Malcolm Stewart Column: Are Startups The New Cults?

Malcolm Stewart has been around the Finnish startup scene for a while. He's gone through Startup Sauna & Slush as the co-founder of Clerkd, a music discovery app, and he's worked with a number of other local startups in the media and entertainment space. These days he's a content producer who helps Finnish brands tell stories - many of them are startups. 

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Composite picture of Steve Jobs, Charles Manson, Elon Musk and Jim Jones / Credit: News Now Finland

I haven’t been spending too much time thinking about startups lately, but since it’s that Slush time of year I thought I’d give it a go and see what comes out.

The subject of this column probably isn’t what you would expect when you think about startups, but I think you’ll agree there’s a few striking similarities between startups and cults.

And yes I know this all sounds like something that would fit in the deepest conspiracy theory forums of the web, but hear me out. Here are a few ways that startups and cults are alike:

  • Charismatic & Prophetic Leaders

Both startups and cults have very charismatic leaders who claim to be able to see things the rest of us can’t. I know that Steve jobs, Elon Musk, or Jack Dorsey aren’t exactly Charles Manson or Jim Jones, but they’re passionate leaders who can inspire people to do anything and believe in their vision. Oh, and in the startup world these leaders are often referred to as “visionaries” and sometimes even  “evangelists”. Just saying…

  • Missions To Change The World

Cults and startups also follow strong missions to change the world. You’ll hear people shouting “change the world!” “revolutionise!” and “disrupt!” more times than you would like at Slush this week (pro tip: don’t make a drinking game out of it because security will be kicking you out before midday) and any cult worth its salt is built around some sort of twisted vision for the world.

  • Stopping Defectors From Leaving

Cults and startups do all they can to stop people from leaving their organisations. With cults it’s a lot of brainwashing, threats, security measures and even blackmail, but with startups it’s a little more civil. Startups offer employees shares when they join the company but they are not really theirs until they are ‘vested’ (read: until they have worked at the company long enough. Usually between 3 & 5 years) and if you leave before you are vested, then you lose the shares. So, in a way employees are often forced to stick with a startup until their shares have some value. 

  • Compounds vs Campuses

Most cults have their own little piece of the world all to themselves, no one can get in or out. While startup offices and tech campuses do let their employees leave at night, there is a lot in common with the cult compound. They’re both far away from other parts of society. Silicon Valley is in the middle of nowhere for a reason, and all the major tech company campuses are hidden away from prying eyes. Security is at a premium for any self respecting cult or tech company in order to keep people out and keep members and employees in (and to make sure no one steals information or tells the rest of the world what they’re up to inside). Startups also do anything they can to keep their employees in the office. Think free laundry, games, coffee, food, red bull, soft drinks, and Facebook even provides bonuses to employees who move closer to their Silicon Valley headquarters.

  • Composite Picture of Heaven’s Gate cult member wearing purple robe and Nike sneakers, Rovio’s Peter Vesterbacka and Supercell’s Ilkka Paananen / Credit: News Now Finland

    The Uniforms

Last but not least are the uniforms. Every cult member has to wear some sort of weird uniform (think capes, cloaks, old-timey smocks or even science fiction inspired formal Navy attire) and startups are no different. Whether you’re walking into a startup office, hanging out at a tech conference or even just walking the dog in a gentrified neighbourhood from San Francisco to Helsinki you’ve probably seen the obligatory startup hoody. Need I say more…

Now, I know that this isn’t damning evidence that startups are the new cults, but given the growing secularism in the west and the continued rise of technology companies I think it’s a valid question to ask.

If you’re at Slush this week see if you can spot any of these similarities with the startups you come across and if you can think of any other examples of how these two are alike please let us know. Enjoy Slush and don’t drink too much Kool-Aid.

Malcolm Stewart has been around the Finnish startup scene for a while. He’s gone through Startup Sauna & Slush as the co-founder of Clerkd, a music discovery app, and he’s worked with a number of other local startups in the media and entertainment space. These days he’s a content producer who helps Finnish brands tell stories – many of them are startups.