The cold incubator: the VC dream of workerless wealth

Chicken incubators are hot: eggs need heat to thrive. This was a different sort of incubator, a glass enclosure within a VC office. The VCs had the best views, but even we could look down ten stories and see the sun sparkling on the Charles River and reflecting off the buildings of downtown Boston.

It was summer when I joined the startup, but even so the incubator was freezing. The thermostat was skewed by a hot light sensor right below it, and the controls reset every night, so mornings were frigid. I took to wearing sweaters and fingerless gloves; the team at the other side of the incubator had figured out a way cover the AC vents with cardboard in a way that wasn’t visible to passersby.

But I didn’t have to suffer from the cold for very long. Soon after I joined the startup I unwittingly helped trigger our eviction from the rent-free Eden of the incubator to the harsher world outside.

The fall from grace

Most of the people who worked out of the incubator just used a laptop, or perhaps a monitor. But I like working with a standing desk, with a large Kinesis keyboard, and an external monitor on top.

My desk towered over everyone else: it was big and imposing and not very neat. Which is to say, the incubator started looking like a real office, not a room full of identical tables with a few Macbook Airs scattered hither and yon. And standing under the freezing air conditioner vent made my arms hurt, so I had to setup my desk in a way that was visible from the outside of the incubator.

And that view was too much for one of the partners in the VC firm. There were too many of us, we had too many cardboard boxes, my standing desk was just too big: it was time for us to leave the incubator.

The dream of workerless wealth

VCs take money, and (if all goes well) turn it into more money. But the actual reality of the work involved was too unpleasantly messy, too uncouth to be exposed to the sensibilities of wealthy clients.

We had to be banished out of sight, the ever-so-slightly grubby realities of office work hidden away, leaving only the clean cold dream of capital compounding through the genius of canny investors.

This dream—a dream of profit without workers—is the driving force behind many an investment fad:

  • The dream in its purest form, Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies promise wealth pulled from thin air, spinning hay into gold without the involvement of any brutish Rumpelstiltskins.
  • Driverless cars promise fleets of assets without those dirty, messy, expensive drivers; but until they come round, Uber and Lyft’s horde of drivers are safely kept at a distance as independent contractors with five star reviews.
  • Artificial intelligence promises decision making without human involvement, an objective encoding of subjective prejudice that will never feel moral qualms.

And if you work for a VC-funded startup, this dream takes on a nightmarish tinge when it turns to consider you.

Unbanished—for now

The point here is not that VCs want to reduce effort: who wouldn’t want a more efficient world? The dream is not driven by visions of efficiency, it’s about status and aesthetics: doing actual work is ugly, and paying for work is offensive.

Of course, some level of work is always necessary and unavoidable. And so VC firms understand that the startups they fund must hire workers like me and you.

But the cold dream is always there, whispering in the background: these workers take equity, they take cash, they’re grubby. So when times are good hiring has to be done as quickly as possible, but when times are bad the layoffs come just as fast.

And when you are working, you need to work as many hours as humanly possible, not because it’s efficient—it isn't—but because paying for your time is offensive, and so you better damn well work hard. Your work may be necessary, but to the cold dream it’s a necessary—and ugly—evil.

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