It all started with an innocent look at the contesters of the Bulgaria 3D Challenge tournament, while getting my daily dose of startup updates. Intranet platforms, e-service websites and online prediction tools; all the usual – or at least fairly standard – business ideas were there. However, modestly listed among these 2.0 tech marvels, was a peculiar one: handmade laptop cases knitted by Bulgarian grandmas. Despite the mention of the word laptop, the latter did not quite match the geeky picture that usually comes to mind when thinking of a participant in competitive startup endeavors. Our contributor Manon Pierre takes us on an anthropological, yet entertaining, journey exploring startup diversity – with a dash of cultural relativism.
One to rule them all…
That observation highlights the basic fact that, although the IT sector is actually only a small share of the wide range of startups out there (for example, they represented less than 5% of startups created in Berlin in 2012), the tech model tends to prevail to the public’s eyes. Media exposure, startup events, and tech awards are forging this common, mainstream conception of a startup: a bunch of young caffeine-perfused nerds, stuck to their laptops until late at night to develop the next ground-breaking app. This archetype often serves as the base for evaluating other startups, in the same way that early 20th-century sociologists were using values inherent to Western societies as benchmarks to study foreign cultures.
What would Margaret do?
This is when the open and interpretive approach used by American anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901-1978) comes in handy for undertaking a study of the different types of startups. In short, Coming of Age in Samoa, her research on adolescent sexuality in Samoa islands, conducted in 1925, aimed to establish if the troubles linked to adolescence were inherent to all human beings, regardless of their socio-cultural context, or if they were the product of cultural forces (which was the case). Mead’s work built the base for cultural relativism, which in turn was included in the universal declaration of human rights by the UN.
Her advisor Franz Boas recommended to her to examine “the psychological attitude of the individual under the pressure of the general pattern of culture”. This wise piece of advice is a useful methodological tool for studying contemporary entrepreneurship as well, yet with a higher degree of difficulty. Indeed, Mead studied a rather stable, homogenous and mono-cultural society. Here, we are facing the incommensurable mess of mixed cultural, political and social influences that characterises contemporary European societies, with rapidly evolving social norms and poorly defined cultural structures.
Moreover, whether they are web/mobile oriented, at the service of the community or related to creative industries, startups tend to live in their silos, cloistered. Although they share numerous similar features such as a young team, a dubious business model, hectic working hours, sizable coffee consumption, a hefty reliance on interns, a high degree of commitment to the company, colourful open-spaces with a lousy internet connection, and ultimately the aim of reaching financial sustainability, they barely interact with those belonging to different fields. Their scarce encounter opportunities are limited to entering award competitions and lining up for funding. Thus, while a sociological cross-comparison appears irrelevant, a rather naïve anthropological approach of the main startup types remains somewhat pertinent.
As mentioned earlier, the IT field virtually represents a generous slice of the hype startup pie. The basic functioning of web/mobile startups is the following: a fresh graduate comes up with an idea, pairs up with fellow geeks, and turns it into a product with the help of someone slightly more responsible, usually referred to as “the finance guy”.
Besides the pride of creating a leading or innovative technology, a programme or game on itself, the underlying idea often restsupon the hopes of being bought by a bigger fish for an outrageous amount of money. Although the occurrence of the latter remains relatively low, the number of these companies is considerable, in particular in tech hubs such as Berlin, Vienna, Poznan and Krakow.
This startup culture is characterised by a common type of playful office lifestyle, an ultra-technical vocabulary, geeky interests and liberal values.
Dealing with Mother Nature
Associated with messy hair, hemp pants and tofu-eating for a long time, alternative lifestyles have become tremendously popular among young generations these past years, leading to a boom of ethically-correct startups, also known as social entrepreneurs. These young companies, advocating for a better living, are often platforms that offer solutions for a sustainable and healthier living in multiple fields including food, clothing, technology and architecture.
The specificity of this type of startup is the behavioural coherence that it usually implied within both the professional and private spheres, the individual applying the same ethical principles in and out the office. In addition to generally struggling to make a profit, an alternative startup is also recognisable at numerous nice-sounding labels and key-words ranging from fair-trade, all-natural, organic, socially-responsible, seasonal and eco-friendly to green technology and low carbon-footprint.
Old-school & homemade, the reign of small-scale retail
But forget about mass-produced goods and uniformity. From customised furniture and tailor-made footwear to hipster energy drinks brewed in a backyard, most startups commercialising consumption goods prefer to focus on a limited line, and sometimes even on a single product. Counting on somehow finding a niche in saturated markets and crusading against multinational giants, they face the delicate task of being creative while balancing high fixed costs and competitive prices for small production lines. Whether it’s a marketing scam or a genuine altruistic mindset, they often put a heavy emphasis on the use of local and fair-trade materials or ingredients for their products, handmade whenever possible.
Signs that a startup is doing e-retail include an extensive amount of goodies and samples crowding the workplace, employees casually mentioning the company name/product in conversations with strangers, a tendency to actively involve their entourage in the customer base, as well as sending mass invites to friends to like their company’s Facebook page, when they haven’t already liked their own posts on it (although this pattern can also to be found in other startup kinds).
You got served
At the crossroad of technological innovation, business venture and social change, service startups are a hybrid species. Aiming to improve the overall quality of life and connecting the community by technological means such as apps, software, and online tools, they offer a broad range of services, such as parking spots finder, learning tools, hosting online art portfolio, digital marketplace, music sharing platform and online news outlet. In spite of their useful rather than entertaining nature, they possess numerous characteristics in common with tech startups, including the eternal question of how to get users to pay for a virtual service.
Coming back to the individual considering his or her cultural surroundings, it becomes clear that we always see other cultures through the eyes of our own. Meanwhile, the increasing use of technology and social media in marketing, and the growing concern for an ethical and sustainable lifestyle are progressively blurring the boundaries between startup kinds – at a very first glance, they might even seem the same. So, this is the time to ask: Are we going back to Mead’s time of having one prevailing culture? Perhaps not. Yet, one thing is for sure: As long as people have the courage to start their own business, are inspiredenough to follow their vision, and don’t give up when struggles arise, there will be talk of an enduring cultural pattern – depending which way you look at it.
About the author:
Manon is a French citizen, yet based in Hamburg and working in English. As if all this wasn’t confusing enough, she’s a graduate of the University of Hong Kong, with a double degree in journalism and sociology. In 2012, after five hectic years in China, she decided to put down her chopsticks for a while, and headed to Germany for a refill of European hedonism. When not clattering about startups, she writes about architecture and design for various magazines, ponders the merits of German climate and attempts to sketch her surroundings.
Read more about the origins of the “From the sociologist’s notebook” series by our co-founder: Introducing: From the sociologist’s notebook
Here is the rest of the series:
Part I: The habitus of IT entrepreneurs and startup geeks by Manon Pierre
Part II: Commitment turned commodity? by Alexander Hirschfeld
Part III: Is God an Entrepreneur? by Alexander Hirschfeld
Part IV: Startups, buzz, and glory by Manon Pierre
Part V: Is the party over? Startups and the experience society by Alexander Hirschfeld