DON'T start a company...yet

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DON'T start a company...yet

 

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?


Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Mon, Nov 21, 2011

COMMENTS

I couldn't agree more. Learn on someone else's dime. However, I think that anyone that has tried to start their own company can be a much better employee. You don't take things for granted, like someone ELSE paying to keep the lights on, buying your computer, office supplies and sales tools.

posted on Monday, November 21, 2011 at 12:51 PM by Jill Fratianne


Absolutely dead-on. Couldn't agree more.

posted on Monday, November 21, 2011 at 12:52 PM by Marilou Myrick


Sound advice. It seems you've been there before. I have turned-around 10 companies in 11 years and created 8 new products. No matter how much you know if you're receptive you learn many new things from each Venture.

posted on Monday, November 21, 2011 at 12:59 PM by Michael Reines


I agree that it will help but i don't think it is necessary. I agree with Jill that it will be nice to make mistakes and get a start-up education on someone else's dime. But I would never say that it is a prerequisite for success as a start-up. The experience will be very helpful but you are giving up one of your most valuable resources, your time. After 5 years at this company you may have a lot more responsibilities that will make harder time leaving to start your company, like a mortgage and a family.  
 
I think it would depend on each individual situation whether launching right out of college is the best option or working in a start-up first would be the best option.

posted on Monday, November 21, 2011 at 1:03 PM by Don Tarinelli


 
I agree with most of the points that you listed down in the post.  
 
But, sometime it may be better for them to solve the problem from their perspective, instead of getting their mind tuned influenced due to experienced entrepreneurs :)

posted on Monday, November 21, 2011 at 1:04 PM by Himanshu


In your post you have suggested that instead of starting own company , join someone else company at early stage!! What is difference between two? If they start with their own company they can get decision making freedom and experience also.

posted on Monday, November 21, 2011 at 1:58 PM by Ninad Avasare


I agree it's important to leverage experience from others if you want a successful startup. I do not, however, agree that's it's necessary to wait before starting your own. Two reasons: 
 
1. If you've got the compunction to do it while in school or fresh out of school, it's possible to assemble experienced mentors & advisors to help you avoid mistakes and make good decisions. (If you're willing to listen to them! That's a different blog posting though...) 
 
2. The longer you wait, the more obligations you'll have (mortgage, spouse, kids, etc.) which will slow you up. No offense to spouses/kids - I have 3 kids and 1 spouse and wouldn't trade them for any business. 
 
To do what I'm saying takes humility and leadership qualities ... so it's hard! But worth it if you're willing to try. 
 

posted on Monday, November 21, 2011 at 2:43 PM by Peter Alberti


Frankly I'd rather you list the top 50 skills one should have before jumping in and how to jump in 'small'. 
 
"There's just nothing like learning on the job, in context, from those with more experience than you. " 
 
(then hire them)

posted on Monday, November 21, 2011 at 3:26 PM by JOhn hadings


Completely agree with you. I joined a startup (<10 people)after completing my undergraduate degree right out of school and the experience was great. 
I think it has given me experience which will be invaluable when I start my own gig.

posted on Monday, November 21, 2011 at 3:56 PM by SK


Hi, I was hoping anyone that reads this may be able to recommend a reputable source for empirical data on start-up success/failure rates. I'm having trouble locating anything solid and would like to have some real numbers at my disposal even if theyre largely variable.

posted on Monday, November 21, 2011 at 5:25 PM by Ashley


Are many startups good at apprenticeship? Unless you're at the right level (yes, even in a small startup) or the startup expresses explicitly that they follow an apprentice model, you may not have access to the information, decisions made and lessons learned.

posted on Monday, November 21, 2011 at 5:51 PM by Stefan


I don't think you can learn in entrepreneurship till you have something real to lose. Decisions matter more and have real thought applied to them when it's your own company. 
 
I think it's wise to join a startup when you don't have your own idea but you really can't learn from the outcomes of your decisions in someone else's company.

posted on Monday, November 21, 2011 at 6:32 PM by Punit


Been there, done that (twice!), and it is terrible advice for engineers. 
 
Being an individual contributor engineer is fine, and if that's what you want to do, go do it. Note that being employee #1 is, in many ways, the worst of all worlds: you get equity pretty close to #10, but take on risk and workloads comparable to non-self-funded founders, without the visibility or breadth of experience.  
 
Now that starting something is so cheap, if you want to learn what it is like to start something, you should just do so, unless you find a startup founder who has an idea that you love, great personal ability, and is willing to give you disproportionate (ie., near-cofounder-level) equity.

posted on Monday, November 21, 2011 at 7:20 PM by matt knox


You are absolutely right. Good ideas can be better if you have on job experience.

posted on Monday, November 21, 2011 at 9:40 PM by YouMeetMe


It is true for 99% of people. 1% (people like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates) is exception.The powerful statement is knowing and JUDGEMENT are different. Thanks to Andrew and Shah.

posted on Monday, November 21, 2011 at 10:07 PM by kinetprakash


Yes I am totally agree with you. I would like to add something to this, when you are doing job with small/any company before starting your own you could start planning on your start-up simultaneously. So this as good as starting a company but not really. You can work on plan, your idea, initial strategy the things which can be done with job in free time. There lots of examples are there who had started there start-up work when they are working in a other company.

posted on Monday, November 21, 2011 at 10:08 PM by Prashant Shelar


It is necessary to ensure that successes of this experience gathering sojourn does not become too comfortable to abandoning the very original idea. 
Also, one should definitely make sure that one has what it takes to be an entrepreneur.[In fact, this can be a good point for another series of posts altogether another set of posts].

posted on Monday, November 21, 2011 at 11:18 PM by Ashok Vaishnav


I totally agree. I was employee #25 at Achievers (formally I Love Rewards), and it was my first job out of school. Seeing first hand how the company transformed through raising financing and growing to 160 people, I feel like I have an edge over most entrepreneurs in the game. Growth companies are the best form of accelerated learning.

posted on Monday, November 21, 2011 at 11:31 PM by Zakir Hemraj


Nothing like lessons from failing

posted on Tuesday, November 22, 2011 at 8:05 AM by tarik


Good advice here thanks for the contributions

posted on Tuesday, November 22, 2011 at 8:13 AM by Chris Rwiza


If you wait to start your business you will probably never start it. Rarely have I heard of somebody that gained experience in someone else's business to learn how to start their own and actually did it.  
 
If you are not willing to start now you probably never will be.

posted on Tuesday, November 22, 2011 at 11:58 AM by Bob


I disagree. Entrepreneurship can not be taught. 
 
My advice would be start smaller with less funding. It makes you think twice, it makes you sweat and you can simply not afford to waste time and resources or make any costly mistakes.

posted on Tuesday, November 22, 2011 at 4:53 PM by J. K.


Nice advice. How can I test which way is more sucessful? doing a startup or joining a team of start up?

posted on Wednesday, November 23, 2011 at 4:44 AM by kourosh


Thank you for the thoughts and comments! I wrote a blog post in reply, touching on the major comment themes: http://blog.payne.org/2011/11/23/followup-dont-start-a-company/

posted on Wednesday, November 23, 2011 at 7:54 PM by Andrew Payne


Sound advice!

posted on Thursday, November 24, 2011 at 6:39 AM by Dayo Adewoye


Sound advice!

posted on Thursday, November 24, 2011 at 6:39 AM by Dayo Adewoye


I'm living proof. After failing to build and launch a startup, I was approached by an organization that was in it's startup phase (2yr having 300+ staff and thousands of customers). They wanted innovation. I've been here 4 months and it's already a gr8 idea. I'm spotting problems that need solutions and being a software entrepreneur as opposed to just doing development all i see are SaaS solutions that i can sell to other companies in the industry. BUT i get to test and develop apps for free iin the org PLUS i don't have to do any customer acquisition. I have customers already

posted on Thursday, November 24, 2011 at 7:12 AM by Papa Kwame Anane


I explained this concept recently to my youngest son like this: 
 
"a truly wise person is the one that not only learns from their own mistakes, but also observes and learns from others. You, as the younger sibling, have the opportunity to see what your brother gets into trouble for and avoid it." 
 
I agree with some of the comments stating 'you can't teach entrepreneurship' in the sense that you can't teach someone how to passionately pursue something. Just like you can't teach someone to be a Olympian. You can train and coach them in the skills they need to win, but they need to have the drive and vision within themselves to make it happen and do whatever it takes to be successful . 
 
"You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make them drink ." 
 
When I was in college, I used those years to plan and develop the vision of my start-up. But I also knew that all the planning meant little without experience. So part of my plan was take at least 5 years after college to work in the companies that would be my prospective targets- so I could fully understand the challenges within.  
 
Active empathy. 
 
Even while in college, I worked in small companies ranging from transportation to technology, to get a wide range of industry insights. 
 
What I learned there was invaluable experience that had I not had, I'm not sure I would still be here today.  
 
Working with CEOS of startups prepared me for the 18 hour days I would soon face. 
 
Working within corporate marketing, sales, and IT departments clued me in to their internal struggles to get results. 
 
It also helped that I came from a long family line of entrepreneurs . I guess it's just in the blood. 
 
Working with a start up before you start your own is like the scientific method in action. 
 
Ask the question= business idea 
Research idea= market potential 
Construct hypothesis= business plan 
Test by experiment= work for start- up or for your target companies 
Analyze results= refine business plan 
Communicate results = start blogging! 
 
Great advice for those humble enough to follow it IMO. 
 

posted on Thursday, November 24, 2011 at 9:57 AM by Carole M


@Carole M. 
 
Your website design is broken in Chrome, Firefox and IE. Or is it supposed to look like that?  
 
What - exactly - did you learn working with those IT departments? 
 
 

posted on Thursday, November 24, 2011 at 6:16 PM by J. K.


@J.K - what I learned from working with IT departments 
 
1-just because you can code it, doesn't mean any one wants it 
2- perfection is a pipe dream, prioritizing is reality 
3- data for the sake of data, without context, is just showing off, it makes no impact 
4- the art (& patience) of being a liaison between marketing, sales, and IT/IS 
5- change for the sake of change is a waste of resources 
 
The people I learned most of these lessons from: (who are way smarter and cooler then I) 
Mark Paton 
Chris Morley 
 
Thanks for the heads up on our site. I did know, and it's on the list of fixes. Since less then 1% of our web visitors uses Chrome, not super high on the priority list.

posted on Friday, November 25, 2011 at 9:02 AM by Carole Mahoney


These are some very valuable tips. I wanted to start my own company for web design and seo but decided to work for a local agency first. It was the best decision I ever made.

posted on Monday, November 28, 2011 at 8:37 PM by Ryan Bradley


I was in a startup as a coder. You don't really know what's going on with the founders behind closed doors, when thy're out seeking financing, etc.

posted on Tuesday, November 29, 2011 at 4:31 PM by Will


That is a great post. Good advice as well. Thanks for this article.

posted on Monday, December 19, 2011 at 1:02 AM by Ron


It is nice post. Good advice for starters especially to get good experience in small scale companies.

posted on Friday, December 30, 2011 at 10:08 AM by chronicc


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