OnStartups

DON'T start a company...yet

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on November 21, 2011 in guest strategy 35 Comments

The following is a guest post by Andrew Payne.  Andy is a Boston-based entrepreneur and angel investor, and a HubSpot director.  You can read his blog at blog.payne.org or follow him on Twtter at @payne92.

I was visiting Harvard a few weeks ago and the professor said, "yea, every undergraduate here is working on a startup!"  Nearby, MIT is practically putting "startup" in the school water supply, and incubator programs for new graduates abound (e.g. TechStars, Y Combinator, etc.)time to learn
For those new graduates itching to start a company, I'm giving some very contrarian (and possibly unpopular) advice:

Don't do it.   At least not yet.

Instead, go join someone else's early stage company as employee #3-50 (or so).   The experience you'll get over the next few years will be invaluable, and you'll be in a far better position for success when you decide to leave and start your own company.  You'll see many processes (e.g. fundraising, product management, leadership, etc.), you'll learn from mistakes (yours AND other's), and you'll build a great network of contacts.

There's just nothing like learning on the job, in context, from those with more experience than you.  There's a reason why the apprenticeship system has been the dominant method, for over a half-millennium, to pass the experience of a trade or craft to the next generation.

I sometimes encounter startup teams that are thrashing on basic things, and it's almost always because they're lacking experience.  Skill is a combination of (a) knowing what to do, and (b) knowing when/where/how to do it.  The Internet is a seductive source of "what", but isn't a substitute for judgement.   Reading someone's blog post on their Agile development principles is helpful, to a point.  But remember:  these anecdotes are necessarily simplified and abstracted, and are missing important bits of context.  Someone else's experience may not translate to your situation.

I am not an astronomer, but I long ago remember reading the fastest way to grind a good 12-inch telescope mirror was to first grind a 6-inch mirror.  Few builders are successful grinding the larger mirror as their first project, and that's sound advice for startup entrepreneurs as well.

What do you think?  Is better for would-be entrepreneurs to just "jump in" or is there value to spending some time learning the ropes at another startup first?