Xconomy Bookclub: “Startup” Offers a Pointed Look at Techie Culture

Doree Shafrir’s novel Startup is set in New York City’s tech scene, but given its theme, there is, of course, a detour to Austin to attend South By Southwest. She describes it as “the tech industry’s five-day Super Bowl, prom, Oscars, and Coachella all wrapped into one, with breakfast tacos.”

At this annual techie pilgrimage, she writes that standard-issue startup bro dorks eagerly seek out the requisite wristbands for exclusive parties while “desperately texting the person he knew inside, who inevitably didn’t have cell service.”

Once inside, these lemmings obediently tweet from each party with the correct hashtag and “get way too excited when they saw them show up on the real-time projection of everyone’s tweets on the wall.”

Hugh Forrest, SXSW’s chief programming officer, says he enjoyed the book and noted the “not particularly complimentary” SXSW references. “At least they spelled the name correctly,” he says, laughing.

Tonight, Forrest will have a chance to verbally spar with the author when he hosts Shafrir, who makes a stop in Austin on her book tour, at a reading at the Book People bookstore. “If this was said in a less playful way I would take more exception to some of this stuff,” he says. “I read it much as I would watch [television show] ‘Silicon Valley.’ It’s funny and there’s a lot of biting truth to it. But ultimately the fact that she’s doing this is because this is such a fascinating part of our culture.”

The Gotham that Shafrir paints is not the New York previously sketched out by the literary world. (She was a longtime writer with Buzzfeed in New York, and now based in Los Angeles.)

Our tale starts with purple-legging-clad acolytes jauntily making their way to a rave. No, it’s not a flashback to Studio 54. These millennials are headed to a pre-dawn “Morning Rave,” a monthly “clean-living dance party” in a warehouse in Brooklyn.

As Dan Blum, a jaded and nearing-40 editor for fictional online news site TechScene puts it: “Welcome to Startupville: population douchebag.”

The characters of Startup include:

—Mack McAllister, golden boy founder (who happens to be a Dallas native and SMU grad), whose burning through cash a little too rapidly and is desperate to snag millions in new venture investment to turn his mindfulness app TakeOff into the tech industry’s next coveted unicorn.

—Katya Pasternak is a 20-something, chain-smoking writer for TechScene (motto: “Tech news straight, no chaser.”) A Russian immigrant who managed to learn English and make her living in the language, she chafes at people who spell whoa “woah,” and hungers for a really big scoop.

—Dan, mentioned above, is Katya’s boss and TechScene’s managing editor. He resents how Twitter and list-icles have taken over “real” journalism. Shafrir sums up his view: “So many of them thought that news meant posting something that another site already had done with words slightly rearranged and a different headline.”

—Sabrina is Dan’s wife and an “Engagement Ninja” at TakeOff, which happens to be located in the same building as TechScene. Frustrated with her inattentive husband and her own thwarted career ambitions, she is a reluctant explorer navigating a new world of emojis, GIFs, and acronyms like “tfw,” meaning “that feel when” and not “too f-ing weird.”

The supportive cast of players include Isabel, Mack’s former assistant and now TakeOff’s social media manager (and Sabrina’s boss); Jason Schneider, Mack’s perhaps too-helpful COO; Andrew Shepard, founder of a startup called Magic Bean whose budding relationship with Isabel sends Mack off the deep end; and Victor, Katya’s boyfriend and founder of a failed startup called StrolledUp.

If it all seems a bit claustrophobic, it’s by design. The characters that inhabit Startup adhere to the techie philosophy of work is life, life is work, and your colleagues are your friends.

But do they really know each other? As Shafrir writes, Katya, at a party of New York tech’s Who’s Who at Andrew Shepard’s West Village brownstone, didn’t know her host as a person.

“But she knew him, just like she knew practically all of these guys. They were runners and foodies and cyclists; they all wore fitness trackers and competed with one another about who had run the most miles or slept the optimal 7.5 hours. They donated money to charities started by their friends that taught underprivileged kids but voted against raising taxes to make those kids’ schools better. They participated in hackathons and marathons; they climbed mountains; they loved South By Southwest. They thought everyone, including themselves, were where they were entirely because of hard work and innate creativity, and if you weren’t successful, that was because you hadn’t tried hard enough.”

Ironically it is technology—an inappropriate text and the seeming cluelessness of the sender in dispatching it—that sets our plot into motion. Katya’s need for a big story coincides with the accidental viewing of said message, setting off a chain of events that results in TakeOff going viral, but for all the wrong reasons.

Startup is a pointed illustration of the tech world’s cults of personality, the outsized egos that believe something like a mindfulness app could change the world, and the seedy underbelly of all that workplace closeness: sexual harassment.

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