The Case for Talking Shit on Wall Street

My friend Ben Siscovick wrote an interesting blog post today entitled Stop Shitting on Wall Street.

There is way too much vehement anti-Wall Street sentiment in the startup community. Not that it is completely without merit – there are tons of valid reasons to dislike many of the cultural and practical elements that give Wall Street such a bad name – a focus on wealth accumulation, an over emphasis on the short-term, positioning as value extractors rather than value creators, etc.

What bothers me most is that the disparaging commentary on Wall Street is rarely rooted in fair and objective dialogue, but rather, more often than not, merely degrades to straw-man argumentation, broad generalized attacks with no respect for nuance, and an utter lack of appreciation for the benefits, not just the costs, of Wall Street experience.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, but while Ben is in fact a HUGE Phish fan, he is not––so far as I can tell––currently on drugs. So let’s take his argument at face value.

Why so much shit-talking about big corporations and wall street in the startup world, you ask? Well, I think it should be pretty obvious: Wall Street and Big Co. are the competition. We compete with them for talent and mindshare every day. And precisely because they are so appealing and have so much to offer, especially monetarily, we try to detract from their power and allure by spreading fear and talking shit. We try to make people afraid that joining Google or Goldman will lead to a forfeiture of their soul. Is it 100% rational or true? No, as he adroitly pointed out. But it is strategic and accretive to the startup ecosystem for us to talk such shit. It is marketing in its most pure and basic form.

Now, you can protest and say “But it doesn’t have to be that way!” To which I’d answer: Sure, if either: a) the startup community doesn’t really care about winning over the hearts and minds of America’s youth, or b) there’s not really much competition between us and them. But as it is, especially on the East Coast, the startup community is competing desperately for mindshare amongst a scarce talent pool of elite college grads, and the competition––Wall Street––is deeply entrenched. So we shit talk. It ain’t pretty, but it’s the one weapon we have. And it works.

My Mohawk and Being the SpeakerText CEO

After seeing the constant pants-jizzing on Twitter by Keith Rabois about Quora, I finally signed up and started using the service. Today I got this question…

Matt Mireles, As a CEO, do you find that your mohawk has a positive, negative or no impact on how you are received by peers and members of the funding community (VCs, Angels, Bankers)?
The reason I ask is because I am in a VP position now and am looking to found a company and although I don't have a mohawk, I do have a very large imperial mustache, and I'm wondering what to expect.

My response…

It depends on who you are as a person, what kind of public persona you want to cultivate, and what kind of market you're pursuing. 

Generally speaking, having an unorthodox/flamboyant persona is a strategic asset if you're selling to consumers. Remember, when you're a startup, any press is good press. And umm, yeah, you've got nothing, ergo you've got nothing to lose!

That said, if you're selling to businesses, the flamboyant persona tends to be more of a liability––or at least it takes a lot more finesse and work to neutralize the liability aspects and magnify the asset value. 

For me, the mohawk is and was a conscious choice and part of a broader branding strategy for both myself and SpeakerText. In my view, the "CEO with a mohawk" is just part of a larger decision to be known as a slightly crazy, shit talking, scrappy mofo of an entrepreneur with working class roots––despite an Ivy League pedigree. Similarly, I want SpeakerText to be known as a scrappy company filled with serious hackers who care about satisfying customers and achieving world domination WAY more than pleasing investors or adhering to uptight social norms.    

Simply, I decided that I was going to be a high-profile person and create a high-profile company with a very strong and meaningful brand.The mohawk, the blog, the plentiful f-bombs, etc. are all just a part of who I am as a person, but I also choose to accentuate that part of my personality for strategic reasons. 

The beauty of this approach, if you ask me, is that it creates a very useful selection effect with regards to potential employees and, to a lesser extent, investors. When you have a strong brand that's genuine and that you're proud of, especially one that seems "risky," it signals that you the founder are a person of principal, that you stand for something beyond making a quick buck, that you're passionate and you care. Some of the best people spend their whole lives searching for meaning, searching for a community of people with real values. And by being unafraid, by signaling that you in fact are willing to risk a suboptimal short term outcome by cutting a contrarian view, you become able (quite ironically) to attract some of the best people to join your crazy company at a discount, sometimes at a steep discount, versus the market rate, which is the key to long term success. 

Mental Toughness

Back in 2004, before I lived in New York City or attended Columbia or even dreamed of starting a company, I fought wildfires for the Modoc Interagency Hotshot Crew. Hotshot crews are the US Forest Service’s equivalent to the Marine Corps: the elite infantry in their perpetual (and stupendously wasteful) war against fire. Modoc Hotshots 2004––the above video––is a highlight reel of that season, my third and last fighting forest fires for the government.

Honestly, it was the worst 6 months of my life. The guys I worked with, well, most of them hated me, and I hated them. I was lonely, friendless, and miserable. They tried to break me. They tried to make me quit. But I didn’t break and I sure as hell didn’t quit.

I showed up at the hotshot base in May 2004 weighing 175lbs and was in what I thought to be excellent shape. Little did I know. As it turned out, I had two problems: 1) I couldn’t hike fast enough, and 2) I couldn’t swing a tool in the dirt for long enough. 

Hiking. Sounds like a pleasant, leisurely activity, doesn’t it? Well, in the hotshot world, hiking––since we operated in the mountains, by and large––takes on a bit more urgency. Our packs weighed ~50 lbs. plus a 10 lb. tool, and add an extra 35+ lbs if you were carrying a saw (as in chainsaw). We hiked at altitude, rapidly, and always in a straight line up the hill. I sucked at it. 

As the FNG (Fucking New Guy) and an urbanite, the odds were already not in my favor. Our crew was based in the true armpit of California, the northeastern most corner, in a town called Canby, population: 135. And not only could I not hike, but I had a big mouth and didn’t believe in the pecking order. Bad combo.

On top of that, I couldn’t swing a tool to save my fucking life. After 10min, my arms were shot. To put this in context, we were a hotshot crew. Our râison d’etre was to dig fireline with handtools and chainsaws along the burning edge of a wildfire for hours and hours on end. I was like a construction worker who couldn’t lift bricks: useless. 

And so, naturally, the guys tried to break me, to expunge me from the clan. A hotshot crew is a clan: 20 people living, breathing, eating, sleeping, shitting and working together almost every day for 6 months straight. When assigned to a fire, we typically worked 16 hours a day for 14 days straight, then got 2 days off before heading off to another fire. Rinse, repeat. 

My first big fire was also the most miserable. Much as with the entire hotshot experience, it started off as a dream come true: We had got assigned to a fire in Alaska, the mythic home of the last frontier (see the shot of the moose). Promptly, we were assigned to a .5 million acre wildfire outside of Fairbanks. Contrary to all logic or local fire fighting norms, our boss ordered us to dig proper fireline…through the 8″ tundra and all the way down to the permafrost. It was fucking horrible, pointless, backbreaking labor. The axe head on my tool quickly dulled, and half the time I’d swing as hard as I could just to have my tool bounce off the tundra. That day, half of my hand went numb, and I didn’t regain feeling in it until a year later. 

Let’s just say I bitched loudly about a) the hardness of the work, and b) the futility of our task. Did not win me friends. #Fail.

Senior crew members hazed and harassed me. No one wanted to talk to me or sit next to me. Quite simply, it was hard, miserable, lonely work. I had failed. And I got depressed. I started drinking everyday after work (we lived in govt barracks on the base itself, and slept in the dirt when on assignment). My self-confidence turned to shit. But I didn’t quit. And when I wasn’t drinking my loneliness away, I worked out after work. I hiked. I ran. I lifted weights. 

By mid-season, I had gained ~20 lbs. of pure muscle and was weighing in at 195 lbs. Finally, I could keep pace with the hikes. Even better, I could swing a tool for hours and hours on end without discomfort. I was fast and I swung my tool (a pulaski) hard. They still hated me, but at least I was good at my job. 

To be honest, I wanted to quit; I wanted to quit so bad. But I had debt I needed to pay off and money I needed to save for my impending move to NYC. Mom & dad sure as hell weren’t gonna bail me out. So I pressed on and used alcohol to self-medicate.

By the end of the summer, I was so used to taking abuse that I honestly didn’t give a fuck anymore. I had tried so hard to fit in, and my efforts had failed. I had made every concession I could think of, improved my strength and endurance, all to no avail. So I adapted my thinking: Fuck them, and if you don’t like who I am, fuck you. It was adaptive, really, but also liberating.

I was no longer the sensitive, empathic writer who had dropped out of Berkeley to write a book. No, I had since joined Lord of the Flies, thinking it was gonna be a chapter from the Hobbit. A hard, lonely lesson indeed. And yet I came out the other side.

Yes, I was scarred. It took me 3+ years to be ready to take risk again, to desire another grand adventure having had the last one blow up in my face. But in all the pain and misery and loneliness, fighting fire taught me something invaluable: to be hard inside, to be mentally tough, to inure myself to social rejection, to deal and cope with loneliness and pain and still function. 

The best part, now that it’s over, is that I know that nothing I ever do in my life will be as hard as those last six months I spent fighting fire. Nothing short of prison could be more lonely, and no work I do will ever be physically as painful. It is the zero with which I weigh the rest of life’s struggles, and I am glad to have it as a reference. It serves me well.