November 17, 2013

GUEST ROOM: Entrepretrolls: The Scourge of the Startup Bubble

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I recently went to an entrepreneurship event hosted at Cornell that brought together students with entrepreneurial interests and alumni who have launched or are involved with startups.  It was a scene typical of industry events at Cornell — hip people from the engineering and business schools wearing casual attire and discussing technology over coffee.  The motivation behind hosting the event was honorable — to connect like-minded engineers and marketing gurus in an effort to maximize the potential of aspiring Cornell-based startups.  People often have great ideas but don’t have the skills or resources to execute them, so venues like this can help to bring them together.

However, what I saw when I got there was an infestation.  The place was teeming with my greatest peeve: Entrepretrolls.

I arrived a little late but they were already in full form, working the room with their free-flowing buzzwords and unquestionable charm.  They were everywhere, going from circle to circle introducing themselves, not as students and fresh minds interested in entrepreneurship, but as seasoned technologists who know all there is to know about realizing an idea and launching a startup.  I could sense the rank superficiality in the air.  When I started my PhD in 2010, entrepretrolls didn’t seem to exist. But today, they love being in public. You’ll probably find yourself within a few feet of these types several times a day.

These swindlers come in various forms. A typical species is the economics student who “just thought of the most powerful, novel idea last week,” has “a surefire avenue to monetization” and just needs a programmer “hungry for a stimulating challenge” to sign on as CTO.  Another is the sophomore who wants to launch a “venture fund aimed at identifying and investing in the most groundbreaking new-wave projects” along with two other “highly passionate” underclassmen, and who “would love to hear more about your idea.”  Then there’s the PhD in chemistry who is “a passionate academic devoted to the study of bucky-balls” but suddenly decides he wants to “make a practical impact on the world” by consulting for a biotech investment firm.  It can be irritating to talk to someone with a very specialized background outside of technology who all of a sudden has taken a deep interest in starting a company or becoming a venture capitalist.

Entrepretrolls are growing in number, fast.  It’s not just at Cornell, of course.  There is an entire society of these wine-sipping, Warby Parker-wearing urbanites with beautifully slicked hair and wardrobes of plaid trolling every in-vogue American city from Williamsburg to the Mission.  Everyone knows it: Entrepreneurship is in style.  It’s been fueled by the success of a few big names, the vast number of recently launched startups, the growth in popularity of smartphones and techblogs and the increased money pumped into venture capital.  Sadly, all of this has led to the spread of entrepretrolling. We must beware of them. They give real entrepreneurs a very bad name.

Launching a startup is a serious vocation from which many people make real money.  The last three times we had excessive numbers of people jumping on business trends, we witnessed a financial collapse. The proliferation of entrepretolls indicates that same will happen to entrepreneurship, again.

The remedy is obvious. Instead of riding the surface of the startup community, entrepretrolls should spend their time doing something meaningful.  If you truly have a meaningful idea and want to take the risk of devoting yourself to it and developing it further, it’s fine to attend tech meetups to seek help in launching a startup.  However, people who are skimming entrepreneurship and presenting themselves as experts just so that they can say they were the co-founder of a meaningless failed startup are wasting everybody’s time and inflating the startup bubble. If people continue spouting such nonsense, the bubble will burst, dramatically.

Dipayan Ghosh is a PhD candidate at Cornell University in electrical engineering and conducts research for the NSF on information economics and privacy. He can be reached at [email protected].