Entrepreneurship. Start-ups. The Tech World. Silicon Valley. Depending on who you ask to analyze it, it’s everything from Star Trek to the new Wild, Wild West. It’s Alpha Centauri, or the OK Corral. It’s Tranquility Base, or Sutter’s Mill in 1849, the Stage One of the Gold Rush. It’s the place where the legends of the 21st century are being born, where fame and untold fortune await the innovative and cool.
But you know what else it is? It’s a lot of hard work. A very lot of hard work. And risk. “High risk, high reward” is a phrase often used in the investment and business worlds. And as Ali Aydar, CEO of Sporcle, Inc, stated in reply to a question posted on the website Quora, taking the risk to start something new is a major life decision. In honoring those who gave their lives in the attempts at manned space flight, an official recently stated plainly, “Space is hard,” an allusion to President Kennedy’s statement at the start the space race, that we do these things precisely because they are hard.
There is the excitement of being on the cutting edge, of making the unknown known, the potential of unlimited upside available to someone on the ground floor of something that really takes off. But there is also some trepidation, over the lack of security, the long slog through setbacks, delays, and frustrations. According to some market research, only 2.5% of a potential market are even willing to try something brand new. Just 13.5% are considered “early adopters.” If you’re the person or company seeking investors who will be patient enough to back your idea through those early, lean years, then you might be in for a long and worrisome journey just to get things off the ground. There is no guarantee of success, even with your “killer app” perfectly formulated in your mind. When I was experimenting in the 90’s with the concept of a digitally-based music publications catalog, it was hard just to get people to understand the idea. And then there were those who understood it all too well, as a threat to their way of doing business. As one traditional publisher said to me, “We have enough trouble with people copying our stuff, the last thing we want to do is digitize it for everyone on the internet. Who are you?”
Still, there does exist an intrepid group of would-be pioneers and space cowboys, and they do press on through that new frontier. Such business people remind me of another group of risk-takers with whom I am familiar: musicians and artists.
As you read through Mr. Adar’s comments, below, replace a few key word in your mind. Swap “startup” for “band,” or “company” for “label,” “tour,” or some other musical opportunity. See if it doesn’t make perfect sense to you.
This is why I encourage musicians to venture into other areas, and why I encourage all young people to participate fully and enthusiastically in some sort of musical activity, one that pushes itself consistently to be the best. Even though the tiniest fraction of musicians will ever make a full time career from their art, music is the ideal activity in which to learn the precepts and life lessons that create the kind of people who will recognize and benefit from the opportunities of the new frontier. Music teaches one to be analytical and detailed, to care about their progress, to be tenacious, and how to pursue a long term goal. But most of all, music teaches one to enjoy the journey and live in the moment, yet strive continually for improvement and toward a goal.
Enjoy. Feel free to comment!
Ali Aydar’s response to a question posed on quora.com
(Note: you may have to sign up at Quora for full access to this thread, but Mr. Aydar’s comments are reproduced in full, below.)
I thought I’d add my perspective as someone who chose the startup route instead of Google.
I was recruited by Google in the fall of 2002 after Napster failed when I was 27 years old. My career was at a crossroads: choose to take a mid-level but important role at a later stage startup (that’s what Google was back then) or join another startup as a founder or early employee. The situation was not exactly parallel to the author of the question, as it was unclear at the time just how successful Google was going to be and there were certainly no guarantees that I would be on any kind of fast track. However, the essentials of the choice were the same: very well paying job with stability and growth opportunities versus an uncertain startup with unlimited upside.
I chose the startup. Here is what I can tell you 13 years later:
(1) Have an honest conversation with yourself about what you want out of life. Are you going to get married? Are you going to have kids? What kind of relationship do you want with your spouse and kids? Do you want to travel the world? Do you want to be President of the United States? Yes, you’re 28 now, but in a blink of an eye you’re going to be 40. There isn’t a more important question to answer than what you want in life and why you want it. Some things you might want require money, potentially lots of it. And you might not get it in a startup because…
(2) Startups are hard. There is no guarantee of success. Startups are a grind. They come with the lowest of lows and the highest of highs. At the lowest point there is a tremendous amount of self-doubt that creeps in. You’re typically working 80-90 hour weeks. You’re flying all over the country and/or world going to meetings with people you don’t know and/or don’t like. You’re at the beck and call of investors and customers, some of whom you also don’t like. However, there is nothing wrong with any of this if that’s what you want out of life. A startup is a unique journey, not just in building a business but also in self-discovery. Don’t do it for the money, because the money might never come. Do it because you want to go on the journey itself.
(3) Don’t fall for selection bias. But wait! According to TechCrunch, Om, and my Twitter feed, everyone that starts a company gets funding and gets rich! Therefore I should do it too! Don’t fall for this trap. Not everybody is getting rich. There are a lot of companies that fail. A lot. The tech press just doesn’t write about them as voraciously as companies that succeed. So it just seems like everyone is wildly successful taking the sexy route of the entrepreneur. I guarantee you that if there was a tech blog focused on writing only about failures and founders and investors were more open talking about them there would be significantly more stories about flameouts than fundraising. The truth is that startups are hard, the deck is stacked against you, and only a few are phenomenally successful.
(4) Don’t underestimate the power of your network at Google. This is a bit more subtle and non-obvious, because one would expect that as a startup founder you’d have a strong network. And that is true to an extent. You develop a network of investors and other founders. But you really only can go deep with a few because you’re working so hard on making your business successful. I have a friend who spent several years at Google before jumping into the startup game. Because there are so many smart people at Google, the number of brilliant people he knows well exceeds my network by an order of magnitude. The point here is that if you’ve decided that you will leave for a startup, the next question to answer is when. Building a world-class network within Google itself will be invaluable to you when you’re in your own startup and the value of that network might be significantly greater if you stay there until you’re 32 or 35.
I took the startup route with eyes wide open. I knew success was not promised and that failure was the most likely outcome. Between 1999 and 2009, I was the first employee or co-founder of three Silicon Valley venture-backed startups. The companies raised a combined total of over $200M in financing. All three of them failed and no longer exist. I did not have the financial windfall that the tech press fawns over day after day.
I did have an amazing journey of learning and self-discovery that I would not exchange for all the money in the world.
And at the second company, I met my future wife and we have two wonderful kids. And that’s what really matters to me.
Figure out what really matters for you. The rest will take care of itself.