Work is the curse of the Information Revolution

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The Independent Online

Maybe it's a case of hi-techies not knowing how good they have it. Or, maybe not.

Maybe it's a case of hi-techies not knowing how good they have it. Or, maybe not.

The issue is "work", here in startup land. Ostensibly, a lot of it is going on. You hear and read plenty about Silicon Valley's young, breeding-age males and females going dateless, and mateless, because their work schedule leaves no time.

And lots of my colleagues go in at 8am and leave at 8pm. They don't have a lot of time left over in the day, unless they cut out sleep, or hygiene activities (and plenty of people do just that, judging by the "look and feel" - and aroma - around here).

But wait, you say. This is the Information Revolution. People are free to work with their minds rather than their backs. Information workers can be anywhere - telecommuters, unchained from rows of desks.

Right.

The reality of startups is that they are hard. It really is much harder to invent something, to do something for which there's no convenient model for success. Creating is a lot harder than mere copying.

Starting any business is hard. There's a lot of gritty stuff, icky details and grubby propositions to master and deal with. I learnt this the hard way in my foolish youth, when I started a bar with two buddies. How hard could it be to run a simple cash business like a bar? We thought it would be a dream deal where we'd meet all the girls, get rich and have free beer to boot.

Right.

The dream was more like a feverish night sweat: we met few girls because the clientele who came to favour our bar scared 'em away (heck, they even scared us away), and anyway we were too busy dealing with stuff. Stuff like "cash flow". We learnt the hard way about cash flow: when your cheques bounce, the brewery makes you pay cash.

There were other issues: bar fights, health inspectors, a landlord who carried a gun, backed-up toilets, the police, taxes, lawsuits and temperance crusaders. I did get some free beer: but not nearly as much as the clientele got from our generous help.

A bar operates on a well-understood principal: "cash for beer". Most startups are trying to make businesses out of concepts that are a lot more complicated, like: "paying portals to offer the software you're writing for free so you can sell user behaviour data to advertising aggregators".

So, along with all the other gritty details of payroll and personnel, they also have the uncertainty of the business model. In fact, it's all but a certainty that startups will change that model, many times, before they finally get it right - that is, if they ever get it right

Witness Netscape: they changed their model frequently before finally succumbing to a well-financed competitor (tough to make a buck when Microsoft competes by giving away free versions of all your products).

And thus the long hours. Boss rings up and says the great website you've spent three solid weeks, including weekends, to bring up has gotta come down. Now. You used to be a B to C (business to consumer) application service provider to upper tier early adopters: you've just become a B2B service provider targeting verticals. Gotta change those marketing messages quickly!

And then there's people. Managing people is tough in any business, but at an information company, people are the business. The Valley now is like a sports league that is expanding - the talent gets spread a little thin when you add, say, four teams to a 12-team league.

Imagine adding hundreds, or thousands of teams and you pretty much have Silicon Valley. In 1999, there were 2,161 initial public offering (IPO) and funded startup companies, according to one source. And there were many more that hadn't yet made it to funding or to IPO. Lots of new companies.

So the help is a little thin, especially considering the huge number of companies that are competing for the available talent. Translated, you pay way too much for people who are way too inexperienced for the jobs you're about to hand them. So a lot of time is spent teaching junior people the skills they need to become more senior ones. And more time is spent by very junior people explaining that they don't need those skills, since they know it all, already.

And since the troops are so green, a lot can go wrong. In fact, startup management's daily job can be described as figuring out how to keep the mutiny below decks, and make it appear to investors that the ship is smoothly navigating these uncertain waters.

And, you'll be shocked to hear this, not all those long hours are spent actually working. People who spend their days in front of computers on fast internet connections may actually be doing things other than work! Hard to believe, but some of those twentysomethings may be playing Doom, or visiting chat rooms, or gossiping over ICQ, or downloading a bitchen MP3 tune or visiting god-knows-what sort of websites.

ICQ alone means you can stand around a virtual water cooler all day if you want to.

Still, many in the Information Revolution work hard. Of course, it's all relative: during the Industrial Revolution, startups needed people who'd work 12-hour days mining coal, rather than minding code.

cg@gulker.com

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