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Reconsider (medium.com)
906 points by josemrb on Nov 4, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 154 comments

I'm so freaking happy that someone finally affirmed my feelings that maybe, just maybe, I don't need to start my own startup with the notion of "Unicorn or Bust". I've just felt wrong since graduating college 3 years ago, unable to motivate myself to hack outside of work, and this finally captures why I've felt so tired. I am tired of feeling like I need a Unicorn idea to justify working on something outside of my job. I want to work for myself, but it just hasn't felt possible without a plan to "Take over the world". I don't want to take over the world. I want to build something that people use and can sustain me. That's it. But for every idea, there are millions of reasons in the back of my head that stop me from doing it, all boiling down to "Well I just won't be able able to grow this as a startup".

I don't really care about growing something as a startup. I don't need to revolutionize anything. I just want to make someone's day better through software. I want to launch a cool product that people find fun, silly, useful, critical to their process, whatever you want, and NOT be beholden to interests of anyone who isn't involved in the daily operations of whatever product that is.

I just want to build something, and make it better every day. Something that I own, that I can change however I want, whenever I want. I shouldn't have felt like I needed a16z to invest in my company to believe that my product is worth something.

Personally this was my favourite bit:

  Because while that area north of Silicon Valley is busy 
  disrupting everything, it still hasn’t caught up with the 
  basic disruption of geography.

Mine too. With cost of living skyrocketing, at this point it's purely masochism to stay in San Francisco.

I believe conquering space and time is on the Silicon Valley TODO list.

As a remote worker and remote work proponent that was by far my favorite quote.

As someone who worked remote for about two years I feel like you have less impact on the overall direction of the services you work on. At least unless your company is embracing remote work and make sacrifices to support it. Lot of information exchange happens casually, between a cup of coffee, in the office. It's hard to make up for that in infrastructure and processes in remote work.

That's a management issue. If the correct remote work processes are in place things like this are easy to overcome. It also helps when 90%+ of your company is remote.

I agree though, remote work only works if your company is full on remote (culture, comms, hr, etc).

Any advice for finding remote work?

As someone else replied, contacts, friends and old colleagues. I got my first remote job by going to the local Ruby user group and getting to know people.

You might also check https://weworkremotely.com/ (full disclosure, company I work for runs the site).

I found remote work through old work contracts. People that trust me to do a good job regardless of where I am. It is difficult for companies to give people that trust, so it is all about helping them to find that trust and then not letting then down.

Get an offer first. After that then say you'll only work remotely.

That is pretty funny solution, but it might just work sometimes. How much has that worked for you?

Why not find local work and then start a company you can run remotely?

Speaking for myself here, I've tried for my whole 6 year professional career to "make it big" outside of normal work hours. I've got lots of debt to pay off, and I wouldn't mind working for myself (or so I make myself believe).

But I'm much happier now that I've stopped doing that, and am focusing on just doing a great job at my day job, and relaxing in the evenings with my wife and children. Yes, we still have loads of debt, and we don't all fit in our Pacifica. But there's no rush to solve those, they will come in time. And even once they're solved, there will always be other little problems that need to be solved. There's no end to that until I'm dead.

And frankly, I'm doing a better job at work now than I ever did before, now that I can focus all my mind on it without trying to brainstorm up the next big thing in the background all the time.

I hear you. I've been trying to do that (figure out the next big thing in the 'background' while working a day job) for 15 years, and, let me look around.... nope, no unicorns here yet. I'm slowly coming to the same conclusion as you, but it's going to be hard to kill and bury my hopes dreams. I'm going to have to put together a mock funeral (complete with a casket) for my dreams one day, in order to cope with this reality. I'd love to run my own business (unicorn OR "lifestyle" business) but I feel the opportunity is slipping away year by year...

I started writing a comment that is nearly the same as this one, I'm glad I read yours before commenting. I guess there are lots of people who think the same way. I wonder where they hang out (other than HN)

There's plenty of us who feel that way right here.

In fact, this article isn't even particularly unusual. I feel like we see more articles warning you that startups aren't heaven on Earth than articles explaining that you should try them. I think it's more like HN is a place that considers them a viable option, and that makes it pretty far out in the grand scheme of things because mainstream $X doesn't, for most values of $X.

I think "HN is full of people encouraging you to roll all the dice on startups!" is more about what people think "should" be true than what is actually true.

A lot of people are looking for such a community. I suspect the effect he discusses in the article -- only hyper-growth VC-backed ventures get attention -- means the rest of us hang out on podcasts, twitter, obscure forums, weird corners of the internet, and real life.

May be we should start a community then? Specifically for those looking to make something useful and make enough money to sustain themselves and their families.

Let's start using this one http://www.bootstrappers.io and support the makers.

That's an interesting idea.

We started our company because I could fund it out of pocket for less than the cost of coffee or lunch for a week, and grow at whatever pace made sense. Even if we only occupy 0.1% of the market ever, we'll be able to pay the salaries of ourselves and our friends and have a lot of room to spare into other projects that we think should be made but probably need more development up front.

This isn't exactly an HN love story, but it's working out well for us so far, and we're learning a lot. I can't say I regret it, and at the moment I know that I would regret if I had gone after funding of some sort. Right now it's just me and the customer, working out who needs what. Third legs need not apply.

The whole idea that expansion is bad for a lifestyle business is interesting to read about. There are a bunch of 100 year old, family run businesses that very interesting and intelligently ran. I wonder how many pieces of software will be around in 100 years, not many from unicorns I'd expect.

The idea is not that expansion per se is bad. Taking VC money to expand is. If you can expand fast without using other people's money then great.

Idea for anyone interested in starting something that supports just you: visit Flippa.com. Sort by revenue. Save up, and buy something on there that you can grow from $500/mo in revenue to $1000/mo, then to $2000/mo, etc.

There are tons of sane businesses being sold on there that you can buy up and grow. At the very least, you'll see what actually makes money.

Do you have any experience buying businesses from there? Any tips on how to find a reasonable price? I heard that a reasonable price would be (monthly revenue) * 12

A lot of them sell for much less than (monthly revenue) * 12. I haven't personally purchased a site from there, but I know people who have.

You don't need to buy something from there -- you can simply use the site to find niches where people actually make money.

Making money online can be done. Example: I started a Minecraft server early on, sold in-game benefits, and now make $5-15K (depending on season) per month. A friend of mine makes way more. Here are the stats he sent me recently: https://i.gyazo.com/81718cef2295bbf4df8a6d9892d140c1.png

One of DHH's bits of advice is to find a niche and focus on profiting enough to support yourself. The internet is the best place to do that.

Is there a way to contact you to get proper insight into this. I noticed there is no email to reach you on your profile. As a student, I am looking for ways to support myself and be totally in-charge of things. Thanks

I've always thought the idea of "giving more value than you take" is an ideal worth shooting for.

That's the definition of business.

I would have to disagree with that as a blanket statement.

Plenty of "successful" businesses use other means besides added value to extract rents from customers.

Robert Reich has recently written very eloquently and convincingly about how multi-national corps are using all sorts non-value producing economics to increase bottom lines at our expenses.

For example, Americans pay more for pharmaceuticals than do the citizens of any other developed nation.

That’s partly because it’s perfectly legal in the U.S. (but not in most other nations) for the makers of branded drugs to pay the makers of generic drugs to delay introducing cheaper unbranded equivalents, after patents on the brands have expired.

This costs you and me an estimated $3.5 billion a year – a hidden upward redistribution of our incomes to Pfizer, Merck, and other big proprietary drug companies, their executives, and major shareholders.[1]

[1] http://robertreich.org/post/132363519655

You'd be surprised how many people are looking for a shortcut where they can exploit value built by others.

"Giving disproportionate value than you take" is disruption.

The light bulb, steam engine, radio communication, internet kind of value.

I think the VC-less voices have been reasonably represented, at least here on HN. patio11 alone is a prominent presence around here (2nd user with most karma!) and a good example that one can succeed doing one's own thing without taking outside investment.

There's also idlewords, the people behind multiple podcasts (eg. Startup Success & Startups For the Rest of Us), and various well received one-person "Show HN"s.

There's plenty of idol adoration and boasting, but I've always felt an alternative was in plain sight if you didn't fit with the "VCistan".

Another submission for the flagged files.

As of 17:51 GMT, this submission is 3 hours old and has 374 points, 68 comments, sitting in position 11 on the HN front page

In position 10 is a submission from 8 hours ago with 100 points and 76 comments (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10505476)

In position 1 is a submission from 4 hours ago with 177 points and 91 comments (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10506338)

edit: This isn't to pass judgment on the merits of the article, which seems a bit conveniently timed to a product launch linked at the bottom. But as a community we should realize what gets flagged/pushed down and by how much.

update: at 18:51 GMT, this is 4 hours old, has 490 points, 97 comments, and is in position 26. In position 25 is a 5 hour old submission with 57 points and 15 comments (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10506372)

final update: at 19:24 GMT, this is off the front page at position 33. Age 5 hours, 536 points, 112 comments. In position 18 is a story from 10 hours ago, 362 points, 192 comments (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10505362); the 10506372 story referenced previously is now in position 31, 62 points, 16 comments, 5 hours ago.

Perhaps it was flagged by members of the user base? I swear like a sailor, but I try to keep it down to a dull roar online. Yet, I found the amount and kind of swearing in the article off-putting. And while I agree with the general premise wrt encouraging people to consider shooting for small and mid-sized businesses, I don't really agree with or much like his approach to arguing for that.

Perhaps others feel more strongly than I do that this isn't really a solid article.

Definitely possible, though the ratio of upvotes vs flags is interesting nevertheless - opinions must be extremely polarized for that to be the case.

That flagging is a joke. This was an excellent read, a relevant article and by a respected person. I missed the story until today because it dropped so quick off the homepage.

Very odd. I found that I have the best success browsing HN when starting from the active page. The things people usually complain about being flagged are usually very high with the active ranking system.


Is there seriously a list of HN flagged items somewhere? I fantasize about this often when I try to explain to friends how much quality content gets booted off of HN immediately these days. It's super heartbreaking and infuriating when they don't know what I'm talking about.

Not that I'm aware of. I made that joke since it's the second submission in a week I saw sunk far below its expected score (the Homejoy debacle was the other, https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10469134)

This happens very often. It's not until you start noticing it that you start noticing it.

I find hnrankings.info very useful. See, for example, http://hnrankings.info/10506422,10514729/

That's pretty good - thanks. Do you know if there is a way to also have this show score/number of upvotes or number of comments for a story, in addition to the rank?

Sorry, no idea. The json loaded by the site consists only of [timestamp, position] pairs, maybe the author isn't even collecting score data.

People find themselves drawn to the unlikely startup success stories because they have a beautiful allure to them: if I spend every night tucked away writing code and focusing my entire life around my work, then maybe I, too, can be the next Zuckerburg!

Even though this narrative is hugely removed from the realities of startup life (most college startups go nowhere, the most successful founders tend to be in their middle age with significant financial stability, etc), it is still romanticized by founders and startup employees and other people who really should know better. So then why do they buy it?

To get people to work harder for you. Spending every waking moment in front of a customer or a computer screen eating bulk ramen sounds like a great montage scene in the movie you'll have an EP credit in, and this distorted reality is even easier to sell to impressionable young college grads who have maybe .1% of the equity (in options!) that founders and VCs get to keep.

Why are jeans and hoodies the fashion choice of founders? Because if everyone is used to dressing like a poor college student, they tend not to notice how little they're truly being compensated.

This isn't some big founder/VC conspiracy, it's complicit common sense.

Random thought. People also do WANT a "romantic" or "interesting" or "passionate" life or whatever you want to call it. All the talk about "work/life balance" and "stable income" and stuff is uninteresting to this mentality because in one sense all it is is a preference for stability, a kind of conservatism. I know people who have abandoned career altogether to go around busking, and they LOVE the "hustle" even when it sucks in objective terms. They love the sense of urgency, the sense of being on their own space fighter like in Firefly. With funded startups it's a bit different because you still have daddy in the board room handing out your allowance, but that's secondary.

I can imagine someone semi-consciously optimizing their life in such a way as to avoid middle class normality as much as possible. If you want to get financially independent without doing "boring" stuff like working a stable career and investing in index funds, the notion of a wildly successful startup is perfect: you get to be interestingly poor for years, and then you can suddenly get fuck-off rich, with no intermediate period of dull stability.

Presumably after that you can go off and build canoes with your friends or whatever it is you "really" want to do. Except that probably, for reasons David and others outline, the plan will fail and drag you into decades of pure hypocritical misery.

This is an interesting thought, I like it

You still have to be able to eat.

> Why are jeans and hoodies the fashion choice of founders?

Because they're comfortable, familiar, and they can get away with it? I think it takes a particularly cynical and angry mind to stretch the choice of clothing to be a tool of oppression on the part of the founders.

If you research any culture at any time period, you will find clothing as a method of control. Medieval European countries often banned commoners from wearing violet, because the color was expensive and the ruling class wanted to reinforce the idea that the nobility were fundamentally different and better. Same goes for Jews in nazi Germany's being forced to wear yellow stars. The way you get someone to dress influences the way they think.

It's the same as buying a few pizzas for your employees to get them to code till sunrise instead of paying them proper overtime. Impressionable college grads with little work experience elsewhere will take that kind of behavior for granted, and assume it is the cost of their (measly) equity. Essentially, you want them to be suckers. Comfortable suckers.

Any culture at any time period? Are you sure about that? That's a ridiculously strong claim.

It's not that they can get away with wearing jeans so much as they can't get away with wearing other things. There's still an egalitarian and meritocratic notion in technology that rank shouldn't matter. Ask yourself why NSA director and General Keith Alexander showed up at DEFCON in jeans and a t-shirt with an EFF logo on it.

Most of these guys telling you what to do, where to live and which technologies or schools that matter are Ivy League alumni multimillionaires. Many from a time before a widespread Internet and grants for poor students. When was the last time you saw any of them sit down with someone who were really challenging their views?

Edit: For somewhat of an example of the last thing there are two episodes of This Week In Startups with DHH.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XDGHxO6N3Ms&t=15m30s https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jzERXJgi5vQ&t=7m11s

They're also inexpensive and low-overhead. I'm glad to have the luxury of working in jeans and tee shirts. Cuts way down on ironing and laundry, frees up time.

Time to spend working with no overtime pay?

Starching and ironing dress shirts is work (done for your employer's benefit) that is completely unpaid.

You will find tech people are far more into their uniform than "suits" are.

Not at most enterprise companies. Maintaining an extra set of clothes is expensive, especially when they require frequent dry cleaning. I also found it was a hassle to 'match' all the time, I was called out for wearing a black shoes brown belt combo while running out of the house a few times.

Additionally, after work most of my friends have to change outfits to participate in social events. Business casual dress is useless, now I wear jeans, athletic shorts, and t-shirts to the office.

I'm eagerly awaiting the forthcoming geek poet who'll write our Howl. Who saw the best minds of our generation destroyed by startups... their skulls bashed open by a sphinx of capital... that moloch "whose mind is pure machinery... whose soul is electricity and banks!"


Moloch in whom I sit lonely! Moloch in whom I dream Angels! Crazy in Moloch! Cocksucker in Moloch! Lacklove and manless in Moloch! Moloch who entered my soul early! Moloch in whom I am a consciousness without a body! Moloch who frightened me out of my natural ecstasy! Moloch whom I abandon! Wake up in Moloch! Light streaming out of the sky! Moloch! Moloch! Robot apartments! invisible suburbs! skeleton treasuries! blind capitals! demonic industries! spectral nations! invincible mad houses granite cocks! monstrous bombs! They broke their backs lifting Moloch to Heaven! Pavements, trees, radios, tons! lifting the city to Heaven which exists and is everywhere about us! Visions! omens! hallucinations! miracles! ecstasies! gone down the American river! Dreams! adorations! illuminations! religions! the whole boatload of sensitive bullshit!

Thanks. I'm a few paragraphs in. Yeah, the poem is powerful because Moloch is not only a stereotyped evil other. ("The capitalists.") We are Moloch. "Moloch whose name is the Mind!" Speaking personally and unprofessionally, I feel a grand loss of innocence from the time when as a dorky kid when I wrote Emacs Lisp macros for fun. I don't blame others, I don't blame "capitalism," I don't blame teh evil bankers. I simply want money so that I won't need money so that I'll be "free," just like everyone wants this. I do appreciate what David has been saying for years.

Capitalism is certainly worth blaming, at least for offering a lens to justify the deterioration of the global middle class.

Essentially, the wealthy have come around to the idea as seeing the poor and middle classes and resources to be exploited, like a coal mine, by offloading their tax burdens onto them. The more people chafe under low pay and high taxes, the more easily they can be tricked into thinking the social support system is unsustainable and should be dismantled before people are taxed to death.

People who created this mindset and let it fester know who they are. The rich who benefit stay silent. That's why this generation of CEOs who may be highly vocal about social issues tend to be conspicuously quiet about tax policy. For every Warren Buffett, there are a dozen post-exit founders who are happy to leave their capital gains tax rate where it is.

> Essentially, the wealthy have come around to the idea as seeing the poor and middle classes and resources to be exploited, like a coal mine, by offloading their tax burdens onto them.

"Come around to"? That's the central essence of capitalism, for which it was criticized by the socialists who put the name "capitalism" on it in the 19th century.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't the term "capitalism" originally coined as a synonym for "wealth" (and particularly conspicuous wealth)? The novelist who coined it was writing a satire, but its origin doesn't strike me as implying an intrinsic value judgment.

> Correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't the term "capitalism" originally coined as a synonym for "wealth" (and particularly conspicuous wealth)?

I was referring to the socialist critics of the dominant system in the developed world of the 19th Century who introduced and popularized the use of "capitalism" it as a label for an economic system (who, seem to be first users of the term, though that's somewhat tangential to the main point I was making.)

> The novelist who coined it was writing a satire, but its origin doesn't strike me as implying an intrinsic value judgment.

Presumably, you are referring to W.M. Thackeray's use in The Newcomes in 1854, which is counted on Wikipedia, with reference to the OED, as the first known use of the word in English; this postdates the early use of "capitalisme" in French to refer to an economic system, and even known earlier uses in English of "capitalism" to refer to an economic system [1]. Thackeray's use is somewhat oblique, and there seems to be some discussion among people who care about these things whether it was about wealth per se or some kind of attitude or orientation toward wealth. But, in any case, his use isn't the first (even if it may have been original, not directly following the others) and is a tangent from the use of the term to refer to an economic system.

[1] e.g., W. B. Greene, Equality, 1849. https://books.google.com/books?id=yCQ3AQAAMAAJ&q=capitalism#...

I think that as tech people, we often give up working on meaningful products for money, when in fact, that's exactly why we're not getting money. It's risk aversion repackaged as prioritizing money.

The people writing Emacs Lisp macros are also working on complex Common Lisp or OCaml applications in very high end jobs, and making far more money than the people who are playing these "disrupting" games. Most people in startups work a few years for stock that ends up being worthless when the company goes under, and programmers tend to get hit the worst with this because they give all the short-term-profit to glorified secretaries on the business side of the business.

Hmm.. Got any proof of that? I always thought that the programmers making the most money were those working in finance, or those working for Google/Facebook/Twitter/*.

Finance or Google/Facebook/Twitter/* are exactly not "disruptors". Do I need to go find evidence for what we agree on?

Jeff Hammerbacher: ‘The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads… That sucks.’

This is brilliant. The one thing it doesn't go into is the harm that will be done to healthy ventures when the bubble pops. Suddenly, everyone will have a bad taste and healthy ventures won't be able to get sane necessary resources and bridge loans, all thanks to the excesses of what's described in the piece. Not engaging in the insane startup culture described isn't just a healthy lifestyle choice, it's also taking a stand against a situation that will soon very much harm the tech industry as a whole. When the tide rushes away from the unicorn machine, it will carry away the innocent as well.

Most of the time, "disrupt" is a euphemism for "put a Web 2.0 interface on". You're not disrupting shit, you're putting whitewash on a shoddily-cobbled-together product that other people have been doing better for decades. It's all style and no substance.

If you're doing something new, you'll probably own the industry just by virtue of being there first. But you'll also probably not grow to be super-huge, because if you were solving a huge problem, it probably would have been solved already.

The exception to this is when the problem is huge, but the technology wasn't there to solve it before: see search (Google), social media (Facebook), mobile apps (Uber). And even then the conditions need to be just right (an app for calling cabs would probably not have been nearly as successful if it didn't coincide with a legal loophole that allows them to undercut the taxi industry).

But most ideas aren't those ideas. And that's okay. A business that solves a real problem, even if it isn't a huge problem, will likely be able to stay alive, profit, and grow just fine. Those "disrupting" companies that are all style and no substance will crash and burn when the tech bubble pops.

I am big fans of 37s. I learnt a lot from reading thier blog posts especially thier unconventional (at that time) thinking to avoid crazy detailed requirement docs, focus on blank error states etc...

However, DHH's constant railing against the VC backed world seems a little tiresome. There seems to be a religious fervor to his essays that thier way is morally better (e.g. thier business model seems like a honest transaction vs VC backed startups who inflate numbers etc).

I think a lot of people get that raising VC is not the only way to build a business (there is even a nice tradeoff statement (do you want to be Rich Vs King).

It's a choice one makes. It's not morally inferior or superior to raise VCs or to bootstrap.

I take the 'constant railing' as you call it as more of a reminder that there is a choice - 99% of the voices you hear in this world only talk about the VC backed method so the other 1% of voices tend to have to speak a little louder.

> However, DHH's constant railing against the VC backed world seems a little tiresome

...and yet so many young founders and employees are swindled into starting or working for the next unicorn of the world, giving away massive amounts of equity in their company. Killing themselves slowly by working 80 hour work weeks.

At some point we need to start doing a better job of educating college grads that can program, design, engineer, etc. The more DHH's constant railing continues the better.

Isn't it? There's a history of con games (in both directions) in the VC world. It seems intuitive to me that it's easier for a "king" company to stay more focused on product and customers, and less on growth - sooner or later, if you're determined to grow at all costs, you'll have to decide to do something that hurts your customers, your team, your soul, in order to chase that growth.

I mean, this isn't proof or anything. But there seems to be some intuitive truth to DHH's position.

What do you mean by history of con games?

I guess it's possible to build large businesses like Google, Facebook, Uber, Apple etc without taking VC money but its a choice that these founders made that taking VC money helps them increase the odds that they will achieve thier goals.

What's wrong with that?

On the other hand- you have perfectly good businesses like Craigslist, ESRI, SAS, Zoho who did it without raising VC money. Nothing wrong with that either.

Just different choices made by the founders of these companies.

Microsoft is also a famous example of company that did not take VC money.

Microsoft's founders met at prep school - both were from well off families in the Pacific Northwest. I wouldn't be surprised if they had a little more family help available when starting their company than most.

Not that they aren't an example of a company that did not take VC money, just that they may not be a particularly good example for most looking to follow that path.

DHH constantly rails against many things - it seems to be his natural idle state.

"Constantly railing against X" is not a strange thing to do when X remains a problem for a long time, and people are either having a hard time or are unwilling to face it.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. In this case, I'd say it's a good thing.

There seems to be a religious fervor to his essays that thier way is morally better

Weird, reading this thing, I never got a sense that he was saying that his approach was better, only that it wasn't worse...

> focus on blank error states

What does this phrase mean?

I believe s/he meant blank and error states - the screen the user sees when there is no data to display.

In short, 37 signals believe this screen should not display an empty list, but instead serve as a guide to the user. This is commonplace now ("You have nothing to read yet, [button]add someting[/button]"), but first mentions of this are from over 10 years ago: https://signalvnoise.com/archives/000375.php

Are the blog posts still available?

Yes - you can see thier archives. Here is an example : https://signalvnoise.com/archives/001050.php

I am in the process of creating a startup business with 2 partners.

Our ultimate goal is NOT to get rich, is NOT to be famous, is NOT to be valued billions of rubles.

We want to be free, we want to work on the projects that motivate us, we want to make our own decisions and decide when it's good to work and when it's not.

For me this is the most motivating part of this adventure. I can totally relate to this article and it even gives me hope in our way of doing things.

I thought this was the general idea of starting a business. I think few people start a business thinking they're going to be worth billions. Hell, an acquaintance started a publishing business and is now selling millions of books in niches like "colouring books for adults". He is financially set and could sell for many millions, but few people would ever hear of him or his company. Yet this is fantastically beyond the success of most people.

Are founders actually so delusional that they're really buying into the whole billion+ idea at the outset instead of thinking of how to make a business? That seems rather silly. (Unless the real goal is to find a way to get a couple million personally out of the first few funding rounds. In that case, perhaps it's not a bad gamble.)

Coloring books for adults isn't so niche anymore. I'm seeing them everywhere lately.

Make a living basically? Can work on both ends, like cutting your costs. I wonder how much you would have to be living on annually in order to have a decent idea work? Is $20k too high?

I've been working on that more than my startup recently.

We could live on $20k annually for at least 4 years. Now I am trying to figure out a SaaS that could generate that within a couple of months. I don't mind fighting with price even though that's what you're not supposed to do.

Maybe I should have added the 3 of us are still employed in companies. So we are in a somewhat comfortable position. we are already making a little bit of money that compensate for the administrative and infrastructure costs (which are ridiculously low at the moment).

We estimate that the company should earn around 25k € every month so we could quit our jobs but again our costs are very low so far.

I'm not sure to properly understand your question here ; you want to have a side business so you can concentrate on your main startup?

Anyway, good luck with your business(es)!

Nah I actually have no employment (no cultural fit anywhere) - so I am focusing on (or figuring out) building something that could generate income pretty quickly, though I understand the size of the income wouldn't be big, so I've cut all my costs down for me and my family to $20k annually.

Living on savings for now, which runs out in a couple of weeks.

> We could live on $20k annually for at least 4 years.

Is this also accounting for retirement? If so, kudos! :-)

No because it would be for four years only.

I love this part of the article, it's incredibly important to remember this:

"The web is the greatest entrepreneurial platform ever invented. Lowest barriers of entry, greatest human reach ever. I love the web. Permission-less, grand reach, diversity of implementation. Don’t believe this imaginary wall of access of money. It isn’t there."

I believe that the next evolution in startups is full recognition of this fact. Costs are practically zero for building viable SaaS products. Great developers are everywhere. This isn't just over optimism, it's largely true. What will that mean for startups and capital? My prediction is we will see new models, more "startup factories," etc. Interesting times.

> Great developers are everywhere

This is predominantly false. I would edit Great to mediocre.

Which does not diminish the original point. Everybody says they will only hire genius top-1% programmers and that's usually ridiculous. For the vast majority of products, you don't need 20 great developers to build it and make it great. You can do it with 20 mediocre developers and one or two great leads who can mentor and help them perform at their best.

If that's true, then it should be easy to name some startups that fell into technical mediocrity and recovered. Are there any?

I saw the opposite happen firsthand: a company that was about to get steamrolled by a competitor, and they knew it. There was nothing they could do, even though they had over two years to prepare. The reason they couldn't do anything was because their team was mediocre. Last I checked, that company no longer had any job listings.

How many people here have similar stories? It's tempting to believe that mediocre programmers can be mentored, but it doesn't seem that simple.

I would say your statement is predominately false. Great developers can be found in most places, and even more if you don't require that everyone be together.

I think DHH (and a lot of people) miss out on a lot of modestly growing startups that are doing relatively boring things because they don't hear about them. It's not that they don't exist. They just don't hear about them because they're relatively boring.

The vast majority of (moderately successful) startups I see friends and colleagues starting or working for are in this group. For every one friend I see go work for a company like Uber, I see 10 more working for a startup that builds software for expense reports or HR teams or insurance companies or old school cab companies. They will never be billion dollar companies, and they probably won't IPO, and they may be an acquisition target -- but that certainly isn't their end goal. They are gaining customers and growing relatively sustainably, making smart choices about when to (or not) take outside funding.

Actually, he mentions that such startups don't need to tell their story like VC-funded startups do, to meet their recruitment goals, and so VC startups dominate the zeitgeist.

Most of those "modest" startups are also VC-funded.

Last time I looked through the YC alumni list (http://yclist.com/) I was surprised at how heavily it was skewed B2C though. I haven't checked since W15 was added but a quick skim and it still seems fairly B2C focused.

It's in their request for startups though. Seed funds don't seem to be an area that attracts B2B.

I suspect it's because you have to be in the industry to understand the problem exists in the first place, so a huge segment of the YC applicants simply don't know about those opportunities as they've not worked in industry and only know about B2C opportunities.

YC is not the VC industry as a whole. For one thing, it (like SV) skews much younger and much more consumer than VCs in general. There are plenty of VCs who invest mostly in B2B companies started by founders with domain expertise.

Hasn't Zenefits been massively hyped and valued this past year, even though it's in the business of building HR software?

The documentary, Hoop Dreams by Steve James and Frederick Marx captures the mania around startups just as well as it does for getting into the NBA. It's well worth watching.


“Many are called but few are chosen”, Matthew 22:14

I don't think early investors dubbed themselves "Angels". If I recall correctly it came from the term used for similar people who used to finance Broadway shows. I like to think some ingenue in the 1920s called some rich guy "angel" and got him to fund a show and it went from there. I should Google it but I miss speculating on things...

>Part of the problem seems to be that nobody these days is content to merely put their dent in the universe. No, they have to fucking own the universe. It’s not enough to be in the market, they have to dominate it. It’s not enough to serve customers, they have to capture them.

I think this says more about the state of VC than startups themselves. Founders feel that if they don't run around banging pots and pans while tooting their own horn/vuvuzela, they won't ever get any attention from investors. Crowdsourcing early funding is just going to make this worse.

I really enjoyed reading this.

However, I personally feel distain for the perspective of how every engineer should maintain a noble sense of worth. No matter the environmental differences of being in SF or elsewhere, people are bad at engineering wall to wall. While there are still successes at both sides of the coin.

Frankly, 'Software eating the world' has nothing to do with us. It has to do with, well, the world. And my own struggle with the tech industry is how disconnected we are in the 'startup and grow' sector.

"I wanted a life beyond work. Hobbies, family, and intellectual stimulation and pursuits beyond Hacker News, what the next-next-next JavaScript framework looks like, and how we can optimize our signup funnel."

drops the microphone

What a great article. I am glad someone finally said something.

I find interesting that this article, that got 541 points (at the time I am writing this) is out of the front page already. Makes me wonder if there is the hand of people (VCs) not wanting programmers to aim for lifestyle business behind that.

I think many founders echo his motivations. The one that he implicitly suggests is misaligned is:

I wanted the best odds I could possible get at attaining the tipping point of financial stability.

And that this is due to the corruption of investors. So I guess the takeaway is that if you raise money, choose your investors wisely.

I'm surprised this needed to be said.

There are millions of small businesses (in the US) and the vast majority of them are just lifestyle businesses that bring freedom/pleasure/excitement to the owner with perhaps a possibility of earning more, but there are many that earn less than what they could make at a regular job with their same experience.

This whole world domination startup thing seems to be localized to SV really. Nowhere else is this considered normal.

By the way, there's a lot of confusion with just the term "startup" in general when it should really be reserved for something new (biz model, innovation, etc). If you're just doing something that's already been proven, which is completely ok, then it's just a small business.

Basecamp isn't a small business, nor does it stick to the already proven. They are constantly trying new things, and spinning out other companies when they're successful.

Perhaps it isn't now but this whole thread is mostly referring to the start of a company in which case everything is a small business.

Basecamp with 50 people is still small to me, I'd say companies need at least 100 people before they can be called mid-size.

Trying new things means the other spun-out companies are startups. Basecamp itself is nothing new, just different software solving the same problem as hundreds of other project management and collaboration tools.

What about executing an already "proven" idea really well?

What about it? It's already proven so still nothing new. Just new version.

I think new can be summarized as a new business model, new way to monetize something, new innovation like a product or service that didnt exist before, new industries in general, etc.

There can be multiple startups doing the same problem but most "startups" in SV aren't really doing anything new, just a more modern approach or revamped UX of existing solutions so I wouldn't call them startups. There's nothing wrong just being a small business that grows into a medium and large business.

Not everything has to be brand new and it's not always worth it either.

But in the end, they’re money lenders.

Greed, lust, and gluttony. Three personality traits our money-focused society selects for.

Given how fit the people in California/NYC are, I'd say gluttony is off the table.

The reality is you can't accomplish anything meaningful in life without being uncertain. It is OK to be unsure. It is OK to do things that are not sexy. It is OK to make small incremental improvements.

Unicorns happen over time. Smart founders have patience and resilience to weather many storms ahead.

"Lifestyle companies."

They are everywhere... but we are quieter than high-growth startups. Many of us work for them. We enjoy it. If anyone was not aware of their presence, step outside of the VC-driven culture. There is a whole other world out there.

Even the term "lifestyle company" sounds like a mocking label straight out of Silicon Valley.

This post really resonates with me. I think there is a "silent majority" type of situation going on. Most people venturing out do it for the reasons DDH states: independence, the ability to work with people of your choosing, etc.

Most of us don't care about winning some ridiculous lottery where smarmy Wall Street types stakehorse tech wunderkinds.

Things have a way of balancing themselves out.

At the end I pictured David, standing on stage, stared at by the audience. After a brief moment of silence, he drops the microphone. A loud crack echoes through the PA, followed by screeching feedback, before the audio engineer remembers to turn down the volume. Meanwhile David turns around, calmly stepping down the stage to be detained by the (Ge)StartupPolice…

Relevant bit from the latest season of the Startup podcast: https://youtu.be/qfpdzPnElVU?t=738 *spoiler alert - this is toward the end of the season, in case you'd rather listen to the podcast in order

Eloquently expressed pov as we've come to expect from @dhh. Legend. Now what I'd love to hear is from founders of @stripe and @intercom as they have both lived the experience of developing 'lifestyle' scale businesses before bringing unicorns to the market

> In the abstract, economic sense, a 30% chance of making $1M is as good as a 3% chance of making $30M is as good as a 0.3% chance at making $300M

I see this repeated as a truism all the time by the anti-VC crowd and it sounds great. But is there actually any evidence whatsoever of it?

The success rate for startups which have raised a Series A is substantially higher than the success rate for startups and small businesses in general. If it were true that avoiding VC funding somehow gave me a 30% chance of building a $1M business, I'd be happy to give it a shot (at least for a year or two). But I just don't see any evidence of that.

If anything, it seems like companies which accept VC money have dramatically better odds of success than other startups. The only reason it seems like VC has a high failure rate is that nobody bothers to write a news article when a random small business fails.

EDIT: Downvoters, kindly provide any evidence that avoiding VC funding increases your odds of success by 10x.

> Downvoters, kindly provide any evidence that avoiding VC funding increases your odds of success by 10x.

It's not so much, avoiding VC increases your chance of success by 10x. It's not easier to reach a $1M business without VC than it is to do so with VC. However, if you don't have VC, then a $1M business is probably a relatively stable company. But if you do have VC investment, they're looking for a high return on that investment, and so they won't be satisfied with a $1M business. They'll want that $30M business, which is harder, since the goal is so much higher.

If you've only raised enough money to get to $1M, then you probably haven't given up majority control and can choose to keep the business at a small size if you want.

I suspect you might be taking about a different thing. The way I read that line is that if you assume each of those chances is correct (which you have to since they are obviously made up), then they are equivalent in economic sense.

It is not stating that chances themselves are correct.

Yes, the literal meaning of the line is that the expected values of those situations are equivalent (without saying that those statistics are necessarily accurate).

But, based on DHH's other rants and the context of this piece, it's clear that he does in fact think the odds of success are higher without VC. (After all, if he didn't, this line would work against him.)

> it's clear that he does in fact think the odds of success are higher without VC

I think what is clear is that the odds of success are higher for the type of business VCs are not interested in. VCs may be better than those numbers at choosing the winners from that pile, but what of all the "VC-pattern" business that get passed over and almost inevitably fail as a result?

> I think what is clear is that the odds of success are higher for the type of business VCs are not interested in.

Not to me. Would you mind providing any evidence to support that point?

In my experience, the vast majority of so-called "lifestyle businesses" and "small businesses" do fail.

Whoops, misworded that. I meant to say it's clear he thinks the odds of success are higher. It was supposed to be a direct counterpoint to your interpretation.

That said, I do think the odds of success are higher for a non-VC-pattern business. I do not have hard numbers or any sort, though. Of course, it depends on what you consider "success". A VC company has a nice, fairly-cleanly-defined success point in the exit. What is "success" for a business run as a going concern without an exit as a target?

* In the abstract, economic sense, a 30% chance of making $1M is as good as a 3% chance of making $30M is as good as a 0.3% chance at making $300M*

I think the math works mathematically in a very abstract sense but has zero basis in reality.

From what I gather, taking VC money helps improve success rates in part because the process of applying for the money is a valuable experience wrt clarifying what your business is all about, what your goals are, etc AND VCs typically serve as experienced consultants that help guide you.

So I will suggest that if you want success without the financial strings attached of taking VC money, you should try to replicate those parts of the process.

Sounds like the plot of silicon valley.

I like this post, but we should contextualize it properly, and look at where it doesn't work. Things have developed over the past forty years which don't allow the "start small, stay small" to always be a possibility: the increase in winner-take-all markets and the Superstar effect. We see it everywhere when it comes to today's job markets, and we also see it (and potentially worry about it being the case, and this is critical) in industries themselves. This latter belief means that if you decide to start something, you may need to consider whether you should bother at all if you aren't going to go big.

Is Uber in a winner take all market? If so, they have no choice but to operate the way they do: http://www.vox.com/2014/12/4/7336433/uber-worth-

We see it in regular job markets more generally (where we call it job polarization): http://economics.mit.edu/files/5554

We see it in "art, sports and culture" markets (where we call it the Superstar effect): http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/23/business/winners-take-all-...



We see it in newspapers:


We see it in attention more generally (which has second order effects, like everyone use just one or a handful of large platforms(!) and where we call it variations of "winning in the Attention Economy"): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attention_economy

So the choice is sometimes (perhaps even often today) not between "get big" or "stay small/medium", but get big (where big may represent firm size, level of knowledge/skill, fame, or a number of other attributes depending on the area) or "get (almost) nothing." When the distribution of customers/eyeballs/rewards are as lopsided as they are in many areas, the only choice IS "get big or go home."





I don't knock dhh, and this is one of those posts I actually want to agree with, but it doesn't neatly comport with extant realities. I think even this advice, just like the advice to "get big" needs to be taken very carefully. All of these roads entail risk (obviously), but the choice of big versus small isn't as simple as implied.

Do you have any data for a dominant trend that small players can't compete with big players?

From where I'm sitting, I see the exact opposite. There are very few businesses that have few competitors.

The articles (and books/papers they reference) have copious examples. Here are just a few:

Search Engines Top four market share: 98.5% Major companies: Google: 64.1% Yahoo: 18.0% Microsoft: 13.6%

Arcade, Food & Entertainment Complexes Top four market share: 96.2% Major companies: CEC: 52.2% Dave & Buster’s: 35.0%

Soda Production Top four market share: 93.7% Major companies: The Coca-Cola Company: 41.2% PepsiCo: 33.6% Dr Pepper Snapple Group: 15.4%

Lighting & Bulb Manufacturing Top four market share: 91.9% Major companies: General Electric Company: 32.9% Koninklijke Philips Electronics NV: 31.7% Siemens AG: 27.3%

Major Household Appliance Manufacturing Top four market share: 90.0% Major companies: Whirpool Corporation: 43.8% AB Electrolux: 20.7% General Electric Company: 17.1% LG Electronics: 9.2% Market concentration

Mobile OSes (iOS and Android) are another, even if no one can make money on the software itself anymore.

Banking software (FIS, Fiserv, Jack Henry, and D+H): 96% total

Internet service providers (a few large players, with a smattering of regional ones. Some areas are served only by a single company.)

Wireless providers (AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile) have roughly 80% of the market.

Here's a nice infographic:


This is not to say that this applies to every market. There are competitive markets without clear winners (in some of the above cases, the markets are competitive oligopolies - but that doesn't help the "I just want to make a nice living as a small player" idea - you still need to be huge in those cases.) However, with the increase in mass communication, economies of scale, picked low hanging fruit, clustering effects, and concentration of talent/capital/connections, the trend has been towards winner-take-all (either through pure domination, like search, or industry consolidation, like health insurance.) Eking out a living at the margins is possible, but as I stated in the other comment, has its own set of attendant risks.

That Terry Davis comment :)

What a well-written piece. I agree that there is a lot of room for sustainable, technology based businesses. These are businesses that can optionally be run remotely and don't need to limit themselves to the bay area and its insane startup culture. They can work sane hours and be sustainable for their employees. They can provide products of real value. In fact, this is exactly the type of business that I'm interested in, the only kind with a success profile that's not tantamount to the success of playing the lottery, and the only kind where one can hope to stay in control and "be one's own boss."

These types of businesses are very much startups, but have a more traditional philosophy and generally plan to stick around for longer than a few years. I'd say such businesses are often a lot riskier for the owners as they're generally risking their own money and time to get it developed rather than someone else's money. Spending someone else's money is not risky at all. Failure in a silicon valley startup isn't a real loss: it's expected.

The people who venture out on their own and take their own risk with their own capital and time should be applauded for trying to create sustainable businesses that might be beneficial to the wider economy and society rather than creating ones that try to dominate a market for a couple of years and then almost inevitably fade out (as most startups do both before and even after IPO), not really adding much to the economy or society at all, while, of course, screaming the obligatory "I will change the world" mantra. In fact, it's this idiotic mantra and the lies one must tell oneself to actually believe it that turns off a lot of great talent form the silicon valley startup version of a business. Most smart people can eventually see through such simple, repeated, dogmatic ideas easily, and don't like to be associated with the brainwashed masses for whom these ideas are reality.

Not that I disagree with the main premise, but boy oh boy why waste time skewering terms like "Angel" and "liquidity event". Sophomoric.

Because those terms are the propaganda of the machine, reused again and again by major media. They build up enthusiasm for the current startup culture in the general culture until part of your aunt's retirement fund has been invested in sketchy tech ventures. These terms need to be called out.

Because it's fun? Personally, I take great pleasure in roasting sacred cows and eating them in front of the shocked faithful. I'm sure DHH does too.

Do you really think anyone was "shocked" or that this was "roasting sacred cows"? It basically said " uh you can have a great life without seeking a huge exit, and your chances might be better, too". Do people actually take this stuff that seriously?

> why waste time skewering terms like "Angel" and "liquidity event"

Because the terms they use for themselves indicates how they see themselves and the value of their role. They invest money in order to make money, but want to be seen as—and want other people to refer to them as—saving angels.

Not reading. Someone summarize?

There's probably a startup for that


I think they got downvoted because their "not reading" sounded a bit too hard, someway..

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