As someone whose professional life exists in the almighty digital world, reading Doree Shafrir’s Startup felt a little too familiar. While I’ve never worked for a bona fide startup, I have dabbled in the agency world where terms like “gamification” and “market disrupter” were part of the daily buzz. If a company has to heavily promote a certain culture of free food, alcoholic beverages, and a jeans-inclusive dress code, I’ve learned to run the other way. There’s a reason these places have to promote their perks so heavily. When you get a call at 10 o’clock on a Friday night from a client with outrageous expectations, you will happily trade the jeans and the beer for, say, boundaries and a personal life.
Startup introduces us to Mack Macallister and his newly created app TakeOff, which aims to predict and pacify its users’ moods at any given time. Users tell TakeOff how they’re feeling (frustrated), and the app spits back a recommended action (go for a walk, listen to a happy song). Over time, as your data stockpiles, the app creates an algorithm to predict your state of mind. As Mack says in a presentation to his potential investors, “The problem, we found, is that despite the prompts, we were relying on people to recognize when they needed us – and people need us the most when they don’t realize it.”
TakeOff also introduces us to Isabel, Mack’s employee and former lover, and Sabrina, Isabel’s thirty something (ancient by startup culture’s terms) social media assistant. Sabrina’s husband, Dan, works in the same building for a fast paced tech blog, TechScene, where we find him uncomfortably close to junior TechScene writer, Katya. No one is happy, all relationships border on toxic. Sabrina and Dan find themselves existing more like roommates than lovers, trading childcare duties for their two toddlers in passing like caregivers exchanging shifts. Sabrina has sublimated her unhappiness into excessive spending, the debt of which she must now scramble to try to pay off. It is unclear how TakeOff actually makes a profit, though investors seem happy to throw money at Mack, and TechScene thrives mostly on startup company tabloid gossip; a never ending hunt to dig up who’s sleeping with who, or whose startup is about to crash and burn.
The jabs at startup culture as both predominantly male and extremely vacuous, more like a college hook-up scene than a professionally secure environment, were dead on in a way that made the satire, while appreciated, feel more truthful than over the top. I also liked the poke at the ridiculousness of apps themselves, and at the way our reliance on technology for these useless services creates a weird novelty out of simple acts. When Isabel finds herself enamored with a new love interest, for example, he uses a service app to send her a printed out note via a courier. She swoons, and we chuckle.
In the end, the women band together and TakeOff is taken down, or at least Mack is removed from his position. TechScene has succeeded in breaking the scandal that is his downfall, and Isabel is moving on to greener, though unknown, pastures. Sabrina too is poised to take a stand of her own, though we don’t get to see her follow it through, and in an ambiguous ending statement we can imagine more than one way for her to get her due. I enjoyed the book’s humor and ridiculousness, while also nodding my head at the things that hit close to home. Startup was a good companion on a lazy afternoon, not too heavy but thoughtful enough to keep me turning pages and jotting down notes. It was also a nice literary palate cleanser that provided a good story with a nice nod to its female characters. I may have uttered a “you go, girl” when I put it down. Startup would have been Jane Eyre approved, I’m sure.