A “Bulls**t Free Zone”? The Hypocrisy of Startup Culture

Hajera Blagg

Hajera Blagg

As if Internet acronyms weren’t already so difficult to decipher—ROFL, LMFAO, YOLO—the workplace now produces its very own. GSD, or Get Shit Done, is, according to the Evening Standard, ‘the new buzz acronym of the start-up world.’

Google ‘Get Shit Done’, and you’re lead to the curiously named Startup Vitamins, a website selling office supplies branded with the mantras of startup culture. Its clients include such venerable little businesses as Google, Twitter and Amazon.

‘Life is short. Do stuff that matters’, a coffee cup exhorts us. ‘This is a bullshit free zone’, announces a sleekly designed poster. For the price of a night out at the cinema, you can sport a t-shirt emblazoned with ‘Passion never fails’.

One could easily dismiss these trite little trinkets as the brainchild of an ex-officemate who was always a little too keen. But as start-up businesses boom in east London’s Tech City, it behooves us to understand the emergent beast that is start-up culture, as it washes up on our shores.

I say this because I once worked for a start-up in America. From day one, you’re drinking the startup Kool-Aid, a sweetly satisfying elixir of feel-good teamwork and importance-bestowing individualism.

The CEO is friendly and accessible and he deplores, as he tells you, ‘traditional hierarchies’. The free booze is bountiful. You’re sent on team-building trips to the Texas Hill country.

Even the lowliest worker on the totem pole can join in on various, ‘innovation meetings’ to ‘ideate.’ Fridays become ‘Formal Fridays’, an inside joke celebrating the fact that — unlike the stodgy drones in suits and ties in neighbouring offices — you can show up to work in jeans and a t-shirt whenever you want.

But the Kool-Aid is not without a bitter aftertaste. As profits begin to drop, you awake to an email informing you that the workday has been officially extended — without a requisite pay rise. You find that your days are filled with tasks that are disturbingly unethical. Entire departments are suddenly made redundant, with the newly unemployed not given even an hour’s notice.

Bullshit free zone, indeed.

I once asked a colleague, a sensitive and idealistic young woman who’d been suffering from depression that I’m convinced was work-related, why she didn’t just quit.

Her response: ‘But we have so much fun here.’

This isn’t to say that start-ups are more exploitative than traditional businesses, or even to suggest that some start-ups are exploitative at all. But if you are exploited at a start-up, it’s much more difficult to notice or to even care.

As local author Federico Campagna explains in his new book, The Last Night: Anti-Work, Atheism, Adventure:

“Work [today] does not simply act as an entrance to the market of resources, but […] as the intimate theater of happiness […] is there any place where we can feel safer than when we are in our workplace, snug in the warm embrace of our office family?”

Start-up culture ultimately convinces workers that their jobs are more than this ‘entrance to the market of resources’. The work contract becomes doubly coercive: you can’t leave because you need the money; you don’t want to leave, because of all the supposed perks, which you should be grateful for.

Just because you’re on a first-name basis with your CEO, it doesn’t mean he sees you as anything more than profit, which he’ll aim to extract at whatever cost. But as GSD and all that start-up claptrap insists on reminding us — we’re all having so much fun.


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