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Think Big. Move Fast.

I recently watched the movie “The Intern” starring Anne Hathaway as CEO of an eCommerce startup and Robert DeNiro as her “senior intern”.

It was a fun movie, and I thought it might also be fun to look at what the movie got right and what it got wrong about startup life. Let’s start with what it got right, which is a lot:

  • The CEO’s life is totally consumed by the startup, leaving little time for family or friends
  • The CEO is lonely and stressed. Heavy is the head that wears the crown.
  • The CEO is obsessed about the user experience, down to taking customer service calls, dictating font size on the home page and instructing how to fold tissue in packages.
  • The CEO’s obsessiveness and micromanagement, that worked so well when the company was small, is starting to impede the companies ability to execute as it grows. Overly centralized decision making is slowing down the company
  • Everyone in the company is incredibly aware of the actions and words of the CEO and parses them for meaning all the time.
  • People are packed in incredibly tight in the office. The “feel” of the set reflects the feel of many startups
  • Everyone uses Macs
  • An intern is able to get noticed and get more responsibility by noticing and taking on additional tasks that are “beyond the job description” without being asked. In contrast, a really well qualified and hard working employee (the CEO’s assistant) doesn’t get opportunities to advance because she does exactly her job and no more.
  • Being close to the CEO gives you more opportunities to get ahead. Even in small companies, politics is real

What did it get wrong?

  • The board wants to replace a charismatic and well loved founder with a “professional CEO” when the company is growing really fast but starting to see operational breakdowns. In such a situation it is more likely that the board would look to supplement the management team with experienced people at the COO or VP level. Usually CEOs get replaced when the company isn’t growing fast enough, not when it is growing too fast.
  • The board broaches the prospect of replacing the CEO through a conversation with someone other than the CEO. There is no way that a topic as sensitive as that would not be discussed directly and discreetly, without involving any other members of the management team.
  • The CEO flies in first class, has a personal car and driver, and stays at fancy hotels. And not only does the CEO fly first and stay in fancy hotels, the intern does too! Startups lose money. If the CEO is maxing out their T&E then everyone else in the company follows their example, and that is a very bad place to be.
  • Most of the employees of the company look like, well, actors and actresses! The typical startup staff isn’t as young, slim or good looking as is represented in the movie. They also aren’t nearly as white as in the movie (probably 90% of the extras were white, with the rest evenly distributed among other ethnicities). Facebook’s demographics are probably more representative of most startups; 55% white, 36% asian and the rest other ethnicities.

Overall, a fun movie and it gets more right than wrong about startup life. What else did you think it got right and wrong about startup life? Add your thoughts in comments.