A friend of mine invited me to have dinner at Google’s huge New York City headquarters. Huge is an understatement. This place has more square feet than the Empire State Building. Google bought it for $1.9 billion in 2010. In fifteen years Google went from two dudes in a garage to the behemoth that everyone in the world knows. Google’s is an old story, but a story that that everyone in tech is familiar with. And walking across the three million square foot 111 Eighth Avenue building is powerful. (Full disclaimer, we didn’t walk, we actually jumped on scooters and scooted across the building.) It’s shocking to see and feel and scoot across one of the most tangible examples of a successful startup.
Our society is becoming intimate with these stories of tech companies. American popular culture knows their leaders and founders. These companies’ stories become bestselling books and popular movies. We need not wonder the effect, for it is visible. Startups are now a “thing”. People are quitting their jobs to pursue their ideas. And startups are now hip. A few months ago I sat down with the founder/CEO of Lua. He told me the movie The Social Network marked a big switch. Before that movie when he would tell people he was working on a startup they didn’t get it. They didn’t understand why you would quit your job and pursue some far-fetched idea.
The times have changed and the media is abuzz with startups.
I’ve often wondered about what drives this startup craze. Not from a macroeconmic perspective, but from the founder-in-coffeeshop perspective. What is the driving force behind entrepreneurs? And is it different from what motivates employees at early startups?
Obviously money is one incentive – we’re familiar with Facebook’s legion of 20-something millionaires and billionaires. There is also ego. Being one of the first 100 engineers at Google is a pretty shiny badge on your resume. I had an interview with RapGenius back when they had four programmers, and I was asked to code up some some algorithm puzzle. Afterward, they told me that once you’re an early engineer at a successful company you’ll never be asked programming puzzles again. (I’m not sure if this is true.)
During my days at The New York Times I remember being very skeptical of startups. In New York there was a strong push for every engineer to found or join a startup. I think some of my skepticism was a defense mechanism. But not all of it.
During my senior year of college I started getting emails from recruiters. One email I actually remember, it was from someone at Greylock Partners wondering if I had a job lined up after graduation. The recruiter began the email with some shameless name dropping:
I’m part of the team at Greylock Partners; we’re one of the oldest venture capital firms in Silicon Valley and best known for our investments in companies like Facebook, Dropbox, LinkedIn, Clourdera, Pandora, Airbnb, etc.
She told me to look through the list of their early stage companies and tell her which ones I was interested in. I remember going through the list and being disappointed. None of them got me excited. But the name dropping of these billion dollar companies that everyone has heard of, and then asking me to look through their early investments was a really simple way of encouraging me to believe that every startup on their list would one day be a brand name that they could send out in emails. I told Greylock I wasn’t interested in any of them.
I was excited by the creativity of many startups but the hype undermined this excitement.
I had an idealism that I was searching for in a company. I thought (and still believe) ego and money were poor incentives to start a company. If the success story of Facebook didn’t exist, would we still have all these startups? If this wave of startups is another bubble, and it crashes, who will continue to build?
If you could rip away the money possibility from startups how would the scene change? If one could be certain that their company would never be a known name, would they still pursue it? Which of these driving forces could we remove and still have founders quitting their lush jobs to hack on ideas in cafés?
One month ago I started working at a venture-backed startup in New York City, my previous skepticism abound. In that month I’ve gotten very excited about what we’re doing. Obviously I want the company to succeed. As I wrote this I wondered if I agreed with the RapGenius guys: is the incentive for a non-founding engineer to have the “street cred” in the tech community of being an early engineer at a successful company?
But startups as a form a delayed gratification are risky and foolish. If it is the destination of the company, not the journey that excites you, you’re screwed. There’s been a lots written about people leaving large companies like Google. And consistently I hear VCs and founders encouraging others to take the risks and be entrepreneurs. But the incentives for why they should do this are not often discussed.
I want to live in a world where creativity is possible. A world where people can pursue their ideas and build whatever they are most passionate about. But I want this world to be a place where people build, and create, and invent because they love doing it. It shouldn’t be a means to an end. Startups should not be a way to get rich, or satisfy your ego. Startups are a place where this creativity is possible, where crazy ideas aren’t rejected. But we shouldn’t force entrepreneurship on everyone. I don’t think everyone should quit their job to pursue an idea. Rather, I think the people who will enjoy it should be encouraged to do it. Not so they can become rich, nor to grease the ego, but so that the pursuit of creativity becomes a legitimate pursuit. Legitimate in the eyes of the media, of our society, and of our parents.
Let’s stop telling people to do startups. Let’s support – financially, and otherwise – creativity as a lifestyle, for technologists and for everyone else. Let’s allow the misfits, the round pegs in the square holes to love what they do. And if what they love to do is entrepreneurship, to build companies and products, to think they can change the world, then let’s encourage it.
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