Startup Stockholm Syndrome. Yes, It's A Thing
For newbies the idea of someone getting Stockholm Syndrome at a startup might seem a little hard to understand. Stockholm Syndrome is usually a term reserved for a condition which causes hostages to form a bond with their kidnappers and develop positive feelings making it difficult to leave when given the option to be released. Victims of Stockholm Syndrome may also refuse to co-operate with police and other agencies who are trying to help them.
However, I have seen a form of Stockholm Syndrome that exists in the startup world and it’s important to understand it to help those struggling in their careers because of it.
Drinking the Kool-Aid
Many of the people who work in the startup sector are huge evangelists. They love tech and new products and ideas and that is why they work in the startup sector rather than in a stale utility company for example. You can’t innovate with water.
This startup euphoria has been used in many ways. Some businesses hope their staff become their biggest advocates, showing off the new products to friends and family. Monzo, focused on its own technology and many of its early users were employees within the startup and tech sectors. It is clear that workers at startups fall in love with innovation and shiny new things.
If you have been working for a startup that grows rapidly and raised a large investment, you can lose a bit of focus. The huge success that so rarely happens has happened to you. This reinforces your view of how great your company is and how it will change the world for the better. You have just drunk your first big swig of Kool-Aid.
Whilst this might lead to a level of arrogance, over-optimism, and short sightedness, this isn’t the full story. After a large injection of funds, the company may well get obsessed with growth above everything else. Employee wellbeing is side-lined and the company starts treating its staff poorly. Yet employees are willing to put up with this as they want the company to succeed. There’s your second swig of Kool-Aid.
There is an obsession with shipping products, product iterations and software releases to bring in more customers. Path to profitability is the only phrase in town. And that means spending less on employee benefits and welfare.
Then something happens. The company stops growing. Or perhaps it was never growing in quite the way that was being projected to the outside world. After all a growth in potential customers does not necessarily mean a growth in revenue.
This is common. All startups must slow their growth down. It is the consequences of this and the way employees lose their own perspective that is the problem. It can effect founders too.
Employees lose sight of where the company is going yet prefer to stay long past the time they should. If growth stops there will be a requirement to reduce staff and consolidate job functions. You may be treated very badly by the startup leadership but you are unable to leave for fear of letting the business down and not finishing your projects. You have formed a bond with the business, despite its massive shortcomings, that you can’t break.
And that is why it is a form of Stockholm Syndrome.
Time to leave
I have seen a number of people trapped at employers where they are mistreated but are either unaware or defend their employer’s bad behaviour.
As mentioned earlier, founders are not immune to this either. They may be desperate for success and forget that they may need to walk away from their startup. We have heard countless stores of business people remortgage their homes to fund growth and who end up being incredibly successful. I have also seen close friends remortgage their homes and lose them.
My advice is to make sure you have set goals before you start. For employees keep asking yourself whether you are learning and developing. Are you delivering new products? Are you still feeling excited about going into work or do Monday mornings fill you with dread? Be honest with yourself. It may be difficult to hear but nobody is indispensable you will be replaced (and probably forgotten about) if you leave. Talk to mentors and people you trust to give you an independent view and different perspective.
For founders it is much harder. The prize is bigger and there is a stronger bond to the company. Again, mentors are really important for impartial advice and experience.