The center of gravity
Capital Factory is the self-proclaimed “center of gravity” of the tech and entrepreneurial community in Austin, soon to celebrate a decade in operation as an accelerator, incubator, coworking space, and guide for the industry. If you’re in the Austin tech world, you’ve been to one of the many events in their space, from Ignite speaker series, the Austin Diversity Hackathon, Women Epic Office Hours (kind of like speed mentoring), to the Nonprofit Tech Club, or [name any coding language] networking meetup.
In fact, according to founder Joshua Baer, the 40 person team that operates Capital Factory is 75 percent women and is comprised of two lone white males. The opposite of what most tech startups internationally can say.
The scrappy company has endlessly made something out of nothing, so to speak. “We lead by example,” Baer asserts.
Why then is the company currently under fire?
They recently asked all of the companies participating in their program if they had any internships opening up that they could promote for them. Then, they posted the openings, most of which are less than part time. Here is the original internship posting that ignited the debate.
Sounds innocent enough. But some in the Austin community rejected the fact that some of these internships are unpaid.
Ironically, two positions have been commonly taken, both on and off the record. The first is that unpaid internships anywhere exploit people and benefit the company with free labor. The second is that the wealthy are disproportionately advantaged because mommy and daddy can pay their bills while they pad their resume by working for free at a startup.
Baer calls accusations of exploitation “ridiculous” and favoring the rich oxymoronic. He responds by challenging anyone to find an unpaid intern from any of these startups that feels exploited.
Whichever opposing viewpoint you may subscribe to (it exploits people or favors the rich), the ethics are subjective.
What is not subjective is the law
Lawyers tell us the internship postings aren’t clearly illegal, nor are they clearly legal. Baer said that they did not review the listings for legality, but that Capital Factory pays their interns, again, leading by example.
When asked if the tone of the job postings could be the source of the ire, given that they failed to focus on what an intern would learn, rather on what their required skills and duties at the company would be, Baer called this a “learning moment.” As their role is to guide, not operate these companies, he said that perhaps they can help guide their entrepreneurs to write better job descriptions in the future.
What the federal law boils down to is that unpaid interns may not benefit the company financially, and that it cannot be unpaid unless it passes the stringent Department of Labor test of six criteria:
- The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
- The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
- The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
- The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
- The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
- The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.
The DoL goes on to say, “If all of the factors listed above are met, an employment relationship does not exist under the FLSA, and the Act’s minimum wage and overtime provisions do not apply to the intern.” Meanwhile, unpaid internships are pretty kosher in Texas, but they point back to the restrictive federal laws.
Baer calls the whole exercise a “waste of time,” noting that “the Department of Labor isn’t going to enforce this, it’s a waste of their time, they have bigger fish to fry, so it’s not going to change,” several times alluding to the DoL’s focus being on larger companies like IBM, not such tiny early stage startups.
CF also under fire for not enough melanin
Also part of the internship posting are pictures of the teams, most of which are two to 10 people large. Although not exclusively all white males, many complained that the pictures were revealing of the startups present in the Capital Factory ecosystem.
In response, Baer reiterated that they lead by example by being one of the most diverse teams in town, working hard to “combat brogrammer culture.”
Some believe the negative response about diversity is a knee-jerk reaction that every event host is familiar with (there are more men on the panels than women, you sexists!), and every startup has heard (there are no black people on the team, you racists!). Others believe pointing out a lack of diversity is critical in impacting change.
“The Austin startup scene is becoming a parody of itself,” Redditor Travis_Williamson commented. “All of the upper middle class white guys in those photos are just creating shit for themselves at this point.”
Skin and pay aside, what’s the real issue?
The troubling undertone of public and private conversations surrounds the nature of Capital Factory. Since their inception, they’ve been an unquestionable force in the Austin tech world, unavoidable even. Success breeds jealousy and they’re often the victim of vague criticism for that reason.
But this line of conversation is different, more venomous. More substantial.
The legitimacy of the startups in the internship posting is under heavy fire. Mean-spirited comments about their model permeate communities like Reddit where Baer is accuse of being “less of a keen startup motivator and more of a rent queen,” with others saying that if the CF ecosystem is so hot, the companies should be able to at least afford minimum wage, not just an honor badge.
Baer, used to being a target, says the online commenters are “complainers” and brushes off the entire critique.
Baer insists they teach entrepreneurs how to be “resourceful,” and “scrappy,” reiterating that an unpaid intern won’t be the only unpaid person on some of these teams that are being guided to make something out of nothing. It is also important to remember here that Capital Factory doesn’t own or operate these companies, they’re an incubator/accelerator designed to incubate/accelerate.
So although the internship posting was a simple gesture from the actual Capital Factory team toward the companies in their offices, it triggered numerous online and offline debates about unpaid internships, then about diversity. Baer firmly believes they lead by example with a diverse team and paid interns, but with the postings focused on job duties and not on intern learning opportunities (the core tradoff of unpaid internships), it created a vulnerable moment for CF that the internet jumped on.
The future of unpaid internships at CF companies?
Baer argues that a “three person startup can’t barely even pay payroll and doesn’t really even know what they’re doing and are just trying to figure it out? Yeah, they can have unpaid interns, sorry. I don’t think that’s a problem.”
Will Capital Factory reconsider their position on unpaid internships? Absolutely not.
In fact, Baer doubled down, asserting, “I’m not going to discourage them from doing that. I’m going to encourage them to be creative about finding other ways they can not pay for things, or defer paying for things, and do other things that allow them to create something out of nothing, which is what creates jobs for other people and allows them to eventually pay for them.”
April 20, 2017 at 4:59 pm
Interesting. There is much to be said for why and whether or not we should be having to reinvent the wheel of entrepreneurship. The point that startups are 3 person teams without even enough capital to pay themselves is VERY valid. So too is the point that people need to be paid. Someone not getting paid in a startup is part of the team. An intern is there to learn and further paid to work; what I look to in internships if from whom the intern will be learning and if that’s lacking, one has to wonder how an intern can benefit.
What I find here (In Austin, relatively speaking to my experiences on the coasts) though is that startups are unwilling, discouraged from, or unfamiliar with how to deal in equity (and more importantly – how to ensure that equity is valuable). Owners are neither interns nor employees unless they are too that. I own a piece of a business, that’s why I work on it; AND I am paid by a business, for my position in it.
There is a real challenge for us to collectively consider when venture capital isn’t prolifically available, funding rounds are relatively smaller, and outcomes average a fraction in size compared to elsewhere, if exits occur at all: equity is both at once more precious and less valuable. Founders want to retain just a bit more, early investors hesitant to relinquish as much, early supporters seeking their ROI. Likewise, Angels press for a little more ownership to offset the relative rate of return.
What then is available to build good teams?
By no means an answer or a way forward for us. Just an observation of reality that relatively less capital, less valuable companies, causes the circumstances with which we need to work. Startups can’t succeed without teams, and young professionals will struggle to get the good experience they want/need, and can provide, if businesses can ill afford them. Let’s solve the challenge.
Business capitalization, valuation, growth, and establishment is NOT remotely easy. We might be experiencing a lot of a cart before horse situation where we think we need more startups to find their way, to get more capital injected, to get interns and executives paid, to drive further outcomes. Maybe we’re going about it wrong and need to work the other way with more leadership and education to drive outcomes, get more executives and interns involved valuably, injecting more capital into the ecosystem, enabling us to fuel more startups.
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