Burnouts, VC Cons And Slave Labor: A Marxian Drama

Capital is dead labor, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks. – Karl Marx

Jamie Zawinski takes issue with my post yesterday where I quoted him. Here’s his new post:

Watch a VC use my name to sell a con.

Normally I just ignore navel-gazing tech-industry articles like this, but people keep sending it to me, so I guess this guy is famous or something. Michael Arrington posted this article, “Startups Are Hard. So Work More, Cry Less, And Quit All The Whining” which quotes extensively from my 1994 diary.

He’s trying to make the point that the only path to success in the software industry is to work insane hours, sleep under your desk, and give up your one and only youth, and if you don’t do that, you’re a pussy. He’s using my words to try and back up that thesis.

I hate this, because it’s not true, and it’s disingenuous.

What is true is that for a VC’s business model to work, it’s necessary for you to give up your life in order for him to become richer.

Follow the fucking money. When a VC tells you what’s good for you, check your wallet, then count your fingers.

He’s telling you the story of, “If you bust your ass and don’t sleep, you’ll get rich” because the only way that people in his line of work get richer is if young, poorly-socialized, naive geniuses believe that story! Without those coat-tails to ride, VCs might have to work for a living. Once that kid burns out, they’ll just slot a new one in.

I did make a bunch of money by winning the Netscape Startup Lottery, it’s true. So did most of the early engineers. But the people who made 100x as much as the engineers did? I can tell you for a fact that none of them slept under their desk. If you look at a list of financially successful people from the software industry, I’ll bet you get a very different view of what kind of sleep habits and office hours are successful than the one presented here.

So if your goal is to enrich the Arringtons of the world while maybe, if you win the lottery, scooping some of the groundscore that they overlooked, then by all means, bust your ass while the bankers and speculators cheer you on.

Instead of that, I recommend that you do what you love because you love doing it. If that means long hours, fantastic. If that means leaving the office by 6pm every day for your underwater basket-weaving class, also fantastic.

A few thoughts:

1. I’ve been a VC for four months.

2. “He’s trying to make the point that the only path to success in the software industry is to work insane hours, sleep under your desk, and give up your one and only youth, and if you don’t do that, you’re a pussy.” – No. I was making the point that people have been working crushingly hard in our industry for quite a while now, and that today’s hard workers shouldn’t assume this is something new.

3. “He’s telling you the story of, “If you bust your ass and don’t sleep, you’ll get rich”” No. I’m saying that working very hard is a necessary ingredient to being successful. Unless you are very, very lucky. But working hard doesn’t mean you’ll get rich. You’re chances are still abysmally, wonderfully slim.

4. “I did make a bunch of money by winning the Netscape Startup Lottery, it’s true. So did most of the early engineers. But the people who made 100x as much as the engineers did? I can tell you for a fact that none of them slept under their desk.” – Is the problem that the money you made wasn’t enough to compensate you for what you gave up? Or is the problem that other people at Netscape made far more money than you? Or, both?

5. The question I’d want to ask Jamie is, if he could go back and do it all over again, would he? He implies he would, but he never says it.

6. Lots of bitterness against venture capitalists and management. I get it. I was an entrepreneur for a lot longer than I’ve been a VC (10 years v. four months). I’ve been burned badly by VCs. Treated unfairly. But my response was simply to stop doing what I was doing and start doing something else.

7. Most VCs today that I know are a whole lot different than the VCs I knew a decade ago. Competition has driven them to behave much more civilly. In the process, many of them have learned that they can make a lot more money by simply chilling out, too.

8. I said this before, but I’ll say it again. Startup life isn’t for everyone. Do it with your eyes wide open. If you don’t like it, leave. If you do, don’t leave. If you like the life but hate the company, start your own company. Join, I guess, the dark side. And remember, being broke is no excuse. Move back with your parents and get free food and rent. Learn how to code if you don’t already. Just make it work. Or don’t. But don’t expect to get tons of equity and perks from a startup that someone else was willing to risk it all to start in exchange for average work. This isn’t the place for that.

I too have slept under desks, or wherever I fell. I too have at times worked so hard that there was nothing in my life except that work. The reason why I did this for all those years wasn’t because some VC was driving me to, or even because I thought I would get rich doing it. We never raised any venture capital at TechCrunch, and for the first several years I thought it was nothing more than a hobby, then a small business.

I did it because I was fascinated with the community around me. In love with it. There was nothing else I wanted to be doing. The courage and imagination I see every day from founders. And low level employees who struck out on their own to follow their own destiny.

Things are a lot different today than they were in Marx’s time. Today’s labor gets to nibble on organic food, be pampered with acupuncturists, and generally be coddled like no other employees on the planet. And when they get frustrated, or it’s just their time, they go out and start companies of their own, take venture capital or not, and see what they’re made of.

That’s the way I see Silicon Valley. It’s the same way I saw it as an employee being leveraged by bosses and venture capitalists who had far more equity than I did. It’s the same way I saw it when I started my own companies. And it’s the same way I see it as as an investor. Like an old, busted up ballplayer, I don’t have the stamina any more to start companies (maybe I will again in a couple years). But I can invest in, and cheer on, those that do.

I can’t think of anything more fun than continuing to be a part of the community that has fundamentally changed the world’s cultures and economies in just a few short years. A community that constantly creates somethings from nothings.

There is so much more to build. And, unlike the coal miners and child laborers in Marx’s time, we all get the chance to be a boss in this world. All you have to do, is do it. And maybe, when you’re the boss, you’ll see how hard it is to grow a company, with thousands of employees and their families relying on you to make the right decisions. And maybe, when those bosses aren’t perfect all the time, you’ll see why it’s just because they’re humans. Not soul sucking vampires.

So you see, Jamie, I wasn’t using your words as an argument to trick people into selling their souls. I just assume people will give them freely, drinking the same narcotic-spiked startup Kool Aid that I am. I was using your words to simply note that today’s hard workers were preceded by generations of other hard workers. Who sometimes also complained. In the end, we all know sausage making isn’t pretty. But sausage is, you know, delicious.

71 thoughts on “Burnouts, VC Cons And Slave Labor: A Marxian Drama

  1. Bill says:

    Arrington loves sausage.

  2. Laguna Arrington says:

    I liked the part about the sausage.

  3. How many souls could you suck down in just 4 wee months? I’m pretty sure souls are gluten free… not sure if they are as tasty as sausage.

  4. Billy says:

    It’s hard to take this seriously when it’s not written in terminal green.

  5. Laureana says:

    Every artist I know bet it all. Every serious sports-person trains their asses off starting at 5am every day. When you run a restaurant. When you run a baby publishing house. When you are a dancer.
    It’s tough work, but you do it, because you believe in it.
    More important, you do it, because it’s the only way you’d live.

  6. markokenya says:

    I have a fabulous concept I want to develop, and I will work insane hours, sleep under my desk, give up mountain biking and get fat on junk food, for a chance to escape the ghetto (um, well… the humdrum of a corporate lifer)

  7. Well reasoned reply. I expected you to go ape-shit on this one. Your age and wisdom are starting to show sir! 🙂

  8. Rock on.

    And for the record, I will not be sleeping under my desk tonight – rather the office couch.

    I like you Arrington.

  9. Camille Rose says:

    An old adage well-explained – “do what you love”. Thank you for this. You’ve inspired me to keep at what I’m doing because I really love it and am having a blast. I’m pretty broke right now, but ironically I’m at ease with where things are going. Happy Thanksgiving!!!

  10. TB says:

    I think it’s pretty well known that most people have to hustle to stack dough. Even +Kanye West knows, “Ain’t no tuition for having no ambition and ain’t no loans for sittin’ your ass at home.”

  11. xavierv says:

    Working hard is simply a way to be more competitive. + you can still work hard and have a little life on the side, it’s not such a dramatic experience.

  12. Johnny says:

    Long hours reduce productivity in anything but the extreme short term; we need to stop promoting this myth that costs people happiness and money. See this well-researched paper by Evan Robinson, about hours in the game industry.


    Fortunately, in my 14 year experience working at VC-funded tech companies in the Bay Area, I have found that many successful ones follow this maxim: “Work an intense eight hour day, then go home and have a life.”

    Let’s get some solid data on what kind of hours programmers in VC-funded startups are really working. I suspect they’re generally more humane than legend would have you believe, and that’s good for business.

    I worked some crazy hours when I was in my twenties, by the way. I’m much more productive now that I’m in my forties, have a lot more knowledge, and work sane hours.

    I looked for some kind of rebuttal to the Robinson paper, by the way, and couldn’t find anything. If there has been research supporting long hours, I’d like to see it.

    • Nicole Simon says:

      Mike thanks for both articles and the points you are bringing up, that has been on my mind for quite some time and this is great input. Johnny, thanks also very much for the link to the paper.

      If you just put in the hours, you will not be successful. And as cute as sleeping under your desk may be, it is as Mike said not a guarantee for success.

      But: If you a are surrounded by equally driven people and you do put in more amount of smart work you will get ahead of the competition. In the space of the startups, that is part of the deal.

      In the longer run, this kind of work will break you – but if you are a startup you are not supposed to be running on that kind of work for a very long time, there should be a tradition into ‘normal mode’. When we come to the next point:

      We need to readdress the point that work is a negotiation between employer and employee. The first pays mainly money and maybe some other stuff in exchange for something, mainly the ‘production’. As such, the employer has the right to demand high output and quality. The employee has the right to work some place else.

      Being an employee does not mean that you participate in success in the same degree as the employer or the founder, that is why you are called an employee. Which is why the employer / founder calls the shots. You are not a slave, you are a human being – with a brain supposedly.

      We also need to address the fact how inefficiently most startups are run. There is a huge lack of real leadership and management. I blame it in part on the fact that many of today’s entrepreneurs never saw the inside of a well run organization to even just copy what they saw there. And the employees – especially the ones with the brains – should be able to recognize if they are just putting in the hours or do smart work.

      But they often don’t. Which is why they have to work insane hours not to be really successful, but just go by. Equal to pushing the bicycle instead of driving the car.

      And that btw is one case where gender issue does come in: Men are insanely bad at taking advice and even worse at asking for it. The successful founders understand why they should seek out advice: Because it will make them even more successful.

      • … First of all: YAAAAAANNNN!!!
        Second: “… Men are insanely bad at taking advice and even worse at asking for it …” The complete sentence should be “… yes, particularly from small-minded nagging women …” — and especially those who believe that highly educated men [most Uncrunched readers] need to be explained what “work” is…

    • A big +1. Suffice to add, the most productive people and teams I have worked with over the last 20 years (wow, that makes me feel old!)

      – have a good work-life balance and as a rule, work an 8-hour day or thereabouts

      – care about what they’re working on, so are happy to put in the extra hours needed if something needs to be pulled out of the fire

      – know that if those fires are happening more than infrequently, something needs to be fixed – and that something won’t be mended by just working more and more crazy hours.

  13. Jeremy says:

    It still seems disingenuous to suggest that back-breaking labor is the path to success… especially back-breaking labor poured into someone else’s company.

    As you said, success certainly isn’t guaranteed. Even if the company you’re pouring sweat and blood into doesn’t go under (the most likely outcome), there’s no guarantee you, as an employee, will reap any meaningful financial rewards from your hard work.

    Let’s look at the Zynga situation. First, do we actually know the employees being given an ultimatum to give up shares or leave were laggards not pulling their weight? Where can we confirm this? Even then, didn’t they risk their livelihoods to help make Zynga successful? What is that worth? If these employees were demoted, why didn’t the shares come up then? Why is this just now an issue now that everyone’s anxiously awaiting an IPO?

    The timing especially makes it look a lot more like Zynga’s screwing over early employees to help sweeten the pot for others, which sounds like a pretty legitimate reason to whine to me.

    Certainly it’s enough to keep me from even considering working for Zynga.

    Perhaps the real lesson is that you can’t trust payment in any form other than cold, hard cash.

    You shouldn’t be afraid of hard work at all, but if money’s one of your goals, you’d better make sure the base salary you’re pulling is worth the effort you’re putting in! Anything else is setting yourself up for disappointment.

  14. DX says:

    And yet you still brush off the allegations of the racism, sexism and workplace hostility that tech workers as “complaining.” It’s not surprising that you are satisified with the way these people operate, cinsidering that you made it out on top.

    “We all know sausage making isn’t pretty.” It sure isn’t — so why change? After all, you say it best: “startup life isn’t for everyone.” (nudge, nudge, wink)

  15. Jorge Tiger Biter says:

    No one works harder than the founder.

    • Wag The Dog says:

      That sounds good but fact is I’ve been at venture backed companies where that clearly was NOT the case. The one I have in mind in particular there were plenty of people who worked much harder than the founders, including sleeping at work, weekends, nights, the whole nine.

  16. scott says:

    With all of your whining about how CNN used your words to label you as a racist and not contacting you to clarify what you were really speaking to I would think that you would not make the same mistake. I’m no fan of Karl Marx but if he were to lead an occupation of Sand Hill Road I might just join him.

  17. Programmer In A Big Company says:

    “People have been working crushingly hard in our industry for quite a while now, and that today’s hard workers shouldn’t assume this is something new.”

    A well-rounded person has more in their life than their work. Family, friends, hobbies all contribute to overall happiness. Today’s workers should think whether they want to be a part of an industry that demands working insane hours and justifies it by “this is nothing new, stop whining” or if they should seek and join a company that understands that working smarter, not harder, is the key to the best product; and that having happy, healthy, well-rested employees is not a perk but a requirement for quality.

    “Your industry” is missing on a lot of great minds that are extremely competent yet not obsessed with work. The next time you ask yourself why there are not enough women in the startup scene, for example, look no further than this post of yours for the reason.

    • I think the defining difference here is if you have skin in the game and you truly love it. My first startup (which I had for 10 years) I took calls on every holiday and even in the back of a convertable on the way to my wedding…but I never really thought anything of it. The key however is I took those calls because I couldn’t imagine asking any employee without a stake to do the same. It is a balance of what you have in it and if you really love it. I remember the call on my wedding, but did it really bother me? Not as much as you’d think. I just think the mistake in this whole argument is not defining who is working under their desks and for what…

  18. VCs: Stupid that exist. Stupid to ignore.

    (Starting a… sausage that will last 1000(!) years is quite a job. #iwatchtoomuchporn )

  19. mindctrl says:

    “Today’s labor gets to nibble on organic food, be pampered with acupuncturists, and generally be coddled like no other employees on the planet.”

    You Valley boys live in such a bubble.

  20. ItsLee says:

    “Work smarter, not harder”. Sleeping under your desk as a norm is not smart. However there are at least 4-10 years of ones life that should be sacrificed upon the altar of progress. University is meant to be those, but partying & outdated curriculum degrade the viability of it all. For at least 4 years of your life say goodbye to unproductive activities, and go into a cocoon of professional self development. Only after this do you deserve a balanced life, and should

  21. hspank says:

    now that you recognized that jamie is a good guy, not exactly the conformist type but rather an artist, you could recognize that there is more in marx than coal mining. ever thought about the return of investment compared wikipedia to google? their business model? what’s more sustainable facebook or email ? wait until the next bubble has bursted.

  22. kyledeb says:

    If only working hard had as much to do with “success” as you imply here, Mike. You’re completely off on this one for trying to defend the indefensible. Everyone who’s been in places where we work as hard as you’ve suggested also knows that it’s not sustainable.

  23. Assington says:

    This guy made money, too?

    I really don’t want to live on this planet anymore.

  24. surrealimage says:

    Is it more like demand-supply situation. Now (as well as in late 1990s we have more VCs or Angels compared to early 1990s. So developers are pampered. Also, companies like Google created a work environment and employee perks that is world class raising the bar.

    Nevertheless – your basic point is well taken. I was told by someone I respect a lot – “once in a while in our life, we should show our best aptitude. You will know when that is – where you need to give your best shot – your everything. That is when you should not whine..just do what it takes. You will win. (you may lose..but it will be a sweet one)”. I liked that and I applied and seen it work.

  25. Doesn’t the fact that we have over 500,000 apps for our phones suggest part of this concept is failing? Are a bunch of people killing themselves to push the next POS out the door rather than taking time to figure out what real problems are and how to solve them?

    The meteoric rise in phone apps reminds me of the rise in popularity of online poker and the mad rush to get a piece of the action…ie…everyone saw what they believed was an easy path to make a few bucks without thinking through how difficult it really is. A TV show or two hyping the opportunity, a no-name winner of a big tourney and suddenly you have something that looks a lot like people trying to create the next Facebook and failing horribly in the process.

  26. Greg says:

    Arrington, I don’t think Jamie is implying that he’d do it all over again if he could. You’re reading that into it because you’d like to find a point of agreement. It seems pretty clear to everyone else reading it that if he could decapitate your Randian attitude and put that on a bloody pike, he’d do that.

    Acupuncture and organic foods are not coddling workers, big guy. Coddling workers is giving them some time to themselves so that they can get acupuncture and organic foods on their own time. It doesn’t matter how many Ping-Pong tables you have set up if your employees can’t ever leave the building. Then it’s a prison. A country-club prison, to be sure. But still a prison.

  27. Anon says:

    “I did make a bunch of money by winning the Netscape Startup Lottery, it’s true. So did most of the early engineers. But the people who made 100x as much as the engineers did? I can tell you for a fact that none of them slept under their desk.” – Is the problem that the money you made wasn’t enough to compensate you for what you gave up? Or is the problem that other people at Netscape made far more money than you? Or, both?

    I think he was only saying that there was no direct link between working late and making a lot of money.

  28. Hello.. I’ve been reading some of everybodies articles and opinions /comments, actually alot of them. I’m now reading daily much to my amazment! I would like to learn how to code so I know what the heck my son is scribbling and concocting in his two offices.. And what the heck is a lag switch and its purpose?? My son is constantly rewireing and scrapping parts from my workshop.. Where can I get the right training and info to learn coding from?I have two offices in my home and a workshop (I choose to make things by hand when I’m in a frustrated mode rather than verbally vent. Mainly because I can curse worse than a drunken sailor and its really not best of ones self to others) I do want to seriously learn code, is anyone of you willing to steer me in the right direction?? Oh an does anyone want an amazing companion?? I have been fostering a bunch of adorable puppies and need to find great homes for them??

  29. dhajdu says:

    Organizing Genius – Warren Bennis — http://www.amazon.com/Organizing-Genius-Secrets-Creative-Collaboration/dp/0201339897

    read these amazing stories and you will see that what Michael is talking about is the amazing things that can happen when you have a group of people with untiring work ethic.

    it’s not just silicon valley. i

  30. FDR says:

    “Today’s labor gets to nibble on organic food, be pampered with acupuncturists, and generally be coddled like no other employees on the planet. ”

    You are an out of touch buffoon. I am far from a Marxists but maybe you want to look a bit pas the SV to see the organic food that labor it eating with barely any jobs or $12 an hour.

    You made your point, Zwarinksy made his, no need to label others Marxists. It’s utterly stupid to give up 10% for $17K or whatever Ycombinator gives.

  31. Happy Christmas, Merry New Years, and Be Joyful Thanksgiving! What I believe most of us in this discussion realize but are a little to stressed in ‘our own things’ to accept and agree on is… Your belief and desire will far outweigh any compensation you receive from what you do for a living.

    If you believe you are the best Quarter Back in football and desire to be ‘the best QB in football’, that is your reward. The same as if you believe you are the best assembler Campbells Soup has on it’s canning line (as my Grandfather believed). He retired from Campbells a very happy and satisfied man.

    No one is ‘wrong’ in this discussion, our futures are our own. Whether sleeping under your desk or in your bed, remember… You and only you, have the power to build the future you dream of.

  32. stantona says:

    This post is slightly disturbing and a nice commentary on how things are fucked up in general. If you are buying into the whole “making a dent in the universe” snake oil, then you’re attaching to much importance to your actions in this universe. Google, Facebook, Twitter, are not making a dent in this universe. They are a natural consequence of emerging technology and free market economics.

    If you didn’t create these, someone else would have. They make a select few a lot of money, and for the rest of us, they provide more idle distraction away from the real things that are “making a dent in the universe”. That doesn’t mean I don’t like them, I’m a developer and I love what I do, and I love Google and Twitter (Facebook not so much).

    Just do what you gotta do, if you believe you are making a dent, fair play to you, I wouldn’t find you a terribly interesting person though. If you’re in it for the financial reward, that’s fine, I would find you more interesting because that is closer to the truth. The fact is, those who believe in the former, are the ones that actually succeed, despite the delusion. I’m sure Steve Jobs believed he was making a dent in the universe.

    “Deprived of meaningful work, men and women lose their reason for existence; they go stark raving mad.” Fyodor Dostoevsky

  33. Peter Mullen says:

    There was an article written about Silicon Valley in Upside magazine many years ago after the MBAs started coming in and trying to run things their way (as opposed by founding entrepreneurs). It was called something like “The Pussification of Silicon Valley”. I think it’s time for a reprint.

  34. Ruben says:

    this reads like the pinnacle scene to a movie as emotionally charged as Rocky II. ::grabs laptop, runs to nearest shared space:: its time to kick ass and take names!

  35. Jon says:

    I don’t know how Michael-the-VC is doing, but I miss Michael-the-journalist. I may not always agree with you, but I always like reading you.

    Write more.


  36. Robin McFee says:

    We should be measuring outputs instead of inputs. It’s not about putting in 16 hours a day. It’s about getting the important things done every day.

    Unfortunately as a startup founder there is too much work to do in any given day no matter what your output to input ratio is. So regardless, sleeping under your desk will still give you the best chance at success.

  37. The Hook says:

    Fantastic work – Comrade!

  38. vikas says:

    Michael Arrington.. What is taking you so long.. Post your next blog.. I am done reading this one..

  39. Allan Hoving says:

    can we all go back to work now?

  40. jim Harrer says:

    Hard work and persistence over the long haul helps you be present when luck shows up. Who makes 10x versus 100x is an entirely different topic. A choice between a startip and say, Microsoft, is a choice people should make thoughtfully.

    I’m glad my youth was spent on a start-up instead of Sears.Most of the movies I missed are on Netflix today, so no real harm done.


  41. Michael-

    I was in the audience for your interview at Startups Uncensored the other night. Thanks for taking time to be here. I hope you got to have a good stiff drink afterward.

    You alluded to a TED talk about beauty and I’d love to know if you’ve remembered which one it is. I’d really like to watch it but there are several that fit the bill.

    Sorry to post this here a bit randomly but I don’t know how else to reach you.

    Carrie Norton

  42. aachilders says:

    Don’t go starting any more fights Mike! By the way FYI brief mention of your site on my blog http://www.adrianchilders.com/two-cultural-changes-every-third-world-country-needs.

  43. Rantling says:

    If you are doing it for the money, the go be a banker or a VC. Doing the startup thing is done because you want to change the world and that’s the most important thing in the world to you. Beyond that it’s the journey stupid. Not the end result. At the end of this all we are all dead.

    So you had better be doing the startup crunch because it’s in your blood and you love the challenge. Any other reason and you are insane and need to go be a banker. They make all of the money in the world, and are going to be the first lined up on the wall to take those 50 cent shots…

    Wake up and Smell the Coffee…

    • Put some sugar in your coffee!! I certainly am not getting paid to post… anf far from stupid. We all have the ability of choice and continuos learning less your dead and then it doesnt matter because your all knowing or just voided out!

  44. So so so very true. Every word.

  45. Luke says:

    I see why I stopped reading this blog. Full of hot air.

  46. YourHaterHAHA says:

    Fuck you!

  47. Tim says:

    You say “our industry” here. As jwz states, you’ve never been a developer and slept under your desk. You cannot put yourself in the same group as the developers and programmers who are busting their ass to make investors rich.

  48. The work the people are doing demands some perspective. So much of the resources seem to be eaten in Silicon Valley by gaming and entertainment and not by social good. I don’t respect the idea of sleeping under ones desk for a casual came, i.e., to help people buy virtual cows or what not. If they are helping solve the worlds problems, climate change, hunger, disease, then it seems more reasonable, and even heroic.

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