high status and have that cultural capital, but it’s potentially more vacuous than traditional forms of work for this reason,” says Katy Lawn, researcher for workplace consultancy company Baker Stuart.
The company’s hip-and-20-something staff are touted as a selling point to youth-obsessed investors who want a slice of the millennial pie. The conflation of a startups’ workforce with its brand has a toxic effect on the culture: it vanishes the line between work and life, encouraging employees to toil away long hours and shifting the burden of success onto their shoulders. If employees are inextricable from their jobs, then the company’s success becomes their personal responsibility.
“I see people still stuck [in that] cycle and I feel sorry for them,” an anonymous former startup employee tells me. “I think it sets an unfair precedent that a lot of people can’t or don’t want to do. I have seen people fired for not wanting to work weekends, amongst other things.”
So, how do we purge the startup world of vocational bullshit? It’s not an easy task – we may have to accept that unless society reevaluates its doctrinal obsession with work, a certain amount of bullshitery is just the necessary evil of an automated economy, where there’s not necessarily enough meaningful work to go around. The startup world seems seductive for purpose-seeking millennials, with its promise to supply an endless stream of soul-satisfying work. That’s why it’s particularly disappointing when this promise falls flat.
There are plenty of ways to temper the bull, though; namely, by making conditions better for your workforce. One way to do this is to have a well-defined company culture – meaning a clear mission, a solid value system, and a managerial style that puts worker wellbeing front and centre.
“Are [inflated job titles and loosely-defined responsibilities] always a problem? Not necessarily; some people thrive in such environments,” says Christopher Haley, Head of New Technology and Startup Research at Nesta. “But if it is indicative of a lack of focus from the management team, then it might be cause for concern.”
A culture that encourages flexible work is also a simple route to increasing workers’ net happiness. Enshrining things like flexi-hours and remote work opportunities into company policy can boost employee mental health. The myriad physical and psychological benefits of workplace flexibility are well documented – everything from tiredness to blood pressure is positively impacted by this approach.
Giving workers more autonomy at the office – coupled with generous and inclusive benefits packages that work for every member of the team – can empower them to find a bit of meaning in their jobs, as well as help eradicate the culture of presenteeism that plagues so many startups. Valuing workers, taking care of them through the structural conditions of employment, and allowing them to determine their own fates – all that can bring the bullshit down to palatable.
“Startups generally need to get much better at having an eye on the present and not just the future,” says Nick Law, Creative Account Manager at Everpress (and startup veteran). “Work hard by all means, but not too hard, and play hard when the results of your work come to fruition.”