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Book Review: No Exit: Struggling To Survive A Modern Gold Rush by Gideon Lewis-Kraus
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Book Review: No Exit: Struggling To Survive A Modern Gold Rush by Gideon Lewis-Kraus - Executive Leadership Articles

Book Review: No Exit: Struggling To Survive A Modern Gold Rush by Gideon Lewis-Kraus

Executive Leadership Articles

Book Review: No Exit: Struggling To Survive A Modern Gold Rush by Gideon Lewis-Kraus

Success stories in the tech world are fun to read. When told well, we develop a fondness for founders, funders, and other stakeholders. Hard work, passion, and vision, all the things they told us would lead to our own success when we were in school, pay off in grand ways when everything goes well. We revel in such tales partially because we believe that we, too, can taste such triumph if we apply these values to our own ambition.

Of course, for every success story in Silicon Valley there are a hundred stories of failure. It’s a lot less fun to read these for all the same reasons. We become fond of the people and feel their stress as the never-ending quest for funding cycles through the pain of ten nos for each maybe. The podcast Startup featured a whole season of these stories of dreams hanging in the balance, and while fascinating, the stories were not fun.

Writer Gideon Lewis-Kraus spent months embedded with a startup called Boomtrain, a service providing machine-learning-based, personalized email content. He went so far as to rent floor space in a tech flophouse, where he lived with a group of young adults—most of them bright, talented college dropouts—to get a sense of what drives startup founders to subject themselves to such painful existences.

In No Exit: Struggling to Survive a Modern Gold Rush, Lewis-Kraus details the struggle of Boomtrain’s founders, Chris and Nick, to secure funding enabling them to demonstrate the value of their product in a tense catch-22. It’s difficult to get funding when they don’t have customers or data, but they can’t get these customers and data without more funding. Their story, the heart of what was originally an article in Wired magazine and is expanded for Amazon Kindle Singles, follows familiar plot patterns, although we are spared the agony of any tension between founders. Chris and Nick were close friends before they were co-founders, and to their credit, they never appear to let the stress of the funding highwire threaten their relationship. Still, because the writer paints them as such likeable people, it’s no fun to read about their difficulty.

Where the story is fascinating is in the in-between glimpses of startup culture in Silicon Valley. Right away, Lewis-Kraus defines the line between founders and “people with jobs.” Founders have no time for recreation or relationships. People with jobs ride the bus to an office, where they put in their 9-to-7 and then get drinks after. There is definite disdain by founders for job-holders, despite their knowing that they are most likely to end up there eventually.

“In such a system,” he writes, “the real disillusionment isn’t the discovery that you’re unlikely to become a billionaire; it’s the realization that your feeling of autonomy is a fantasy, that the vast majority of you have been set up to fail by design.” It’s a grim, cynical view of the entire startup culture, but one can almost relate to the appeal because Lewis-Kraus gives us a little peek into these young people’s mindsets. There’s not a lot of difference between a 19-year-old who leaves school to start a cloud-based data aggregator and one who leaves school to work on a fishing boat in Alaska, except the fishing boat can only take your life, while the startup can apparently take your soul.

The story was first published in Wired in April 2014, then fleshed out as a Kindle Single later that year. Since then, Boomtrain did secure an additional $12 million, establishing offices in San Francisco and India. In July 2017, it was acquired by marketing cloud provider Zeta Global for $35 million to $40 million, kind of a welcome conclusion to what seemed a story doomed for an unhappy ending. The small book reads like a very long Wired article with some rather nice writing. Worth a pickup at the Kindle Singles price.

 

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Book Review: No Exit: Struggling To Survive A Modern Gold Rush by Gideon Lewis-Kraus - Executive Leadership Articles

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