Earlier today I read two posts that were practically mirror opposites of each other. The first was Paul Graham's essay, The Pooled-Risk Company Management Company, where he makes a case against founding a company that you intend to run as a successful business over the long term and instead building a company you that you can sell to a public company so you can move on and enjoy your money. His argument is excerpted below
At this year's startup school, David Heinemeier Hansson gave a talk in which he suggested that startup founders should do things the old fashioned way. Instead of hoping to get rich by building a valuable company and then selling stock in a "liquidity event," founders should start companies that make money and live off the revenues. Sounds like a good plan. Let's think about the optimal way to do this.
One disadvantage of living off the revenues of your company is that you have to keep running it. And as anyone who runs their own business can tell you, that requires your complete attention. You can't just start a business and check out once things are going well, or they stop going well surprisingly fast.
The main economic motives of startup founders seem to be freedom and security. They want enough money that (a) they don't have to worry about running out of money and (b) they can spend their time how they want. Running your own business offers neither. You certainly don't have freedom: no boss is so demanding. Nor do you have security, because if you stop paying attention to the company, its revenues go away, and with them your income.
The best case, for most people, would be if you could hire someone to manage the company for you once you'd grown it to a certain size.
If such pooled-risk company management companies existed, signing up with one would seem the ideal plan for most people following the route David advocated. Good news: they do exist. What I've just described is an acquisition by a public company.
Austin Wiltshire has a counterpoint to Paul Graham's article entitled New hire cannon fodder where he decries the practice of "exploiting" junior developers so that a couple of fat cats with money can get even richer. Parts of Austin's counter argument are excerpted below
Why these large firms, and now even places like YCombinator continually think the best way to move forward in software is to hire as many gullible young naive programmers as possible and work them to death is beyond me. It’s pretty well known that 80 hour work weeks and inexperience is a guarantee to continually make the same damn mistakes over and over again. It’s also an open question as to why new hires let these companies take advantage of them so badly. Paul Graham had a start up, he begged for angel investing, and his life should show you - what does he do now? Well he learned from his experience that designing and building is for chumps, to make the big bucks and sit on your ass you become an angel investor.
Kids will work for pennies. You can continue to fill their heads with dreams of having the next big idea, even though they are carrying all the risk for you. Junior developers, whether entrepreneurs or otherwise, are being asked to give up their 20’s, probably the best, most energetic years of their lives, to have a chance at making a dent in someone else’s bottom line. (Make note, the one exception here I’ve seen is 37 Signals )
But have we never stopped to think who truly is benefiting from all these hours? Do we get paid more? No. In fact, because many of us are salaried, we’re effectively paid less. Are we compensated with faster promotions? Possibly - but don’t forget about that silicon ceiling. The only person who knows how many hours you’re putting in is probably just the guy above you - but he makes sure to show just how productive his department is (via your hard work) to everyone. He will always get the spoils. Who will end up really getting the spoils out of any of YCombinator’s work? Paul Graham.
Both arguments have their merits and there are also parts I disagree with on both sides. Austin is right that YCombinator takes advantage of the naivety of youth. However when you are in your 20s with no serious attachments (like a mortgage, a family or even a sick relative) it doesn't sound like a bad idea to make hay while the sun shines. If you can sacrifice some time in your youth for a chance at a better life for yourself and your future spouse/kids/girlfriend/family/etc in a few years, is it wrong to treat that as an opportunity? Especially if you'll be working in an energetic environment surrounded by likeminded souls all believing that you are building cool stuff? Additionally, if the startup doesn't work out [which it most likely won't] the experience will still turn out to be useful when you decide to get a regular job at some BigCo even if it is just realizing how good you have it to no longer have to work 80 hour weeks while eating Top Ramen for breakfast and dinner any more.
From that perspective I don't think Austin is right to completely rail against the startup lifestyle. However I totally agree with the general theme of Austin's post that working ridiculous hours is dumb. It should be common knowledge that sleep deprivation impairs brain function and may even lead to psychiatric disorders. The code you check-in during your 14th hour at your desk will not be as good as what you checked in during your 4th. If you really have to work that much, work on the weekends instead of spending over 12 hours sitting in front of your IDE. Even then, busting your butt to that extent only makes sense if you not only get to share the risks of failure but also the rewards of success as well. This means you better be a co-founder or someone with equity and not just some poor sap on salary.
My issue with Paul Graham's essay and the investment style of YCombinator is that I it sells startup founders short. Paul recently wrote an essay entitled Cities and Ambition where he had this beautiful quote about the kind of "peer pressure" the Silicon Valley area exerts on startup founders
When you ask what message a city sends, you sometimes get surprising answers. As much as they respect brains in Silicon Valley, the message the Valley sends is: you should be more powerful.
That's not quite the same message New York sends. Power matters in New York too of course, but New York is pretty impressed by a billion dollars even if you merely inherited it. In Silicon Valley no one would care except a few real estate agents. What matters in Silicon Valley is how much effect you have on the world. The reason people there care about Larry and Sergey is not their wealth but the fact that they control Google, which affects practically everyone.
Read the above quote again and let its message sink in. The great thing about software is how you can literally take nothing (i.e. a blank computer screen) and build something that changes the world. Bill and Paul did it with Microsoft. Larry and Sergey have done it with Google. Jerry and David did it with Yahoo!, and some might say Mark Zuckerberg is doing it with Facebook.
Are any of those companies YCombinator-style, built-to-flip companies? Nope.
I strongly believe in the idea behind the mantra "Change the World or Go Home". Unlike anything that has come before it, the combination of software and the World Wide Web has the potential to connect people and empower them in more ways than humanity has never seen. And it is possible to become immensely rich while moving humanity forward with the software that you create.
So if you have decided to found a startup, why decide to spend your youth building some "me too" application that conforms to all the current "Web 2.0" fads in the desperate hope that you can convince some BigCo to buy you out? That sounds like such a waste. Change the world or go home.
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