Part 1: The disparity in the “story” and reality of start-ups

While this is a subject I’ve visited on other occasions, I wanted to explore a little more the disparity that lies between the reality and the “story” of start-ups. One of the reasons I feel this is so important is because it can distort the discourse around start-up businesses. There is an overwhelming positivity that surrounds start-ups, and while there are a number of genuine success stories, I’m not convinced they’re the best way of doing business. However, such sentiment is often lost in the enthusiasm and sometimes sycophancy that is attached to the culture of new businesses.

I often felt that the “story” behind start-ups was purely a cynical marketing ploy to garner support amongst consumers. And while this is largely true, it doesn’t quite recognise how such stories are not exclusive to start-ups. Historian and author, Antony Beevor wrote a recent article referencing his favourite and least favourite war films. In the piece he spoke of his involvement with the film Enemy at the Gate, which told the “true” story of a Russian sniper during World War II and his supposed rivalry with another sniper who he eventually got the better of. Beevor mentioned that he had been approached by the makers of the film regarding its accuracy, who then decided ignored all his feedback. Beevor described the overwhelming importance of filmmakers to create an ‘“arc of character”, in which the leading actors have to go through a form of moral metamorphosis as a result of the experiences they undergo’. This agenda was clearly in opposition to conveying the truth; ‘the real problem is that the needs of history and the needs of the movie industry are fundamentally incompatible’.

I think of other less overt untruths when promoting similar uplifting and compelling stories in the name of producing a "arc of character". For example, the unsurprising fact that the woman who played the bearded lady in The Greatest Showman, doesn’t have a beard. And the guy who played a wheelchair bound character in the American programme Glee, does not require the assistance of a wheelchair.

It may be said that such character arcs and rousing tales of triumph over adversity are a source of encouragement for the most vulnerable in society. Yet do we believe that girls are bullied less for their looks because of the bearded lady in The Greatest Showman, or are disabled people in the UK encouraged and protected from the effects of austerity because of the character in Glee?

The almost obligatory “story” behind start-ups today aren’t just a marketing ploy, but a means of tapping into our desire for uplifting tales, regardless of their truthfulness. Some may say, “well, so what? Businesses are only interested in making money and it doesn’t matter how they do it”. Yet my rebuttal would be when we go to the cinema or watch the television, we generally know we are watching something designed to entertain us. Yet, when we buy a particular product or service, we want it to be an informed decision based on the truth. Furthermore, when budding entrepreneurs are wanting to set up their own businesses, how much should they look up to successful start-ups when they are unable to believe in what they see?

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