Monday, July 30, 2012

Startup Exploitation

Boston is home to many startups, from TripAdvisor to HubSpot to Proxy Apparel. Most of the startups are tech or biotech based (that's a thriving industry in the area), but I do see a fair number in media, ecommerce or education.

Recently I had a meeting with one of these educational startups; their focus is to create high quality content as an alternative to expensive college textbooks. This idea really appealed to me, as someone who has both had to purchase textbooks as well as research textbook selections for use in curriculum. Textbooks are very expensive, and they are updated often enough that it's difficult to find cheaper, used versions.

This startup was working on creating content for certain subjects, and the content was created by Ph.Ds and other high educated sources. Since the business model is "Freemium"--students can sign up for free and then pay a modest fee to use more of the content, or the premium content, I asked if the company had a permanent stable of writers.

The answer was no. According to the person I spoke with, they could hire on a freelance basis enough writers for good enough content that they didn't see the need to burden themselves with the costs associated with a full-time hire. They were also expecting to increase productivity per writer, which seemed not to be a goal aligned with a full-time hire.

This answer soured me on the company. I have worked with adjunct faculty before, and as any academic will tell you, they are the slave labor of the ivory tower. They teach one or two classes a semester (Say 4 hours of teaching time per week, plus lecture prep, plus grading, plus testing, plus office hours, etc.) with meager pay, and absolutely no job security. These are highly qualified, educated professionals, who work hard and earn nothing. In my time in higher education, I always disliked the increasing reliance on adjunct faculty instead of hiring full-time assistant professors who could provide better service and have far greater benefits.

Essentially what this company envisioned was using adjunct faculty for the writing of their online textbooks. They saw it as "efficiency," I saw it as "exploitation." There wasn't even the faintest hint of hiring full-time writers later on when the company had more funding (although they aren't lacking for funding currently).

I am somewhat disillusioned with the startup model, because nearly each one I encounter (with some exceptions, such as HubSpot), seems to treat its workers as expendable pieces, easily replaced and worth very little. Many startups will boast of their amazing employee perks (nap room! game room! fully stocked kitchen!), but I see these as incentives to keep employees at work, not examples of work/life balance. (If you are sleeping at work, you are not achieving work/life balance.)

Do you see startups as exploitative? Or do you see this model as a necessity to starting a long-term business?