STARTING ON STARTUPS

Doejo is a startup. Or, as they define themselves:

  1. A digital agency
  2. A growing collective of badasses
  3. A mastermind start-up incubator think tank
  4. A production house

They launch products, brands, sites, and campaigns. Their capabilities range from motion graphics to social media campaigns to product development. In short, they do all sorts of shit.

Which is exactly why I embarked on a quest to figure out what a startup actually means. If Anthropologie is the hipster version of urban fashion, then start-ups are the trendy McKinseys and JP Morgans of the corporate world. Despite their growing popularity, start-ups are difficult to define. Recognized for their enormous growth (and risk) potential, most startups aim to create a new market or disrupt an existing one. Although they’re often associated with technological ventures, Paul Graham uses the following definition:

 A startup is a company designed to grow fast. Being newly founded does not in itself make a company a startup. Nor is it necessary for a startup to work on technology, or take venture funding, or have some sort of “exit.” The only essential thing is growth. Everything else we associate with startups follows from growth.

Despite his profoundly simple insight, my mind is still racked by all the buzz words associated with a startup: innovation, design, consulting, tech, entrepreneurship. “It goes back to the idea of what the definition of an entrepreneur is. It doesn’t have to be somebody who’s fresh out of business school, and it doesn’t have to be some kid that came up with an idea from his garage. Entrepreneurs are being placed in Fortune 500 companies as a kickstarter to a new way of thinking,” says Darren Marshall, co-founder of Doejo. I meet Marshall and his fellow colleagues at Bow Truss, a swanky coffee shop in Lakeview.

Inside Bow Truss

I ask Marshall to differentiate between a design and innovation firm. He says a design firm spends more time on problem-defining and strategy as opposed to an innovation firm, which places greater emphasis on execution. According to his definition, then, Doejo is a jack of all trades.

Phil Tadros, the other co-founder of Doejo, offers a more streamlined description. His company is focused on creating or improving a virtual or physical user experience. Using a common model of problem solving, designing, building, and testing, they develop and enrich user interaction. “We’re not just a digital agency. Our core competencies are design and development, but we also do accounting and legal advice for businesses.”

The concept of a startup becomes slightly less nebulous, but I’m curious about the Chicago scene. The Doejo group says that companies like Groupon and Threadless are attracting and encouraging more entrepreneurs to start new companies in Chicago, even though many eventually leave to pursue greater funding opportunities on the coasts. Tadros says that Chicago-based startups are more focused on profitability and generating revenue from Day 1, whereas West Coast startups are more socially-focused. “They’re looking for big data or world-changing product like Twitter, and their revenue models are clearly defined,” says Marshall. And they may be right. According to Entrepreneurship Review: “Chicago tends to have pockets of innovation and entrepreneurship.  Northwestern and University of Chicago, for example, churn out a large pool of technological, legal and business talent… However, the key difference with Silicon Valley is that they are not concentrated and the city has yet to establish a communication platform for entrepreneurship.”

If the idea is to generate as much profit with the least amount of investment, why aren’t more startups successful? Because while most ideas are good, not all are great. And startups are based solely on a great innovative service or product that appeals to a mass market. And even successful startups may find themselves suffering from growing pains. I asked Doejo about the state of Groupon.

“Groupon makes gobs of money. What’s wrong with them? People will talk shit and say whatever, but [Groupon] makes tons of money. Tons,” Tadros says. But Marshall adds, “It’s a lot like playing the piano. The more you practice, the better you get, but if you’re playing a terrible song, it still sounds awful. The model that they have is good for ramping up and building up a large company quickly, but the product that they’re selling is probably their detriment.”

Needless to say, it’s a tough world. The process sounds remarkably simple: create a minimal viable product or service, test it with actual customers, and hopefully build sustainable business. But just as technology increases accessibility and opportunity, it can also overwhelm. Because the industry is so competitive, success necessarily requires tenaciousness, constant problem-solving, and learning to fail. Tadros says accepting your losses is crucial to surviving the startup industry—after all, “it makes no sense to continue funding failure.”

As a Generation Y’er with an attention span of three seconds, I can’t deny the sexy attractiveness of startups. They’re lean and agile, creating ideas and dropping nukes on social conventions like nobody’s fucking business. I mean, Tadros found one employee off Craigslist. Even larger companies are catching on. For instance, you might be surprised that Walmart has its own startup. It’s called Goodies Co., a food subscription and delivery service where adventurous consumers pay $7 a month to try 5-8 new food items.

Despite their nimble and entrepreneurial nature, startups still leave me somewhat wary. Maybe it’s the culture, or at least my (perhaps biased) perceptions of it. Startups are well known for their culturally-relaxed vibe—free meals and booze, glorious massages. If they can’t afford celebrity visits, there are the beanie bag chairs, obligatory white boards, and colorful post-it notes. While these perks easily trounce straight-laced cubicles any day, the culture almost seems somewhat contrived. Doejo didn’t necessarily prove me wrong. Give and take, they resembled your average hipster: laid back, exotic coffee connoisseur, lover of retro glasses and all things pot, and far too mainstream for corporate America. Even during the interview, I get the sense that I’m wasting their precious time, that they could be co-founding some new business instead of talking to some random girl at a coffee roaster. I’ve seen this muted kind of indifference before—an autistic sort of drive that’s as empty as it is full. It seems at the end of the day, startupers just want to do their own shit.