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Tech Startup Culture: ‘I am machine’

By Vivienne Schröder For my master Anthropology at the VU Amsterdam, I am doing three months of fieldwork in San Francisco, where I am researching Tech Startup Culture. Through observations, informal talks and interviews like this one, I try to discover the daily practices and motivations of the humans behind the startups. My focus is mostly on the work-private life situation and the entanglement between humans and their business.

Anatoly Ovchinnikov and I meet for the first time at a lecture on how to build your startup and how to raise money. I reach out to him for an interview and we find a moment two days later after another event we are both attending. Anatoly was born in Russia and came to America because he finds this a better place to start a business, life here is better and you earn more money. Another aspect he points out is that everybody here speaks English and they work hard, so he can relate to them and the community is very helpful. In Russia you cannot just meet people and ask for help, he explains.

When Anatoly came to San Francisco he worked for a moving company, during his free time he worked on his startup and slept 3–4 hours a day. He smiles, ‘I remember one day I slept 7 hours.’ Nowadays he sleeps 5 hours a day and that is nice, that is the minimum he needs to be productive, and thus what he does.

‘A week ago I wanted to do something chill,’ he says, ‘because I was out of energy. So I rented a car and went to the dessert.’ It is very rare for him to take a day of. ‘It is nice that, now that I have money, I can do that.’ Most of his ‘free time’ he spends with people who are useful for him. He has a lot of friends here, other founders. I ask him if they talk about non-work related things. ‘It is always business related,’ he answers, ‘I work all the time. My business is my life.’ One way of taking rest is watching a series: Billions, he is very interested in the stock market. He watches an episode a week, or two weeks. By exception he watches two episodes on one day. When he watches this, he gets motivated to work more.

Anatoly says he does not really have ‘free time’. I ask him what free time means to him. ‘Sports!’ he says excited. ‘I used to be a semi-professional soccer player. That is free time. Together with travel and rest.’ The last time Anatoly played soccer was over a month ago. Sometimes he misses it, but he understands that he cannot play right now, because he has to work. He does believe that he has an energy problem, as a resultfrom the time he only slept 3 hours a day.

Currently Anatoly tries to figure out how to regain that energy. Going into nature works for him. In the last ten months, the time he has been in America, he went 10–15 times into nature. ‘Sometimes it is work, work, work, then go to the beach and watch the sea and then work, work, work again.’ In his view it is not possible to have weekends when working on his startup. ‘I tried to be free one day. To don’t take a call. I can’t. I just can’t.’ Anatoly finds founder life lonely, he says: ‘Sometimes I think: omg, what do I do, why am I here? And then I think I will do more. I am machine. It is difficult.’ He laughs. ‘But it is cool life.’

At the same time this is also what he expects from other people regarding his startup. ‘My co-founder has a job besides the startup. He spends all his time there. I need people who spend all their time with me. You cannot work for another company and build a startup. He has to go.’

Photo provided by Anatoly Ovchinnikov

I ask him if he can go a day without his phone. ‘No,’ he instantly says, ‘How can someone… what? What do you mean?’ He shows me the google alerts he gets, the tags on the news he is following. ‘You have to be informed, you have to be able to receive calls.’ On his background I see the Forbes logo. I ask him about that: ‘That is my goal,’ he response, ‘When I lived in Russia I had a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge there.’ He tells me he went to the bridge once, to see his goal.

On a regular day he would wake up around 9 or 10 am, gets ready and goes to a cafe, because he does not have an office. He works until 6 pm, then eats, and then works again until 3, 4 or 5 am, depending on the day, task and assignments. ‘I work better at night.’ Anatoly grew up without parents. He lived with his grandmother, sisters and brother. His brother died, in a motorcycle accident. He calls his grandmother and sisters in the night when he walks home from Starbucks, because then it is during the day in Russia.

When I ask him if he wants to start a family of his own one day, Anatoly shares something he learned: ‘There are three things: machine, animal and person. When you wake up and go to work: That is machine, the things you do everyday. When you sit somewhere and you want energy, when you fuel yourself and think ‘wow, this is my life,’ you are person. And animal is when you need to meet someone, a woman for example. We are all animals. But if you work in startup you put the animal in the closet, because you do not need it right now. You can create better startup if it is just business.’

We talk about other aspects of the future. He already has multiple ideas for startups that he will create after this one. ‘My brain is always on. I constantly have ideas. If I see a problem, or a new market, I work it out.’ He will go to New York soon, because a company there funded him.

Silicon Valley is the place to be for him because he can create everything fast now. When he has a problem he talks to someone about it. The Valley is inspiring.

Vivienne Schröder is an anthropology student researching tech startup culture in San Francisco. Read more of her project developments on Medium

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