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12 May 2017

Book Review: Startup by Doree Shafrir

If you like your summer reads served with a hefty side order of tweets, selfies and slack channels, you will probably enjoy BuzzFeed writer Doree Shafrir's novel Startup, a darkly comic, smart and keenly observed cautionary tale set in New York's fast-paced, social-media-saturated tech startup world.

The novel opens at a booze-free, pre-breakfast Morning Rave in a gentrified factory in hinterland between Williamsburg and Greenpoint. The young, the hip and the tech-savvy are all there to dance, network and post hashtag-hijacked selfies to their Instagram accounts. Present at the party are two twenty-somethings: Mack McAllister, the ambitious founder of a fledgling startup called TakeOff, and Katya Pasternack, a budding reporter struggling to prove her worth at online tech news outlet TechScene.

Mack needs to secure investment to launch the new-and-improved version of TakeOff app, a mindfulness app that scans your texts, social media posts and other data, in order to anticipate how you might be feeling at a given time and offer motivational suggestions to improve your mood. However, scaling up a small business into a larger, slicker operation — especially in New York, thousands of miles from Silicon Valley — comes with its challenges, and Mack himself, as a high-profile figure in the industry who has grand, perhaps even hubristic ambitions, is just one inappropriate text or tweet away from a crushing fall from grace.

Meanwhile, the founders of TechScene want the reporters to stop going for the low-hanging clickbait stories that bring in a steep but transient spike of page views and seek out the stories that yield greater engagement: repeat visits, comments, social media shares and 'scroll depth'. This is no mean feat when you can spend weeks reporting on a story only to be scooped by a single tweet spoiling the take-home message if you wait too long before publishing.

Fate brings Mack and Katya together a Katya accidentally stumbles on a potential lead that could secure her future at TechScene while destroying Mack's career. But nothing is straightforward in the incestuous New York tech world, where a reporter's boss might be married to someone who works for the company the reporter is writing about, and where publishing the story might also harm the reporter's relationship with her own boyfriend, who also runs a startup.

Shafrir's novel is sharp, fast-paced and all too familiar — particularly for anyone who works in technology, new media, social media or digital marketing. The point of view alternates between several key characters (most of them female, refreshingly); some are more likeable than others, but most are convincingly written. Mack sees himself as Steve Jobs, but others are less confident in his leadership and talent. He reminded me more of Jesse Eisenberg's portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network; at one point, he literally clicks refresh in an app waiting for a response, mirroring the final scene of David Fincher's film. Katya, as the young, solitary, single-minded hack, is a recognisable trope too, but Shafrir's writing brings verve and wit to the character.

I finished Startup in a single day and it's a tightly plotted, compelling tragicomedy of the digital age. It would also make a nice companion piece to Jon Ronson's So You've Been Publicly Shamed — or, of course, The Social Network, if you haven't already seen it.

Disclaimer: Startup was published by Little, Brown on 25 April. I received a pre-release copy via NetGalley. All opinions are my own.

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