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That's actually a good question. There are several answers. One is that being a founder is not merely a matter of competence. It's also financially risky, and very stressful. So someone who was just as competent as the founders but wanted less risk or stress might prefer to be an early employee.

You can titrate the amount of startupness you get in your job by the size of the company you join. If you're the first person hired by a startup with one or two founders, you'll probably be a de facto cofounder. Whereas if you get hired by a startup with 30 people you'll have a lot less risk and stress, but it will probably still be more interesting than going to work for a big company.

Another reason is that luck (usually in the form of timing) is a big component of startup outcomes, so in some cases it can be a better bet, measured both financially and by how much effect you can have on the world, to join a startup that is obviously taking off than to start your own. All the first several hundred employees at Google, to take an extreme example, probably made more money and had more effect on the world than they would have on average by starting their own companies.

Plus you need more than ability to start a startup. You also need an idea and probably a cofounder. Joining an existing startup can be the easiest way to get both.

It doesn't seem to me that a lack of interest in starting a company is simply indicative of a lack of tolerance for stress or financial risk, nor the absence of an adventurous spirit or anything like that.

Business is a very particular discipline in its own right. While the technocrats and bureaucrats of corporate America's professional management and executive corps have certainly done enough to exaggerate its exclusivity and idiosyncratic character, the fact remains that it's a rather distinct kind of thing. The qualities that make one a good programmer, a good technologist, a good innovator, etc. aren't necessarily the same qualities that make one a competent or happy business owner, especially when, as a matter of practical necessity, much of the everyday workflow is tedious administrativia or other things banal to engineers.

I'm all for the idea that intelligent, confident and well-rounded people are better off doing something more interesting than fighting mediocre fights in the cubicle trenches, but that doesn't mean they're all--or even a majority of them--are entrepreneurially disposed per se.

Plus, as has been pointed out elsewhere in this post, joining early often brings equity with it, which, from a certain point of view, is quite an entrepreneurial proposition.

If nothing else, it's simply not mathematically possible for everyone to be the chief in the driver's seat; many technical endeavours seriously require people to build out and scale.

Yes, that's a good point. Another reason not to be a founder is that you don't want to waste your time working on all the random crap that founders inevitably have to. Though actually the first several employees usually have to do a lot of random crap too. I'm not sure how big a company has to get before there start to be people who don't have to. I'd guess at least 10 people.

True, but I think my point is that there are many personality types that do not want to be Random Crap Central, nor marketing central, nor leadership central, nor cashflow central, but that doesn't mean the only reason for that is that they're fragile, coddled or "don't have what it takes." They just aren't interested in business, and prefer to leave it to the business guys.

You can titrate the amount of startupness

I think this is my favorite metaphor ever. (I'm titrating it all the way down to homeopathic levels myself...)

Okay, what's the appeal of "changing the world" for its own sake? I often hear things like "entrepreneurs endure the stress because they want to change the world."

People who want to change the world think their change will be an improvement, they aren't doing it "for it's own sake".

Yeah they're improving it to be more in line with some set of values (which will vary depending on their ethics). When they don't say which values are important and just say "changing the world" I am not inspired.

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