When Tahmima Anam set out to write her popular new novel The Startup Wife, she created a world for its characters to live in, including a secretive incubator called Utopia and the fictional startups it helped launch, complete with website. One of those fake companies has captured the imagination of VCs and other investors who don't know it's a fake -- and are interested in funding it.
The fictitious company is called EMTI, and its business model is simplicity itself. EMTI is a subscription service that sends you an empty box of a different size and shape each month. The box comes with return postage and a message taken from Buddhist philosophy about letting go of painful objects and memories.
The customer puts an item into the box -- a gift from someone who broke your heart, perhaps, or an unpleasant memory -- and then ships it back to EMTI, where the item will be disposed of "in the most thoughtful, sustainable way possible." It may be recycled, donated, or repaired and upcycled. When it receives painful memories, EMTI will conduct appropriate rituals to "allow the user to be free of whatever is holding them back." Mindfulness meets minimalism and the joy of de-cluttering and letting go.
Unfortunately, you can't invest in a fake startup.
Though Utopia and EMTI are part of Anam's elaborately constructed satire, some people are taking EMTI quite seriously. "Occasionally, when I've been talking to people in the startup world, as a joke, I will just give them the website address and not tell them that it's fake," Anam told NPR. "For some reason, EMTI has been the one that people are most interested in investing in."
Other fake Utopia companies include Obit.ly, which manages your social media for you after your death, and LoneStar, which is testing a vaccine that prevents people from eating dairy or meat with the goal to "to significantly reduce the probability of planetary collapse and human extinction." Then there's WAI, for "We Are Infinite," the startup founded by the book's protagonist with her husband. WAI creates individualized rituals for people and helps them connect with others based on those rituals.
The book's protagonist is a coder who creates the technology for WAI. But the world sees him as the company's sole founder while she stays quietly in the background. Anam said the book was inspired by her own eye-opening experience with gender bias in Silicon Valley. Her husband founded the music technology startup ROLI weeks before they married, and from the beginning, she was on ROLI's board. "I really enjoyed thinking about writing this book writing this book the entire time that I was on that board," she says. "Anytime someone cut me off or ignored me or didn't take me seriously, I thought, 'I'm going to write that down.'"
Anam adds, "I think the tech world promotes the idea of the male visionary. If you think about all the people who are now basically in charge of our lives, it's mostly a series of white men, whether it's Elon Musk...or Mark Zuckerberg. I mean, we may not worship them as people, but we're so dependent on them."
Maybe someday the tech startup world will evolve to include non-white and non-male visionaries as well. While we're waiting, The Startup Wife looks like a very fun read.