Anyone in the audience for Bloomberg’s live finale of TechStars last night could see that being a scrappy startup entrepreneur –someone who quits their high paying white collar job, throws caution to the wind and puts everything into building an idea– is currently a hip lifestyle choice. This is not a knock on the hard working folks from TechStars who are trying to build big companies, just a a fact. When there are multiple reality TV shows about your profession, it’s clear the world has caught a case of startup fever.
In some ways this might be a reflection of the broader economic turmoil that is roiling America. The self-motivated entrepreneur who creates something from nothing, who defies the odds and ends up building new opportunity for themselves and others, is a great role model for the millions who have been laid off from large corporations and struggling financial institutions.
But to call the protestors down at #OWS startup entrepreneurs, as Betabeat heard many times yesterday during the TechStars events and after party, muddies the definition of both. It also detracts from the real complaints being made by the masses gathered down in Zuccotti Park.
Over the weekend Tom Watson, the entrepreneur behind Cause Wired, wrote that:
Occupy Wall Street is a start-up. And it is deeply entrepreneurial. Indeed, if Silicon Alley venture capitalists like my friend Fred Wilson - who is publicly intrigued by the protests – are looking for proven talent in attracting a crowd online behind a product that is lithe, broad, and ripe for vast adoption, they could do worse than surf the crowd of social entrepreneurs sleeping under tarps in Zuccotti Park.
Unlike the bankers and Wall Street firms, who rely on fixing the game in Washington and public bailout money to lock in their billions, the scraggly and gritty start-up team at Occupy Wall Street steers much closer to the idealistic self-improving America of Ralph Waldo Emerson – and even to the capitalist penny passion plays of Horatio Alger.
Substitute “policy change” for “revenue model” says Mr. Watson, and the analogy works perfectly. But you can’t just interchange those two, pat the protestors on the back and declare solidarity between the startup world and #OWS.
Many of the protestors down at #OWS are fundamentally opposed to our current capitalist system. The driving force behind this movement is the fact that the disparity between the rich and poor in America has reached historic levels, with our nation’s divide currently much wider than Cameroon, Ivory Coast and revolutionary Egypt. How does a startup culture that idolizes Steve Jobs fit into that equation?
The #OWS movement, like young startups, is a scrappy, disruptive force low on resources but high on passion. There are much both camps can learn from one another. And there are similar macro-economic forces driving the growth of #OWS and the boom in the startup scene. But to conflate the two as kindred spirits is an oversimplification that diminishes the escalating political unrest happening in our backyard and around the world.