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Pizza, beer, and ping-pong — why your image of early-stage startups is wrong

Extra large pepperoni, please

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Yessi Bello Perez
Story by
Yessi Bello Perez

Senior Writer, Growth QuartersYessi leads the writing efforts at TNW’s Growth Quarters. Yessi leads the writing efforts at TNW’s Growth Quarters.

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To the outside, inexpert world, startups are synonymous with free pizza and ping-pong tables. While this might sound positive, there’s something deeply frustrating about the narrative this creates as it inadvertently discredits the work of entrepreneurs and employees in this tough, but exciting, space.

Although common sense tells us there’s a lot more to them, in my five years covering the tech startup world I’ve lost count of the number of times the media mentions these kinds of perks. They publish photos of startup offices featuring slides, free beer, and pizza as if this is what matters most.

Startups aren’t always taken seriously, but what’s most telling is the fear they instill in incumbents when they threaten to disrupt markets. If we continue to undermine what startups are, or what they do, simply by dismissing them as a fun place to work at, we run the risk of stunting their growth — and this could have a devastating effect on entrepreneurship overall.

While the perks certainly exist, there’s an underlying reality that often gets misconstrued. Stereotypical startup symbols such as beer, ping-pong, and pizza deviate attention from the reality, which is one of long hours, stress, sacrifice, and the level of conviction required to make employees, investors, and customers understand and believe in an entrepreneur‘s vision.

What does pizza actually represent?

Pizza has become a symbol of the supposedly relaxed atmosphere bred by startups. The idea of employees congregating to eat pizza implies there’s plenty of spare time for workers and founders to come together and socialize during the day — but that’s not always the case.

Victoria Collins, the CEO and founder of LingUpp, which facilitates peer-to-peer language learning, agrees this portrayal is dangerously misleading.

“I’m not originally from a tech background, so I only knew the stereotypes I’d been fed, even though I was sure that wasn’t the full reality. I saw early-stage startups full of guys eating pizzas and coding together, waiting for big VC firms wanting to get into the companies,” Collins told me.

I’m by no means saying that startup workers don’t enjoy bonding moments like these, but to think that working at a startup means taking it easy couldn’t be further from the truth — because the majority of time is devoted to developing a market-ready product, winning customers, getting productmarket fit, and possibly preparing to fundraise. And yes, this means you might stay late and eat the occasional pizza together.

Things always take longer than expected and any potential drawbacks — there are often many — can be costly, especially if the company’s cash flow is already hanging by a thread.

No time for ping-pong

Indeed, time is a precious commodity for startups. So much of it is spent creating, marketing, and iterating — and success depends on it.

Cassy Aite pointed out to me, mega-successful companies also started out as startups and endured many challenges at the beginning — and as the co-founder and CEO of Hoppier, he’s painfully aware of this. “You’ll likely need to spend hundreds of cycles and thousands of hours talking to customers. Rumor has it that it took James Dyson 15 years and 5,127 attempts to create the bagless vacuum.”

It’s easy to look at James Dyson now, get distracted by his multi-billion dollar net worth, forget his company was once a startup, and that he too struggled to launch his world-renown vacuums.

Like he said himself: “It didn’t happen overnight, but after years of testing, tweaking, fist-banging, and after more than 5,000 prototypes, it was there. Or nearly there. I still needed to manufacture it and go sell it.”

Those of us who work at startups will undoubtedly identify with this. Startup life has its benefits but it’s not for the faint-hearted. Startups are stressful, burnout is unfortunately common, and while I don’t condone this, sometimes the passion is such that none of this matters.

Startups exist for a reason: To solve a problem. Most fail, others survive, and the very best — those which create products customers can’t live without — thrive.

With employees’ job security and the company’s survival at stake, there’s arguably little time for ping-pong and pizza, because let’s face it, the ambition to disrupt always comes first.

Like what you’ve read? On Growth Quarters, we strive to go beyond generic ‘fortune cookie advice’ and learn directly from the people who have ‘walked the walk.’ And this summer, at TNW Conference 2020 in Amsterdam, we’ll take Growth Quarters offline again with a vibrant program dedicated exclusively to sustainable business growth. Listen to keynotes from leaders from the world’s most successful companies and get actionable guidance to help you grow professionally. Get early bird tickets now and learn more about the Growth Quarters track

Published February 7, 2020 — 11:14 UTC