Enough With The Award Shows Already

[I originally authored this blog in early 2018 and elected not to post it at that time. Over the past two years, unfortunately, nothing has changed. If anything, hosting organizations have gotten more aggressive at using “award shows” to project their fundraising needs onto unprofitable startups, bleeding them of valuable capital, and distracting them from their actual purpose.

This year, you are likely to find me in attendance at a variety of these events. And I will happily cheer on my friends who win. There is no benefit to boycotting, and one has to play the game on the field. But I believe they are remarkably obtuse, and I’m happy to go on the record - below - to reject their purpose.]

There is a growing cancer in many emerging startup ecosystems: a glut of self-congratulatory awards shows and banquets that honor both local advocates of entrepreneurship as well as early stage startup success stories. In Chicago, my home town, there have been no fewer than three of these awards evenings in the past few month alone; and I’ve seen similar rates of self-adulation in cities from Indianapolis to Omaha.

These events do a grave disservice to entrepreneurs, startup employees and investors alike: they congratulate and elevate largely unproven enterprises, they mask the daily struggles of building a startup, and they serve to obfuscate the absolutely vital conversations about a company’s integrity and operations.

We can all agree that building companies is excruciatingly difficult for all involved and that those efforts and associated successes – irrespective of how minor - should unequivocally be celebrated. Further, let me be explicit: many of the ecosystem advocates being honored absolutely deserve to be recognized for their tireless work, financial altruism and sacrifice of time.

The question is: what’s the appropriate way to do this?

The answer feels obvious to me: for the tireless advocates and evangelists of entrepreneurial development, why aren’t we thanking them as individuals? How many beneficiaries of Howard Tullman or Kevin Willer’s efforts have actually walked up to them and said “thank you so much for your hard work in making my life a little bit easier.” How many have written a thank you e-mail or card? For startups, I fundamentally believe it is inappropriate to laud a volatile, unprofitable company with a year’s worth of runway in public settings: the celebrating of accomplishing milestones should happen on a company level basis, possibly including investors, family and friends.

In Chicago we have gotten so out of control with the banquets that we resorted this past year to applauding as an entrepreneurial champion, an individual who is an unapologetic anti-Semite and is currently condemned by the Anti Defamation League. In the past we’ve awarded Startup of the Year accolades to firms literally entering insolvency. In fact, if there is one local entrepreneur who certainly deserves to be paraded around the country, it is Matt Maloney*, Grubhub CEO, who in the face of $5 billion in venture capital subsidies to his direct competitors, deftly outmaneuvered them, kept public market investors at bay, all the while expanding his margins, doubling the market capitalization of his business to $6 billion and creating hundreds of additional jobs in his home city of Chicago.

But I haven’t seen Mr. Maloney at an awards event since 2013. Presumably because he is either hard at work or prefers to spend what little free time he has with his family and three children.

Here’s how San Francisco and New York ecosystems find the opportunity to network and decompress: they host conferences around specific topics. Rather than gathering around the purpose of adulation, they gather around themes of learning and growth. The conference circuit has its own pitfalls and absurdities, but at least its efforts are rooted in trying to cultivate value creation and knowledge, not arbitrary celebration. 

If anything, Chicago should anchor into its Midwestern values and pioneer a celebration around those women, men, and companies who have expressed the best work/life balance, shown the best family values, and/or created a uniquely accommodating workplace. If we can’t agree to try that, then I’m not sure we have an identity worth celebrating in the first place.

[*When I originally authored this piece in 2018, I had no formal relationship with Matt Maloney. However, as a disclaimer, he is now a Fund Advisor and Investor at Starting Line.

With the benefit of time, I would also add Eric Lefkofsky to the short list of local “entrepreneurial champions” who are keeping a low profile and not frequently seen at award banquets. Presumably, because he feels his time in better spent in the pursuit of curing cancer.]

Ezra Galston