Doree Shafrir’s Startup, a pitch-perfect takedown of tech bros and the new media mavens, begins at a New York City dance party sponsored, in part, by an on-demand laundry app.
“This was the October edition of MorningRave,” Shafrir writes in Startup, “a monthly gathering devoted to the idea that the best way to start the day was with the excited energy of a clean-living dance party, a movement that in a previous generation might have been derided as corny, or Mormon. But this was a different New York.”
Attending MorningRave (in addition to a hipster baby, in headphones) is Mack McAllister, 28, founder and CEO of TakeOff, a wellbeing/mindfulness app poised to secure an additional $600 million in venture capital funding. He’s easily recognized from across the room by Katya Pasternack, 24, an intrepid reporter for digital news network TechScene. She’s in search of a story that could supercharge her online traffic (aka make her career), and their paths are fated to cross again.
With a little help from a coworker’s wife—Sabrina Choe Blum, who also happens to be one of Mack’s employees—Katya unearths a story with potential to torpedo Mack’s career and TakeOff’s shot at “unicorn” status (a valuation of over $1 billion).
“Based on early response to the book, I’m noticing that people are assuming this is all thinly veiled—that I’m telling a story that happened to me,” says Shafrir, who Kirkus reached by phone at home in Los Angeles (she recently relocated from Brooklyn). “I certainly was inspired by my experiences as a journalist, working at startups and writing about startups, but I didn’t experience anything in the plot of the book. These characters are not at all based on real people.”
Shafrir is an acclaimed journalist who’s written for New York, Slate, the Awl, Rolling Stone, and Wired, among others. Startup is her first fiction, and a marked departure from the fact-based storytelling that’s become second nature.
“My responsibility as a journalist, first and foremost, is to tell the truth,” she says. “As a novelist, it’s to tell an essential truth—not the factual truth.”
Startup offers a range of essential truths about media and tech. These visionary men (and they’re all men) of the New York tech scene lack the cynicism of the finance guys and corporate lawyers while exhibiting the same of sense entitlement and bad behavior.
“[F]rom what [Sabrina] had observed working at TakeOff,” Shafrir writes, “these men had a confidence that translated into the arrogant belief that they knew what was right not just for themselves but for everyone else....Tech guys also loved making money but framed it in a way that suggested they were doing all this for the good of mankind, and sure, of course that was going to make them fabulously rich, but the money was just a byproduct of disrupting things and improving the world, so it was okay.”
Despite their projected enlightenment, Mack and his ilk are fostering a culture where sexism and and sexual harassment thrive.
“When I started work on the book,” says Shafrir, who began in January 2015, in the wake of high-profile sexual harassment lawsuits brought by Ellen Pao and Whitney Wolfe against their respective Silicon Valley employers (Kleiner, Tinder), “I was thinking, ‘How can I explore these questions of gender, hypocrisy, and disruption? What’s behind this hypocrisy?’ was my driving question, and I thought it would be interesting to tell the story of someone’s downfall not only through their eyes, but the eyes of [a female journalist] who’s uncovering the story.”
Though the sharpest barbs are reserved for Mack and his fellow tech bros, Startup is a sendup that spares no one.
“I love and hate [these characters] all equally,” Shafrir says. “They all have their good sides but they all kind of suck—kind of like people.”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews.