The gold-plated donkey cart

I'm not sure if he came up with the term but I'm going to credit this idea to James Lewis who used it in relation to a very stuck client we were working on at ThoughtWorks.

The golden donkey cart is a software delivery anti-pattern where a team ceases to make step changes to their product but instead undergoes cycles of redevelopment of the same product making every more complex and rich iterations of the same feature set.

So a team creates a product, the donkey cart, and it's great because you can move big heavy things around in it. After a while though you're used to the donkey cart and you're wondering if things couldn't be better. So the team gets together and realise that they could add suspension so the ride is not so bumpy and you can get some padded seats and maybe the cart could have an awning and some posts with rings and hooks to make it easier to lash on loads. So donkey cart v2 is definitely better and it is easier and more comfortable to use so you wonder, could it be better yet.

So the team gets back together and decides that this time they are going to build the ultimate donkey cart. It's going to be leather and velvet trim, carbon fibre to reduce weight, a modular racking system with extendible plates for cargo. The reins are going to have gold medallions, it's going to be awesome.

But it is still going to be a donkey cart and not the small crappy diesel truck that is going to be the first step on making donkey carts irrelevant.

The gold-plated donkey cart is actually a variant on both the Iron Law of Oligarchy and the Innovator's Dilemma.

The donkey cart is part of the valuable series of incremental improvements that consists of most business as usual. Making a better donkey cart makes real improvements for customers and users.

The donkey cart team is also there to create donkey carts. That's what they think and talk about all the time. It is almost churlish to say that they are really the cargo transport team because probably no-one has ever expressed their purpose or mission in those terms because no-one else has thought of the diesel truck either.

Finally any group of people brought together for a purpose will never voluntarily disband itself. They will instead find new avenues of donkey cart research that they need to pursue and there will be the donkey cart conference circuit to be part of. The need for new donkey cart requirements will be self-evident to the team as well as the need for more people and time to make the next donkey cart breakthrough, before one of their peers does.


Is this really the manifesto we want?

Silicon Milkroundabout tried to produce a manifesto for why people should consider working at a startup. This is the outcome.

The first time I saw it I was very disappointed. While I cannot knock its authenticity it is a profoundly depressing document. While there are the standard statements about passion and having the freedom to make what you should rather than what you are told to; there is much more about poverty, tiredness and scarcity.

If I read this I would say that working for startups is a mugs game. You’re far better coming in during the expansion phase when salaries are higher and the business case better proven.

The many references to tiredness and lack of sleep is also revealing. What I have discovered is that tremendous pressure is put on you to deliver product in a technology startup and this should be resisted at all costs. Sustainable pace is more important in small organisations than in large ones. In a large organisation you can actually burn out a team to achieve a goal because you probably have access to the resources to replace them. In a small one, once you’ve wrecked a team (probably including yourself) you have no way of replacing them and a death spiral will inevitably set in as decision making becomes progressively worse. Remember that a startup should aim to deliver progress not product. Don’t work with people who don’t understand this.

Money, frankly seems to be the missing ingredient from this list of reasons. Maybe adding “because late-stage equity options are worthless” would ruin the overall tone. Many people, especially investors, are involved in startups because they offer potential massive returns in a low growth environment. Americans are much more open and brash (you might even say vulgar) about this with talk of flipping and sale valuations of millions of dollars (often farcical as in the case of Groupon who merely had the bad luck to be caught before their IPO).

Even then this reason is foolish because if what you want is money then you should go to the City. The money is guaranteed, guaranteed in fact by the government which not only underwrites it, bails it out but then charges off into Europe to protect it from legislation that might affect its lucrative tax haven and money “recycling” business. In contrast being involved in “entrepreneurship” is a rather romantic and significantly more challenging way to achieve wealth.

I do work at a startup though and I was at Silicon Milkroundabout trying to encourage people to join me in doing this.

My personal motivation is that for me a startup is a business that is complete but small enough that you can actually see and understand all parts of it. The interesting thing is that organisational dysfunction is actually just a likely in a startup as a larger firm. Often the problems are actually exactly the same, simply orders of magnitude less significant.

Being able to pull the curtain aside is fascinating. Working in the small also removes the mystique that gathers around things and people that generate large revenues. Once a certain number of livelihood’s become involved in a particular process or product you lose the ability to tinker with things or even to question why things are the way they are. In an environment with no money and no customers any change is either positive or at least neutral.

Working in a startup for non-cynical reasons means creating something that is of profound personal interest. I really am interested in trying to remove friction from the process of turning ideas into reality. Wazoku is a product that I do believe in and what I was saying to a lot of people at Silicon Milkroundabout was try the product. If you are interested in solving the problem and the solution in turn solves some of your problems your work is satisfying at all levels. If there is not a satisfactory solution already in progress for your problem then a startup is the only way that you can initiate that process of moving to a more perfect world.

Working for a startup is a last resort; need should be part of your motivation; ignore idiots and their advice; make sure you get enough sleep.