The Toll Startups Take on People

atkins-bookshelf-cultureDirectors Luis Lopez and J. Clay Tweel set out to tell the story of the 3D printing revolution in their fascinating documentary, Print the Legend, capturing the genesis and evolution of a revolutionary new technology and the eventual David-and-Goliath battle between the startups, MakerBot and Formlabs, and the established companies, Stratasys and 3D Systems. However, what makes the documentary so compelling is that it provides an unflinching look at the emotional and physical toll a startup takes on people, their relationships, and the Mephistophelean deals that tempt and change founders in profound ways. Print the Legend serves as an important reminder about the value of people, personal relationships and developing a nurturing culture in the workplace. Moreover, the documentary should serve as a dire warning to what happens as companies grow larger and introduce senseless bureaucratic policies and allow management and personality dysfunctionalities to creep in, that like a cancer, eat away a company’s morale and soul, while powerless human resource departments witness the daily carnage. Indeed, the documentary should be required viewing for every MBA student or budding entrepreneur in a world that lionizes fast companies at the expense of personal relationships and family life. Bookshelf presents some of the great insights from the soldiers in the trenches of the 3D printer wars, which could apply to any nonprofit or for-profit organization.

Bre [Pettis] read the Steve Jobs biography — like everybody did — and I think that book really did a disservice to a lot of people in the technology business because it gave a lot of people permission to be assholes because Steve was.
Jeff Osborn, former VP of Sales, MakerBot

I think if you look at Steve Jobs, he was somebody who was pretty messed up, just like all of us. He was somebody who was drive, like some of us. And he was somebody willing to put everything on the line to make things work.
Bre Pettis, co-founder and former CEO, MakerBot

I’ve found that there are two things that can happen when you’re put in power over employees. You can either say, “This is a chance to put into practice all the things I know are right and to treat people the way I always wished I’d been treated.” Or… “payback” — for everybody who ever made me bend over and pick up that piece of paper or any other thing. So you take a guy like Bre, when he finally did get power.. he completely went the other way — capricious decisions, cruelty, not listening to anyone else. Feeling like he could get rid of anybody who might have any input that would be contrary to something he wanted.
Jeff Osborn, former VP of sales, MakerBot

It’s weird to me that there are parts of my story there and parts of the story of MakerBot that you just can’t talk about. There are all these strange sort of barriers — there are legal ones, there are ones that relate to trying to protect people that you don’t want to get in trouble because they are instantly fired if they talk about certain things… We welcome the people who “graduate” [get fired from] from MakerBot. And they are traumatized, deeply traumatized and upset and maybe they don’t even know what triggered the end for them. Or maybe they did something, that would have been encouraged and blogged about and celebrated in the early days, [that] has become a fire-able offense.
Matt Griffen, former community manager, MakerBot

I had nine bosses fired out from above me. I was continouusly in a state of getting to know someone new whose whims I had to kind of predict.
Michael Curry, former MakerBot designer

I’ve been involved in a ridiculous amount of companies. There is alwasy conflict. The fantasy that there’s never conflict is just fantasy. As long as you’re the CEO, you get to make the final call.
Brad Feld, MakerBot investor

Not everyone is going to make the rocket ship ride all the way to the end. Or not everybody’s gonna make it to the top of the mountain. As the CEO, you have to make those tough decisions, and when I started making those decisions, that’s when it’s like, “Okay, now this isn’t just a game, this isn’t just a project. This is a company. We’re growing. We’re going big.”
Bre Pettis, co-founder and former CEO, MakerBot

Watching people get power is some scary shit. It’s almost like it makes.. What is it? Power corrupts, you could say, and absolute power… corrupts. Really. [Most likely, Osborn was trying to quote the famous aphorism by the British historian and politician, Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”]
Jeff Osborn, former VP of Sales, MakerBot

Every king is a despot. Every sovereignty, every asserted power, every superstructure, political structure ever was built on a fundamental crime. And for us to say, like, “Well, we all came together at some point in the past and we all consented and agreed and this is the way it is.” No — everything is built on these unjustified acts and usurpations of power and we intentionally obscure that to ourselves to pretend that, “Well, it’s a system and we’re all participating.” No… that’s a slave morality. You’re just trying to justify why you live in an unjust world.
Cody Wilson, self-confessed anarchist, developer of the printed 3D gun

Something that they don’t tell you about startups is that it takes a physical and emotional toll. It drains you. It tears into you. You believe in every decision. You bleed MakerBot red. And you can only do that so long before it starts to affect who you are. At a certain point, you have to evaluate, “Is this worth what it’s taking out of me?” And finally, at great pains, the answer for me came back as “no.”
Michael Curry, former MakerBot designer

If we grow too much, we lose it. I think everyone is sensitive to that. These models of growth, and [if] everything goes financially good — how do you deal with it? Then you need a strong ethical or ideological backbone to see how to manage it because you need to be strong it it’s not going good. And you need to be strong when it’s going good.
Yoav Reches, former lead product designer, Formlabs

Investors and people in business like to talk a lot about “What’s your competitive advantage?” And if you’re really building a company on a really long scale, the only advantage you an have on that scale is the culture, whatever it is that’s intrinsic to this organization. That, in some sense, is the most important thing.
Max Lobovsky, co-founder, Formlabs

The important thing is personal relationsips. That is the important thing in life. And so preserving those contributes to happiness for everybody and even though I’m gone [from the company], the seeds of things that I planted have still come out and [have] been amazing. And working all that stuff out, we were able to really know each other and who we are as people.
David Cranor, co-founder, Formlabs

You often hear, especially successful entrepreneurs or CEOs say, “We sacrificed so much to get to this point.” And if you’re not them or if you’ve never seen it done, you tend to believe that they’re talking about “Oh, we worked long nights” or “We didn’t see our families” or “It was really hard.” When you hear someone say that after you’ve been through a successful startup, you start to realize that those aren’t the sacrifices they’re talking about. They’re talking about having sacrificed who they are. They’re talking about having to have made compromises with their deep-seated beliefs, about having to cross lines that they promised themselves they’d never have to cross.
Michael Curry, former MakerBot designer

Read related posts: The Paradox of the American Dream
The Wisdom of George Carlin
The Google Generation

For further reading: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, Simon & Schuster (2011)
Lord Acton’s letter to Archbiship Mandell Creighton, http://history.hanover.edu/courses/excerpts/165acton.html

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