The founder, startup culture and lessons from the Bushmen
Founder Friday is a weekly guest post written by a founder who is based in or hails from the Silicon Prairie. Each month, a topic relevant to startups is presented and founders share lessons learned or best practices utilized on that topic. June's topic is role of founder.
Basarwa Bushmen live in small groups. Here the senior man of the group gets ready to have a smoke with his wife and son looking on. Arrayed around the campsite are his tools of the trade: a bow, poisoned arrows, quiver, hunting club and tobacco pipe.
Startup founders establish the culture of their companies. Culture means different things to different people, but here we're discussing the way the startup works, how team members interact, their work ethic, how they behave and how they react to outside inputs. How that culture expresses itself can be a strong asset to the startup or a destructive force that contributes to its death.
We all have vague ideas of what we'd like to see in our working culture and more can say exactly what constitutes a toxic culture. Far too many have experienced the abusive boss, the stifling bureaucracy and resistance to change. For some, those factors caused them to start a company to begin with. The founder has the obligation and challenge to set and perpetuate a culture that becomes the essence of what their startup is, who it can attract to work in it and what it can achieve.
The startup environment is harsh and the reality is sobering. Most startups are destined to fail. With so many factors stacked up to kill a startup – people, product, timing, funding, macro-economic forces (Greece, anyone?) and luck – it is amazing that anyone actually begins such an endeavor. But this tough environment isn't anything new and in fact, for most of our existence on this planet, everyday life has been a struggle.
In the late stages of 20th century, it was still possible to get a fleeting glimpse into how human societies dealt with surviving and ultimately thriving within a harsh environment. In the mid-1980s, I was able to live for an extended period with a group of Kua San Bushmen – the Basarwa – in the Kalahari desert of Botswana (below). The Basarwa live in the savannah desert in small family groups, moving from place to place, establishing tiny camps of grass shelters, subsisting on gathered plants and meat obtained through hunting and scavenging. In the '80s, the Basarwa were still living much the same as their ancestors had for thousands of years.
The Kalahari desert of Botswana is a vast semi-arid sandy savannah. It's been the home of roving groups of hunter-gatherers for thousands of years. He a small camp of grass structures is clustered around a lone thorn tree.
It was instructive observing the Basarwa and how the their social group was structured and behaved. Men and women shared most of the work. While women would not engage in organized hunting activities, men and women both gathered plants and firewood and generally did what was necessary to survive from one day to the next. Basically, the whole group cooperated in order to live and flourish in this unforgiving environment. There was no permanent nor organized hierarchy in the group: members knew what they needed to do and generally did it.
It isn't true that all cultural remnants of the distant past were all cooperative in the same way as the Basarwa. I also lived the Hadza in northern Tanzania. In Hadza culture, lives and daily duties were highly segregated along gender lines. An ongoing, dynamic tension about daily tasks always existed between the men and women, often resulting in loud and sometimes violent arguments. Their environment was vastly more resource rich than that of the Kalahari and so perhaps the "easier" tasks of gaining daily subsistence caused the Hadza to focus on issues that either didn't arise or seem as important to the Basarwa.
So what lessons have I drawn from these experiences? A founder gives an organization purpose, defines the paths of communication, set the expectation everyone contributes, that there is a bias towards action, that the team shares goals, it fails and succeeds as a group, fosters respect for contributions and that the good is nurtured and the bad is quickly cut out. These all seem like values taken from some sort of business text, from an idealized vision how how happy companies behave in some fantasy world. However, these exact values were what I observed in the Basarwa; a culture as distant and alien to our western existence as you could imagine.
And the result? In Africa twenty-five years later, it's unlikely that you'd find a distinct Hadza family group hunting and gathering as they once did. As a cultural group living their traditional life, they've ceased to exist. The Basarwa, after decades of government resettlement attempts and native-rights legal battles, have returned to the Kalahari and still walk the savannah in search of their evening meal.
Credits: Photos courtesy of Christian Gurney.
About the author: Christian Gurney, is the co-founder, president and CEO of Des Moines-based startup Torsion Mobile and a 23-year veteran of the technology industry. Torsion Mobile is the creator of Mojaba, a software-as-a-service for creative professionals to design, build and publish mobile websites that work across a wide range of mobile phones.
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