I’ll start with one of my favorite thoughts, by Alex Haley in his essay “The Shadowland of Dreams”:
Many a young person tells me he wants to be a writer. I always encourage such people, but I also explain that there’s a big difference between “being a writer” and writing. In most cases these individuals are dreaming of wealth and fame, not the long hours alone at the typewriter. “You’ve got to want to write,” I say to them, “not want to be a writer.”
The reality is that writing is a lonely, private and poor-paying affair. For every writer kissed by fortune, there are thousands more whose longing is never requited. Even those who succeed often know long periods of neglect and poverty. I did.
When the startup economy booms, like it did in 1999 and like it is again in 2014, many people suddenly discover they want to “be an entrepreneur.” Newly-minted MBAs who otherwise would have joined Goldman Sachs or McKinsey instead head west to San Francisco. Big company lifers from Oracle or HP abruptly jump ship, not wanting to “miss out” on the next gold rush.
Too often, these folks quickly find a like-minded co-founder who also wants to join the “startup scene”, brainstorm a few ideas, pick one that seems plausible, hack up a product, then buy a wheelbarrow they can use to take their money to the bank when the acquisition offers start to roll in.
They almost never need that wheelbarrow. Starting a company is as Alex Haley described writing: the best companies are usually not started by people who want to “be an entrepreneur.” They are started by people who are knowledgable and passionate about a specific problem, are driven to solve it, and then get busy building a company to bring it to life. They rarely go to tech conferences, can’t be found at launch parties, and they certainly don’t have a quick acquisition as their primary goal.
In contrast, those who want to get rich by “being an entrepreneur” often come up with ideas that don’t really reflect any proprietary insight or interest. They’ll launch an undifferentiated e-commerce site with few barriers to entry, or they’ll read a Gartner report about a new enterprise market predicted to be worth billions, and they’ll jump into it with a me-too product. When they hit the inevitable bumps in the road, they may not have the drive to power over them, or they may not have the proprietary insight to outsmart competitors.
The best entrepreneurs work on ideas that grow out of their personal experiences and aptitudes. Their ideas often are counter-intuitive and don’t seem likely to work at first. I highly recommend this essay by Paul Graham:. One of Paul’s best thoughts is:
The verb you want to be using with respect to startup ideas is not “think up” but “notice.” At YC we call ideas that grow naturally out of the founders’ own experiences “organic” startup ideas. The most successful startups almost all begin this way.”
Now, many of these “organic” founders also want to get rich, as do their investors and the employees who join them, but they also expect to spend years toiling away with lots of setbacks and trial and error. They know that if they get rich it will be because they are working on an idea where they have an edge in terms of knowledge and enthusiasm, not because they have joined a lucrative profession called “being an entrepreneur.”
All that being said, I would never discourage someone who truly is interested in startups from pursuing one – I’d certainly rather have them here in Silicon Valley rather than send them back to Wall Street. Startup life can provide a career full of accelerated learning, great camaraderie and teamwork, and it will at least leave you with some great stories. If you really want to enter the startup world, and not only for a quick acquisition, you could try:
- Get awesome at something. Become a great engineer. Designer. Product manager. Marketer. Sales rep. Growth hacker. It is hard to start or join a great company if you aren’t great at a job that most startups need done.
- Go deep in an industry. Many of the best companies are started by founds with proprietary knowledge in a specific field, like ad technology, insurance, supply chain management, information security, or many others.
- Join a great startup. If you don’t have an idea where you have proprietary knowledge or passion, follow founders who do. Join the team early, contribute however you can, learn as much as you can, and it may lead to your founding your own company in the future as you get exposed to more people and ideas.