Tech & Startups

Is startup culture the new religion?

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“The tradition is you used to trust the authorities, you used to trust the church, the church used to be an educator, but of course it was an evil educator. Nowadays we say that you have to educate your clients, so they [the church] also educated their clients; this is one of the principles the two share.”

Gert Zavatski, Smoked Sparrow

In our Western society traditional religion is waning, churches are either near empty on Sundays or — as in the UK — they’re now swanky bars, nightclubs or restaurants. The number of people who consider themselves to be religious has seen a sharp decline in the last decade, with many educated people questioning the motives and validity of Christianity in particular.

Enter Gert Zavatski, ex-priest and cofounder of Smoked Sparrow, a startup that specialises in video and graphics based training materials for the startup and corporate world. Coming from a strong theological background, and once being very much a part of the church, he now finds he is fascinated by the parallels he sees between the startup culture and traditional religion.

“It’s highly hypothetical,” he begins, with a cautious tone, “but the startup culture seems to be replacing the church. The startup culture is highly religious as a movement, because you have to believe that you will be the next Skype or TransferWise, you have to have a really strong belief in it.” He’s a little nervous, he knows what his opinions are clearly, but also he knows the implications of anyone speaking so frankly, he delivers the lines like a husband telling his wife that her new dress doesn’t look as good as it really could.

Rosary and bible. Photo: From file

He explains that the demise of traditional religion is rooted in recent history, for his native Estonia especially, “there is a lack of trust in authority due to the bad image of the state since the Soviet Union, and the successful anti-religious campaign for youth back then and shortly after, but this doesn’t work if you don’t replace it with something else, we don’t have these youth organisations or religious organisations for being a good person anymore” he continues with caution, “the tradition is you used to trust the authorities, you used to trust the church, the church used to be an educator, but of course it was an evil educator. Nowadays we say that you have to educate your clients, so they [the church] also educated their clients; this is one of the principles the two share, if you want to sell more you have to train your clients.”

Monastery. Photo: From file

There is a silence between us as he winces, fully aware that any line he wished not to cross just has been, and now the links with the startup community start to become apparent.

The idea that the fall of traditional religion has left a gap in humanity that needs filling is not uncommon. I met Kaido Kikkas of The Estonian IT College, who has a deep interest in the subject, he says: “Community in general is parallel to traditional religion, local people coming together to support and help each other, and the startup community is no different.” Though he believes that there are many things that replace traditional religion, from marketing and consumerism, to education, wellness, and issues around sexuality, gender and feminism among others. “For me people are fundamentally religious, so if you reject traditional religion it needs to be replaced, startups work because people are more religious than they actually think. They need a sense of community and the startup world gives it to them.”

Hackathon, Vormsi, Estonia. Photo: Tarmo Virki

Back in his modern city centre office, surrounded by large screens, shiny laptops and cool furniture, Zavatski starts to tell it like it is: “Religious thinking is that you have this abstract something, somewhere, which is a greater power. That if you do things in a certain way, there might be a chance that you wont get into trouble. Startup shared spaces have their walls covered with iconic company logos, these are like the saints at the church, you have to really focus to become one in that sense.” The picture is becoming clearer, the similarities blatant when spelled out further, “the customer is the congregation that you have to build, the lucky few successful companies are the saints and the guys or ‘preachers’ at these startup events are the priests.” A wry smile creeps across his face, he likes his analogy, and I have to admit so do I, “you have to have this kind of God element,” he adds, just to make sure I’ve truly got it.

Church scene. Photo: From file

The idea that a floundering youth, in need of the safety and direction that the traditional religion they rejected gave them, now display all the traits once seen in the church at startup events and within the startup community, is not as tenuous a link as it might have first seemed. However, there are lessons to be learned from the reasons people turned their backs on old-school religions according to Zavatski:

“Joining the cult of entrepreneurs is not such an easy experience, like the church the conditions are harsh actually, you’re not promised anything — in this case salary — and they don’t make this so clear,” he finishes with his trump card, “being able to serve, is another thing in common with the church, you serve people, you serve ideas, what tends to happen in the startup world is that guys serve the medium because you can’t serve money, it’s just something you can’t serve because it’s not substantial, you cant catch it, it’s not tangible, like money in your bank account that’s just a number on a screen.”

It seems that this is the final piece to the puzzle, the final chapter to the analogy. Whether we value it or not, accept it or reject it, now it’s absolutely clear; these days money is our God.

In association with Smoked Sparrow, Estonia