Why does every person I meet today either work for an internet startup or own one? Everyone seems to want to be in this space one way or another. And ironically, not many are actually making any money off of it. Most don't even have the semblance of a business model in place. What is it then about the internet startup industry that makes it so charming?
These are some questions I began asking myself about a year and a half ago as I began to increasingly immerse myself in Toronto's online community.
And then it hit me.
About a year ago, I was at a local event for tech-entrepreneurs in Toronto. I walked in as one of the young CEOs was finishing a talk about his company, his progress to date and his struggle for funding. As he, Mr. Startup CEO, walked down the stage, he was swarmed by the crowd. People wanted to chat with him about his company's work to date, hear his stories of struggle, laugh at the jokes he made (even if they weren't funny!), and buy him the customary shots of tequila.
He was the rock star that night.
Once upon a time, you had to be a musician, playing for a rock band, struggling, rejecting a 'regular' job, indulging in alcoholism and marijuana abuse to be cool -- you know, to be a rockstar. Today, all you need is an internet-startup!
Think about the rock band that you were once a part of. You knew the likelihood of you actually making a career or a livelihood out of it was bleak, but that never deterred you from rehearsing, gigging and dreaming! Of course, you did it because it was fun, but more importantly, you did it because of the way you'd be perceived in society - by your peers and even the opposite sex (or the same sex depending on your tastes). You did it because of culture.
You did it cause it was cool.
Internet-startups today embody the narrative of the counter-culture. There is a sense of heroism associated with the person who decides to reject a corporate career to work insane hours, typically in a basement, wearing torn blue jeans and sipping red bull. Of course, I'm painting a stereotypical picture here, but you get the point. Interestingly enough, such a narrative seems to exist only in the confines of the internet (and now computer mediated technologies in general) startup world. And a large part of it has to do with the heroic celebration of the 'cyberpunk' (a.k.a the hacker) over the last decade. From the hackers and coders who saved the world from Y2K to Shawn Fanning, who revolutionized music distribution, the last decade has witnessed a strong internet counter-culture develop and take centre stage. It is this very counter-culture that has created Julian Assange - arguably the most celebrated cyberpunk in today's context.
So what's next?
The paradox of the counter-culture applies here as well -- as a culture gains popularity and enters the mainstream, it no longer carries with it the same meanings and identities. So as Internet and computer-mediated technologies continue to enter the mainstream, I keep wondering what will happen to the narrative of the internet-startup rockstar? Will a new counter-culture emerge, or have many begun to emerge already? More importantly, what will this cultural phenomenon do to entrepreneurship in Canada? Canadians have long been accused of being risk averse. Is all this about to change?