Hacker News new | comments | show | ask | jobs | submit login
You’re a developer, so why do you work for someone else? (intermittentintelligence.com)
200 points by bry on Aug 16, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 130 comments

I'm happy for the author and wish him success. But the assumption that being a good developer can make you rich is misleading.

Reading PG may create the impression that building a successful company is an engineering-like process, deterministic and repeatable. It is not. It's a chaotic process that cannot be reliably planned. Thinking "Zuckerberg coded a PHP app, I can code a PHP app" is like thinking "That old lady bought a lottery ticket. I can buy a lottery ticket.."

Building a smaller business that supports a few people is a different story (and a worthy goal unto itself). But that's not "sitting on a goldmine".

EDIT: Just wanted to add I have huge respect for this guy, building a business while supporting a family. My beef, such as it is, is with simplistic picture of startups often painted in HN. The actual people giving it a go, you have to respect.

Well, actually, I think startup founders actually need this kind of slight delusion. In my more rational moments, I think my ideas suck, my plans are hollow and I'm going to be a wage slave for the rest of my life because of my obligations. I look at the mountain of obstacles ahead and think, "No way that can ever be moved. Learn to be content. Life is such." But the other voice inside me always chimes in later with, "But you're different. You can move mountains. That isn't even a mountain anyway. Put your will to it, and it will shatter. KEEP GOING."

I am sure that there are people out there who can look at a mountain, see a molehill, and stomp it flat. I'm just not sure I am one of them. But I do think that if you want to start a business, you need the arrogance to at least act like you believe you are, because conventional wisdom says, to borrow your analogy, that you will lose at that lottery. So I think it does take some arrogance and self-delusion to believe that somehow you will beat that lottery and emerge a winner. If you don't, why the hell are you playing?

> why the hell are you playing?

If you build something that solves a problem that people have (ie. is useful), and you arrange for people get to know about it somehow, then I think you can't help but be successful. But "successful" might not be a goldmine/lottery; it just might be making an adequate living, in a lifestyle business - like a fish n chip shop (as DHH denigrates). I think it's actually quite hard to fail at this, if you are aiming at creating something useful + communicating it.

You might see this as being an independent software vendor where the total value you produce is comparable to an ordinary employee - except that you are free to formulate your own projects etc (which has +'s and -'s.)

Another aspect is that if you create something useful... that's amazingly cool and valuable in itself. As for the lottery, win or lose, doesn't matter.

"If you build something that solves a problem that people have (ie. is useful), and you arrange for people get to know about it somehow, then I think you can't help but be successful. But "successful" might not be a goldmine/lottery; it just might be making an adequate living, in a lifestyle business - like a fish n chip shop (as DHH denigrates). I think it's actually quite hard to fail at this, if you are aiming at creating something useful + communicating it."

This is what I'm doing, with some success. Now, if you don't count the net worth growth implicit in how the company is growing, I'm not making what I would be working for other people, but I think I'm a success. I set my own hours, my baseline expenses are covered, and when I hustle, I can make a lot of money. when I don't, like the last few months, well, like I said, my baseline expenses are covered. Also, eh, I've probably grown my reputation enough that my credentials now look better than they would had I spent this effort on college.

I don't know if I agree with the "can't help but be successful" part, though. I poured most of my income and spare time into projects like this for many years before I hit upon a project that actually worked. Now, part of that might be because I'm no superman... my IQ barely makes it into the 98th percentile, which really is kinda dumb. I never went to college, and, uh, I'm pretty lazy. I got a 2.16GPA in one of the worst high schools in the state. I mean, yeah. no two ways about it, I'm lazy.

So yeah, uh, if you are a Paul Graham, maybe starting a lifestyle business is easy. Maybe. but for me, it was a lot of work. Now, it was work that I liked doing; I think I enjoyed building my company more than I would have enjoyed taking the money and buying a porsche (and I'd be able to buy one with the cash I dumped in before it became profitable... two or three if I got a reasonable rate for the time I spent before the company became profitable.)

On the other hand, maybe what you mean is that you can choose to run a lifestyle business in such a way that you don't really fail until you choose to fail. This is what I did. When I ran out of money, I'd do more contracting, or get a full time job. When I was flush, I'd work more on my business. Really, I could have continued spending 3/4th of my income and time on the business for the rest of my life; unlike a startup with investors, there isn't anyone around to say "give it up" - it's just me. as long as I'm willing to work, there will be money.

I didn't mean that definition of "fail", but I guess I was cheating a bit with the "creating something useful", in that I was assuming that you already know what would be useful - whereas that is often the difficult part.

In my defence, I say that finding something to create that is useful enough to give a modest one-man income, is a lot easier than finding one giving a multi-billion dollar payout. The main way to make it easier is to specialize: a niche that is complex enough to require a lot of work, yet small enough to not be worth >1 person's time to serve. From there, you can grow to other segments if you want, or just enjoy your little place in the world. The key is to know about those specific problems, so it's invaluable to have worked/studied/played in a field. Hence the saying a problem is an opportunity.

Of course, we all have different motivations/passions and abilities, and that influences what niche will be doable and satisfying for each individual. Currently, I have a technical/academic idea about data integration and evolution that I really want to make work, which isn't specific to any industry (except the data integration and evolution industry, I guess). My last idea was about a specific problem I encountered in industry, and that was much easier to create and sell. Much easier.

>in that I was assuming that you already know what would be useful - whereas that is often the difficult part.

Me, I focused on "what can I do" and "what would I buy" - I think a reasonable, though very limiting, starting point.

My first problem was that amazon radically changed the market for storage (I started by selling storage) - my second problem was that sharing pagecache? bad idea. My third problem was that I thought using obsolete hardware was somehow a good idea.

So, uh, yeah. of my major problems, only one, really, was external. the rest were me being stupid. I guess that could fall into the "finding something useful" category. But then, I am mostly filling unserved price niches in existing markets. When I started there were already VPS providers out there; linode was one. I do believe I was the first to switch to xen.

>I say that finding something to create that is useful enough to give a modest one-man income, is a lot easier than finding one giving a multi-billion dollar payout.

I assume it's harder to make the 'big exit' companies... not that I would know. It's certainly a very different game, one that would be /much/ harder for my particular skillset. most 'big exit' companies seem to be more focused on selling to investors than on day to day cashflow. In my industry, if I sold out tomorrow, I'd get the value of my servers, plus about a years revenue. Now, there's no way I'd sell at that price, but that's market for a ISP or hosting company. Compare that to the valuation MySpace got. They got a valuation that assumed myspace would be the dominant social networking site for a long time. The valuations for friendster and facebook both reflected that same assumption. To me, that assumption seems ridiculously irrational.

Now, if you are going for a 'big exit' usually you have more than one founder, and some startup cash from someone else. Certainly, more work is put in, but is any one person's contribution more than what they'd have to contribute to get their own lifestyle business off the ground? I don't know. Once you involve investors, though, and people depending on investor money, you are much more likely to get yourself in a situation where you have no choice but to close the company.

Of course, my negative tone is entirely sour grapes, because my skilset means that I'd be a very minor player in any "swing for the fences" venture, while I can handle my lifestyle business just fine.

I think the hard thing about the multi-billion dollar exit isn't the extra work needed, but the probability of it working out. Maybe one estimate of the odds is how many projects are started, verses how many cash out (this should include projects that are abandoned even after only a few weeks, if they would have continued had they got a little traction.) Massive survivorship bias, when only the huge payouts are publicized.

I don't think the initial founder/s necessarily must have the right skillset, but someone, sometime must come on board with that skillset. Rather tragically, these people seem to quite often eject the founders. One book ("Crossing the Chasm") even claims that the initial founders don't deserve the big pay-out because they don't have the skillset (and they're more interested in making cool stuff and being their own boss than in making money). Ugh.

To be captain of your soul, master of your destiny is worth more than all the riches and fame in the world - they merely tighten the shackles of the worldly and the opinions of others, not freedom of any kind, only dominance (says me, sans riches and fame. actually, I think it would be great fun).

BTW your 98th percentile puts you squarely in the "smarter than average, but not a genius" camp, which is where I am, and where I think most entrepreneurs are. In business, extremely high intelligence seems to be liability. I think what really counts is something like boldness + quick recovery. I could certainly do with some more of that.

I agree with you about MySpace etc, it's too unpredictable; too easy to switch (mind you, I said that about Google too; I thought their massive PR efforts was one of their few competitive advantages, I wonder if they've become complacent recently.)

> MySpace employs 1,000 employees, after laying off 30 percent of its workforce in June 2009

> By late 2007 into 2008, Myspace was considered the leading social networking site, and consistently beat out main competitor Facebook in traffic. When Facebook launched new features in an effort to attract a variety of users, Myspace found itself in a continuing decline of membership. As of July 2010, the site was ranked 25th in Internet traffic,[3] opposed to the 2nd position held by Facebook. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MySpace

Kids love cool stuff, which means they switch all the time. Maybe the sustainable business model is a business that generates (or promotes) social sites? (analogous to music publishers always touting the next cool band - most bands have limited lifespan, but the publishers live on)

I actually agree with you about the definition of success. I would consider my next project a success if it somehow generates enough profit to allow me to dump the day job. However, that in itself is a lottery (the one I was referring to), since it is by no means certain that I will succeed. In this case, winning the lottery actually matters a lot to me personally, because it would give me the freedom to try and build more cool stuff.

I see what you mean about that being a lottery. I guess the amount of money made does have a lottery aspect. But it still seems reasonable to me that one man can generate one man's worth of value, whether employed or independent. But whether one man can generate 10... 10,000... or 10,000,000 man worths is more of a lottery.

The doesn't matter was paraphrasing a passage within a speech by Winston Churchill (which I got wrong), which ends: Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, 'This was their finest hour.' http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Their_Finest_Hour

eh, maybe. But you need to be /very careful/ with that. It's /very easy/ to get yourself in a whole lot of debit. I know two people who will be in debit for the rest of their lives because they were overconfident, made mistakes and weren't able to pay taxes on large amounts of money that then got pinned on them personally rather than the failing corp.

I mean, you need to be able to take some risks... but you also need to temper that with 'I might fail' because especially the first time? you probably will. Personally, my low point was around $15K that I was personally on the hook for. Considering my income potential, it's a reasonable number; I paid it off through contracting in a reasonable amount of time, and if worst came to worst, it wasn't tax debit; While I had to personally co-sign, I could have declared personal bankruptcy.

But, my point is that yeah, you need to take risk... and taking risks where the downside means you have to work for a year or two for other people if you fail seems pretty reasonable to me. Taking risks where if you fail, you will never get to try again, ever, seems like a bad idea.

So yeah; confidence is great, and you need some of it. But cover your ass because the worst case does sometimes happen. Be /especially/ careful of debits you can't get rid of through bankruptcy- e.g. don't fuck around with your taxes, get someone who knows what they are doing. The system is complex and even when you make honest mistakes, often the assumption seems to be that you were trying to cheat.

If you can learn from your failures and try again, you have a much higher lifetime chance of success than if you only have one shot.

500 dollars a month business is better than nothing. It could even fund your kids' college fund.

As I wrote, a worthy goal unto itself but not "sitting on a goldmine".

Not idiomatically, but there are plenty of gold mining operations that produced less than half an ounce of gold per month on average.

Right now I'm working on a little something of my own, and if I can reach 500$ a month that will almost cover half of my college tuition :) (state school)

That would nearly cover all my expenses, including rent, food, and tuition.

Your lottery ticket analogy suggests that Facebook was a success because of dumb luck.

If an analogy is the exact replicate of the subject, what's the use of it to begin with? The lottery card is an exaggeration, to make a point, which is that randomness plays a significant part in a startup's success, enough to make it almost impossible to predict or reproduce reliably.

Argument by analogy is what religious leaders and lawyers do to sway the masses into burning witches.

This is a false analogy because it simplifies too much, in favour of strengthening your point, as the parent points out. It's a nifty analogy by itself and I enjoyed it, but I don't agree that it comes close to covering the main features of the case.

More like video poker, you have to know how to play the odds to eke out a living but making bank is luck.

your lottery ticket analogy is excellent :)

It's interesting, when Hacker News first started (and was called "Startup News"), I used to make ra-ra comments like this all the time. Like the author, I had little practical experience in actually succeeding at entrepreneurship. And yet they'd be voted up really high. Once in a while, some old salt like, say, the guy who founded Digg or the guy who founded Symbolics would reply and say "You're naive and ignorant. You won't think so poorly of jobs once you've run your own company for a while" (in nicer terms, of course). But by and large, Startup News loved wild-eyed optimism.

Now, the vast majority of comments hold that same sort of "Well, it's more complicated than that, and I'm quite happy with my 9-5" view. Sometimes even my own.

I wonder if that's representative of the economy changing, or if it's representative of the site's audience changing. If it's the former, maybe it means that now is a good time to found a startup.

It's just a reflection of the changing demographics here.

People tend to justify whatever it is they're doing at the moment. So you and me will talk up the entrepreneurial side of things and snoot down our noses at the "wage slaves". It's not that we actually know any better, but if we do this enough it'll seem like we're not so far out on a limb.

Back in the day, that was the only crowd here, so this sort of article (or comment) would get nothing but love. Now, HN is more or less evenly split between entrepreneurs and people who actually read those articles about programming languages. Those are guys with jobs. Good jobs, thank you very much, that pull in more each and every day than our little "startups" gross in a month. They have their own world view to justify, so now we get to listen to their story.

I've been on 496 days and reading a while before I bothered to create a login. I think you can detect waves of:

  cheerleading -> group think -> counterexamples 
  -> lots of couterexamples -> not so much group think

The cheerleading topic tends to change with what is hot. Data Points, Django, Cloud, Bootstrapping, I Failed ... have all had their cycle.

These cycles seems to play out over 4 months IMO. Regular events like YC admission events create repeated waves.

Wild downvoting can occur if you try to give counter-examples in a cheerleading or group-think phase (yes I'm bitter ;))

> I wonder if that's representative of the economy changing, or if it's representative of the site's audience changing.

Fewer rejects. :)

I have an excellent job where I get to work with lovely people and solve interesting problems. I'll leave the admin, business development & marketing to folks who are better skilled at such things for now, thank you very much.

To shorten: I want to code, not do the other crap. :)

I thought i was in the same boat as you until recently. Now the same job, which i thought was excellent, is boring and not interesting anymore. The people i used to love working with dont seem so nice now. What do i do now?

What's your job ?

For me, the answer is that the large organization I'm working for actually lets me have a larger impact than I could likely have working on my own.

So long as my debit card keeps working and I keep building up savings, the quantity of compensation doesn't matter too much to me. What matters to me is how much I positively impact the world, and on that front improving a mature product with a ton of users has a much bigger bang for the buck than scratching small itches in small niches, no matter how profitable they might end up being.

You'd be surprised how much impact you can have even in a small niche. I've got a pretty small product in elementary education and, depending on your assumptions about how many teachers convert to classroom use after using the site, I've taught between 100,000 and 1 million student-hours in the last year.

And god help you if you write games. At some point in my career I'll pass the billion hours of time wasted, at which point I won't know whether to celebrate or cry. Thankfully that day is still 5-10 years off.

You entertain people. It is an honest occupation. (Paraphrased from Tom Clancy, in response to the question "Do you write literature?")

And one day it will be the only viable occupation for us Humans, its the ultimate profession in my book.

For this reason I love Jonathan Blow's attitude about game development.

"Every puzzle in Braid is unique. There is no filler. Braid treats your time and attention as precious. Braid does everything it can to give you a mind-bending experience."

Is that the reason why Braid is such a fantastic game? Unfortunately, we'll never know.

"No, seriously, a @#$% goldmine! Never in modern history has it been so easy to create something from scratch, with little or no capital and a marketing model that is limited only by your imagination."

ie, high supply. Lots of competition.

It's getting to be like writing novels. Lots of people do it. The barriers to entry are low. But few can make a living at it.

But that's _everything_ worth doing, and isn't that how it's always been? For every Jimi Hendrix there were a zillion teenagers sitting in their poster-filled room with desires to melt faces and change the world with the power of Rock. Or for every Steel Magnate, there were guys running a 10-man shops hoping to roll enough steel this quarter to buy the coke smelter down the road a ways.

It all starts somewhere, and almost everything with any market visibility has hundreds if not thousands of everyone from Mom and Pops to multinationals gunning for the big ring.

This is why the corporations dominate: They know the "little guys" like us don't think it's worth it to disrupt their industries.

I'd say the only technology company that really takes alot of capital to start is product manufacturing business, and even then, aren't there whole industries catering to garage businesses like thomasnet or rapid prototyping firms? Or just bootstrap it like DODOCase.

"But that's _everything_ worth doing"

Emphatically, NO!, it isn't. If the only thing worth being in your worldview is the equivalent of Jimi Hendrix, you are setting yourself up for disappointment, and you have a small view of your fellow man.

There are thousands of ways to make a living that are not as competitive or as risky as entrepreneurship--and far less zero-sum too.

The global impact of a job well-done is but one measure. Perhaps an even more important one is the attitude with which you approach your work and the meaning you make for yourself.

'This is why the corporations dominate: They know the "little guys" like us don't think it's worth it to disrupt their industries.'

Also, huge advantages in terms of economies of scale, financing, lawyers, patent portfolios... and if you are successful, they buy you or you become a big corporation...

Not to mention meeting your local politician for a cup of coffee to "discuss things".

Lots of competition compared to what?

The fact is, if you can write code, you are a very small number of people in the world. If you are good at it, and enjoy it, even smaller.

This is the point the author it trying to make, you are an an amazing position in history, you can do great things, so much easier than anyone else. In the past, you would have had to have an army. Now, just with your skills, you can do something truly amazing and world changing.

Even at school in a degree that one would assume most students can write some code I am finding that more and more when I meet students program they have no skills at programming or even want to learn. I think that people who can write production code are a very small population indeed.

I am always confused at how these people end up studying Comp Sci. I guess these are the ones with no interests at all, and might as well have been studying Biology, Chemistry or Geology.

Yes. I'm surprise how many people missed this point of the OP.

The golden ticket is in the "this is a perfect perfect storm; don't waste it" sense ("market demands" + "you can code" + "cheapest time to start" = golden ticket).

Not in the "quit your sorry job NOW and get RICH" sense.

It's getting to be like writing novels. Lots of people do it. The barriers to entry are low. But few can make a living at it.

I don't think few people make a living at writing novels because of competition; if more people wrote better novels I imagine novel sales would be much higher.

People are writing good novels faster than I can read them. Perhaps there's some great, untapped supply of people out there who aren't finding enough that's worth reading, but I'm certainly not in that camp nor is anyone else I know who reads regularly.

You say you read regularly, so I'm thinking you would read books many wouldn't take the time to read. I'm talking about writers which have such interesting stories that they bring in less avid readers -- the way Harry Potter did. This is actually a subject I have a lot of interest in. Can you list the last few books you've read?

Last few novels I've read, in reverse chronological order:

- Past Imperative, Present Tense, and Future Imperfect by Dave Duncan. (Trilogy.)

- Foreigner, Invader, Inheritor, by C.J. Cherryh. (First three books of an ongoing series; rereads.)

- Babylon Babies, by Maurice Dantec. This doesn't really count, since I gave up halfway through--the translation is horrible.

I'm currently reading Vellum, by Hal Duncan.

I have, I think, about 5-6 more books on my to-read pile at the moment, and I could triple that with a visit to the bookstore. (I'm avoiding visiting the bookstore because my budget would not appreciate the experience.)

As you can see, I mostly read SF. This list is a bit unusual, in that it includes a number of books from the same series; I usually mix things up more than this.

It's true that I read books that many wouldn't take the time to read. I don't think that's because those books are less interesting; I think it's because most people have much less interest in reading than I do, and therefore are satisfied with fewer books.

It seems to me that you're formulating an argument where I have lower standards than people who read less--that people who read few books stick to the cream of the crop, while people like myself who read more are willing to read inferior works as well. As a counterargument, I submit Dan Brown, an author who produces (from my perspective) works of such execrable quality that only a person with little awareness of how good books can be would waste their time on him.

To shift arenas: Consider two people. One of them eats nothing but steak and potatoes. The other is Anthony Bourdain, the host of the Travel channel's "No Reservations". Would it be correct to say that the reason the former eats such a smaller variety of food is that there's a lack of truly good food that lives up to the standards of the almighty steak and potatoes?

Of course not. We'd say that Mr. Steak & Potatoes just doesn't like food as much as Bourdain. (In general; he likes his steak just fine, and there's nothing wrong with that.)

Or to take myself as an example: I don't watch much television. Is the problem that there's just a lack of really good television out there, and I'd watch more if someone started producing more good shows like The Wire? Well, no. The problem is that I just don't like television all that much, and would rather spend my leisure time on other activities like books, video games, and programming. There are already plenty of TV shows that I'm certain I'd enjoy...if I had time to watch them.

So, no, I don't think that people in general would read more if only there were more good novels being written. There are plenty of good novels out there.

Thanks for sharing! I'll check out those books.

It's true that I read books that many wouldn't take the time to read. I don't think that's because those books are less interesting; I think it's because most people have much less interest in reading than I do, and therefore are satisfied with fewer books.

I totally agree with that. A point of clarification for what I meant in terms of "interesting" is in order. I agree that any of those titles you listed are very likely highly interesting, but exactly what is "interesting" is subjective. In no way did I mean to suggest books you enjoy to be inferior. Let me provide a supporting example of my own. I doubt many people would consider Beethoven's 5th symphony inferior music, yet no one would consider it to make Billboard Music's top 20 list anytime soon, or more youths than you can count on one hand blasting it from their cars. In this way you can see what I mean is not inferiority, but rather a broader appeal to the overall market. To put it another way, operas make plenty of money, I'm sure, but I doubt their revenues compare with even low grossing movies. Would I like more people to be into reading, or operas? Yes, but that's not how things are. To appeal to a larger audience, any work of art (especially a novel) would do well to be more than just good; it needs to be really great, so that even those with a passing interest in the medium will take the time to enjoy it.

For me, the answer is: I like programming. If I did my own thing, I'd have to do all that other non-programming crap, too. Suddenly I wouldn't be a programmer anymore. Meh.

That's strange, given that a lot of people get out of their steady jobs because they're frustrated with how little time they have to code between meetings, random co-workers interrupting them, etc.

I guess you work in an environment where that's kept to a minimum.

I guess that'd depend on the situation and I certainly understand that feeling - I've been there before!

I presently work for http://iconfactory.com, and we try to keep meetings to a minimum as a matter of principal. Artists need flow to do their thing just as us programmers do, and the company is run by artists. I'm also remote so the only random co-worker interruptions I have are via iChat.

I'd still call that programming. Turning requirements into code is part of the job, and even if you spend all day doing nothing but listening to people spout incoherent requirements at you, you're still wearing the hat of a programmer.

Contrast that with a startup where you wear many hats at once, including spouting incomprehensible requirements yourself, and I think that's where I'd tend to agree with the parent poster.

Indeed, and bravo for recognizing this.

Not all meetings are meaningful, of course, but communicating with your coworkers and customers is an essential part of the practice of producing software.

But wouldn't it be more fun programming on YOUR terms, not your employer/boss' terms? Even if that meant you had to spend a bit more time managing your business?

When you're running your own business, you work on the market's terms. The market is the most unforgiving, inflexible, demanding, and heartless boss of all.

But still, without that extra level of indirection of employer/manager between you and the market, the terms are not distorted and you have the freedom to interpret it in whichever way you want to. Of course, the consequences as well.

I prefer market being my immediate boss than anyone else.

Is it actually just "a bit more time"? I can only go by what I hear from others, but the stories I read in HN comments make it sound like that "bit more" is at least half-time work.

When I was freelancing, 35-40 hours per week, it was quite often that I only got to spend 10 hours a week doing actually programing. Anything over 20 was amazing.

You are forgetting, that if you spend 20 hours/week on your own business, then you would spend most of these 20 hours thinking and only ~5 hours/week coding. Which would probably move your business forward very slowly.

Depends somewhat on your co-founders (if any), I guess

I'm not so sure. My own terms are pretty hardcore... :)

If I really wanted to, sure I could scrounge up the extra free time to pursue my ideas. But then my entire life would be my day job and my side project, at the expense of absolutely everything else.

There is nothing wrong with that if that is what is important to you. But I also value friendships, exercise, reading, relaxing, cooking, etc. A nice balanced life is crucial for good health and well being. I would argue for most people, the cost of completely throwing away all balance in your life would not match the reward that your product would bring once launched.

I think health, particularly mental health is certainly a very important consideration. As much as I want to work on my side project, giving up time with my family and recreational time would probably have some fairly negative consequences long term.

Sometimes it feels like entrepreneurship is really only viable for the young and single.

I concur. I got a friend who went into entrepreneur on the side ended up with a broken relationship, estrangement with family members and no life beyond computer.

"Economically, you can think of a startup as a way to compress your whole working life into a few years. Instead of working at a low intensity for forty years, you work as hard as you possibly can for four. This pays especially well in technology, where you earn a premium for working fast." - Paul Graham


It stops making sense economically if you consider the high risk of failure though.

Exactly...one of my recent ventures was spending evenings and weekends for a few months building a prototype HR compensation system for a big company I had done consulting with for years, we had a very good relationship.

All the requirements were met and the hard problems were solved (lots of UI work remained). When it came to decision time, they decided to develop in house instead of licensing my product for $50k. How much did they spend in house? $1 million plus (and counting). Plus, they missed their launch date so have to use the old solution for another year. I could have made the deadline easily.

The point is, the risk of failure is not just that your product is not good enough, it is that the people that make the decisions are often, if not usually, simply not qualified to be serving in the positions they hold.

Targeting individual consumers vs privately owned businesses vs publicly traded corporations are three entirely different situations. If I had to recommend one, I would target the privately owned business sector - there are less developers targeting this market (as it requires domain knowledge), and they actually care about ROI, whereas with a corporation, they are often more concerned about the appearance of ROI.

It's really only failure if you learn nothing and never try again.

It's failure if the energy spent on the project is more than the return. Sure you may learn something, but if all you learned was to become a better web developer at the expense of relationships, physical health, your bank account, etc, then perhaps it would have been better to just create a casual, hobby webapp for fun.

We're probably thinking of very different things.

By learning I meant learning every aspect of launching a startup, including customer development, sales, marketing, SEO, etc. If your role in the startup was limited to programming, then I'd take a very jaundiced view of the state of affairs.

And by no means would sacrificing relationships and health compensate for even this.

That sounds wonderful but unfortunately doesn't apply to everyone.

Ok, so there is nothing you can cut out from your life? Watching tv, lunches, buses? There are all times you could be putting to better use.

And there is no magic balance. There is no magic allotment of time you have to spend relaxing to be mentally well. It is all about how hard you push yourself, and how slack you are.

Nobody is saying cut out the important things, but cut out the stupid things. But hey, it is not for everybody.

I guess the issue is on the definition of "stupid things". I love to watch a movie, and I enjoy a quiet lunch and talk over the coffee and dessert. I don't travel by bus, but when I used to commute I would spend the time reading.

Things that are stupid relaxation to someone, are the actual goal of someone else.

(yeah I can still cut on reading hn of course :)

Protip: if you're a founder or aspiring to start a company that may one day employ others, try not to write blog posts that question why anyone would ever work for you.

The headline is a little sensationalist but the writer himself works fulltime, so I think its clear that he's not saying that you should never work for anyone.

I remember reading somewhere about a company that actually preferred people who wanted to work at the company as their last job before founding a startup. IIRC their reasoning was that the employee would give it their all, as a "last hurrah", and try to make a name for themselves (to the company's benefit) when they left to found their startup.

A shame I can't find the article now.

I find that these really strong "screw employment!" kind of opinions like this tend to come from people who haven't really been successful following the path they espouse — it's always "aspiring" entrepreneurs, as this writer puts it. Either this kind of attitude is unhelpful or reality tends to temper it.

Why can't it be from someone who genuinely wants to encourage others like him?

If you read it again, it isn't necessarily all about "screw employment". It deals with the reality of trying to build something while necessarily employed in several places.

Well, sure, but I just don't feel all that encouraged by somebody making grandiose claims that are based on neither experience nor hard data. I don't mean to imply that anyone's heart is in a bad place, but it just reads to me like somebody selling himself on a get rich quick scheme. I know people who have bankrupted themselves on that sort of thing, so this kind of baseless exuberance makes me feel concerned.

Yeah, optimism is for babies, right? :)

Optimism is fine. The phrase "a @#$% goldmine!" is a flashing red warning sign.

It is interesting how much this blog post is not relevant to my status. I always wanted to create my own startup, and nearly always had pet projects for this purpose on the side. It is no news to me that starting a startup is a cool thing. I dont' watch TV, and I don't need a Palsma TV. But I have a family to care about, I live in a quite poor country and I need a day job. I think I am a good developer, but I don't think my knowledge is a goldmine. They pay approximately $2000 per month for even very very good developers in my country. This is not a goldmine. I made 3 projects to the sellable product phase in my life, and all failed. The first was too ambitious and I could not keep up with competitors like google. (natural language translation from english to my mother language) The second was an Indie game: The critics said it was done professionally, but it was not especially playable, it was not fun enough. The third was not ambitious enough: This was a small software for the consumer market (language learning), It got lost amongst the thousands of small shareware tools on download.com and also there were free products which were partially competitors.

I start to lose my energy. (Having a boring day job for years is not fun.) Of course I build something again on the side. I think it is a better idea than the previous ones. I cannot stop. But I will never ever will have the optimism like the OP.

i don't understand why #3 was not ambitious enough, could you explain?

There are a host of language learning tools, but a lot of them are simplistic, or very poor, or very expensive and only support a few languages (e.g. as you're hungarian, I've yet to find a good one supporting your language).

Language learning is not a solved problem, afaict :)

My product/approach was too simplistic. It was just a word learner tool, basically a 'flash card' program, which tracked and modeled the user's knowledge, and 'annoyed' the user time to time with questions. My main mistake was that I did not research the market enough before building the tool: the problem exists, but there are too much competitors, and there a free ones amongst them. Otherwise this was my smallest 'fail', because this did not involve that much work from me. My other 2 'fails' especially the first was a more severe one. (Google translate did not exist when I started my first project. I already had some paying customers when google translate had been made available in my language. Then I realized that I have no chance to keep up with them.)

Out of curiosity, which country is it?

I live in Hungary. (Eastern Europe.) It is not an especially poor country, but poor compared to Western Europe and the USA. Multinational companies mostly bring here only the boring jobs. (I can understand them: they don't want to offshore their main competencies.)

I can imagine. I live in Poland, that's why I asked. I guess you agree that our nations have things in common: kind of stubbornness but also wild imagination. There are even some old historical sayings about it.. We seem to have completely non-transparent politicians and similar economic struggles as well. Still your country seems to have good opinion in the wild and also Budapest seems more civilized than our capital, which is important for multinational companies. I guess the best we can do is to risk build something ourselves when the right moment comes -- read: when we have some savings for at least couple of months. If we fail we will be still considered as early adopters of tech things (because what we decide to use is usually better and more modern than so-called "industry standards") which is good for finding another job.

Since 2 years I'm switching between consulting and doing own stuff every several months - it didn't generated big income but I build few non-profit things which is also very good and gave me lots of experience. By non-profit I don't mean open source - I mean organizations or users who behave like real customers but aren't businesses. I didn't get rich but it was fun and gave me some insights for the future.

Good luck !!

"kind of stubbornness but also wild imagination"

Yes, very true!

"I guess the best we can do is to risk build something ourselves when the right moment comes" I agree. I hope I've learnt from my previous failures. My newest project is something quite close to pg's #22 on this list:


It is something like a very intuitive web based user interface for databases. Something like hybrid of Excel, Access and Wiki, but still different from all of them.

Thanks for the encouraging words, and also good luck to you!

Because I don't have to work very hard and they pay well.

Upvoted because I understand that not everyone has this desire to produce something. I'd wager that the default mental state for most people is idleness.

Wow, 20 hours? Personally I don't think I can realistically create much on the side with a full time job. I tend to be extremely tired at the end of the work day. So I think my only option is to quit my job again :-(

Maybe it is also my sleeping patterns just don't align with jobs. Today I simply had to sleep around 9pm (home from the job at 8). Slept till perhaps 11pm. Now I feel reasonably fit, but to be at the office in time, it is time to go to bed.

I experience this kind of pattern frequently.

In fact I sometimes wonder if the biggest mistake of my life was trying to adapt to other people's schedules (also girl-friends who want to go to bed "early" etc). Thereby I wasted most of my productive hours.

My typical work day at the office is painful because I tend to be tired...

Maybe get checked for sleep apnea? If you have it, you repeatedly stop breathing during the night. It isn't long enough to kill you, but it's long enough to lift you out of deep sleep into shallower sleep, or keep you from entering the deep sleep states.

Thanks, I have been to a lab before and they said my snoring is not too bad. They wanted to give me medication against restless legs, but I didn't want to take it.

You need to change something if that is true? I am guessing you do not exercise, and do not eat well. It is amazing how you can put a little effort in, and change a lot.

Wish it was that easy, but I do exercise and I think my diet is not that bad. Still looking for a solution.

I was a full-time programmer. The job I was in was draining my energy and programming became really boring. While I had the job, I worked on the side developing websites. I also had a bunch of pet-projects for fun - hopefully people will use them and I can earn more money. But fast forward a few years, programming wasn't fun anymore. I was too tired to finish my projects.

So, I quit my job and moved to a non-programming job. The pay as of now, is not that high, but I am happier. The job is fairly easy on the brain. That means less stress and I have more time to think while I am at home coding my personal project.

Maybe my programming job sucked or it was something else. I could go on like this until I finish my personal project.

I do contracting to pay the bills while I build my own web app. It is difficult but by working 80 hours a week I'm making progress. Hopefully the sacrifices I have made are worth it in the end.

I personally work three days a week as a consultant and I work on my startup the rest of the week. I don't have to sacrifice anything, the journey is very pleasant and I have the confidence that one day I won't need any consulting work anymore.

"Myth #1: I don’t have any time"

If you think this is a myth, you need to re-examine what you want from life. Everyone needs time to relax. Playing games, surfing the web, going to the gym... Everyone does it differently, but everyone needs it.

You can give up your 'free time' for a while and work on something, but it will eventually crash in on you and you will start hating your life.

I have too many hobbies. Every once in a while, my hobbies will start to run my life and I'll start getting depressed. When that happens, I stop and decide which of them are things I really want to do, and which aren't. I prioritize my hobbies. That relieves the stress again and I can relax.

If you can really relax while working on a programming project, then go ahead. But when it starts to stress you out due to a deadline or other outside influence, it stops being fun and starts stressing you out.

Being stressed out will affect everything you do and it will all go down in flames.

I have a few programming projects that I'm working on in my spare time. Nobody knows about them, so there's no pressure to finish them. I just have fun with them and work on them at my leisure. As soon as I release them to the world, they are going to get very stressful. Yes, someone else might think of the same ideas first and beat me to it, but I'm taking my time, doing it right, and I'll release when it's convenient for me. If that turns into something big, I can quit my day job. If not, not.

Colleagues. I get to meet and work with a bunch of interesting and talented people, without asking them to marry me (which is what many here likens the co-founder experience to).

Also, my employer has a quite significant sales and client management staff. I don't enjoy sales or client management much, and consequently I'm not good at it (or maybe it's the other way around), so I'm happier when other people do that for me.

I might do a start-up one day. But until then, this is a pretty sweet deal.

Reminds me of C.S. Forester's memoirs about writers. Forester found it easy to create plot ideas but hadn't enough time to write all of them. He had (later successful) friends who, once given a plot, could quickly flesh out a full story. They, on the other hand, had little ability to conceive plots! So he passed ideas to them and they did the rest.

We're all different. Some can see all aspects of a project, others can beautifully manage the startup, some can hone a roughly-hewn project to perfection, and still others can document a project beautifully. They're all useful.

Not everyone can do everything well, nor is it necessary. Man is a social animal for a reason: groups can do things that no single man could do.

I'm starting to get sick with this kind of posts. Please stop.

Yeah, I'm with you.. the article is dramatic Disney fluff with no real wisdom or insight.

What kind of posts would you like to read instead?

While I wouldn't go so far as to say this type of post is problematic, what really drew me into this site were things like http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1156628

stop writing them? stop reading them? stop upvoting them? no.

Just cos you can write code doesn't mean you can start a business:

1) You need a decent idea. This is the "cheapest" bit, and actually even this is quite hard. what businesses or consumers want (and how they want it) is usually quite different to what you'd naively think.

2) Can you really execute it well? Most ideas will require more than the skill set of one developer.

3) Do you have a route to market? This is the hardest. You can have the best executed product in the world, if you've got no way of selling it it's worthless. And this doesn't just mean oh I'm going to sell it to telcos - it means which telcos, and WHO at these telcos? Are you going to be cold-calling a massive company trying to find the right person to speak to about your product? (if so, good luck!)

4) Are you prepared to work ridiculous hours for sod-all pay, and go through all the stresses, uncertainties and ups-and-downs that starting a business involves? There's a lot to be said for a regular, essentially risk-free check every month.

Yes: you can start a software-based business with little more than a PC and an internet connection. But so can everyone else: there's no advantage here.

Suggested Title:

"You’re an entrepreneurial developer, so why do you work for someone else?"

"You're a chef, so why don't you start your own restaurant?"

"You're a mechanic, so why don't you start your own garage?"

"You're a retail manager, so why don't you start your own store?"

Ad absurdum. But yes, add "entrepreneurial" to any of those and they become perfectly valid questions.

But then it really just comes down to "You're entrepreneurially inclined, so why don't you start your own business?"

Each of those questions can quite simply be answered "Lack of Capital"....This is what is unique about being a software developer. As mentioned in the article you don't need funding to get something up and running.

what about funding to keep self and family up and running?

This was addressed in the first part of the article. It doesn't need to be a full time endeavor to start.

At the beginning of the learning curve, there's little better for grasping topics than hearing someone else explain them. I've learned more (almost entirely by virtue of genius co-workers) in the first 6 months of my current, first, developer job than I did in ~2 years of self learning and freelancing.

The thing that struck me in this post is: "it's all about money". (the goldmine aspect)

I think money is an especially a bad motivation for starting your own product.

So if its about being creative, doing lots of different projects, having an influence on what your working on and where the product is going: you can do this working for the right company as well.

Of course the level of control is higher when you're running your own company, but so are the risks.

Isn't the important question: is the process important, i.e programming & working on interesting ideas, or is it the end result that counts, i.e having a successful product that is generating an income for you and where you have total control over?

Posts like this that advocate working on your start up by squeezing hours out of your day ignore the switching costs involved. Even when I do decide to turn my hour TV-time into an hour of project-time, it takes a while to get back into the flow and remember what it is I was working on. With start up and shut down, I end up exchanging an hour of TV-time for 20 mins of productive work.

1. Just because you build it, doesn't mean they will come. There's something called marketing, promotion and luck.


2. Development and business/marketing skills are very very different.

I'm working for someone else precisely because I'm a developer. I like developing. I don't like running a startup.

Is it really that hard to understand?

I need to support my visa =(

Focus on what you can do. I was in the same boat and I used to think like you. It was a wrong way to think and wasted a lot of my time.

i am keeping work on my own projects. but still, there is no easier way to get legally permanently to usa without work visa and following greencard. dv lottery is not a way (but i keep trying) and i am already married =) and do not have 500k-1m to invest into something too =)

Reread your comment. What are you again focussing on? Send me an email via hackernewsers.com . I wrote up an article that I sent to others wu had contacted me and I think it might help you.

Two words: student loans.

It is better to be lucky than good.

You'll notice that, as you get better, your luck seems to be strangely increasing.

"I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have." - Thomas Jefferson.


"Diligence is the mother of good luck." - Benjamin Franklin

All this naysaying and negative, defeatist thinking: this is exactly why you will not succeed in a startup. Positivity is a necessary -- albeit not sufficient -- factor in creating something new.

Ah, but the naysaying is not coming from people trying to start startups. It's coming from people happy in their jobs who don't want us trying to convince them they're doing it wrong. Why should it matter if they're negative about entrepreneurial stuff?

To the startup side of HN, this article is just another "me too" piled on top of dozens of copies of itself every month. There's nothing particularly insightful about it, so there's no need to jump into the comments and dump a ton of praise onto it. A simple upvote will suffice, which explains why it has 120 of them.

You're right, of course. I was just surprised to see naysaying on a site that has such a strong startup vibe.

To the startup side of HN, this article is just another "me too" piled on top of dozens of copies of itself every month

True. I liked it, though. I thought it was well-worded and somewhat inspiring. Certainly I'd thought of a lot of this stuff before, and seen it here. With the current economic tornado, though, some of us were unconsciously beginning to lose hope and faith -- myself, at least. Reading about how this guy keeps at it after his kids had gone to bed: that was encouraging and inspiring. I have one kid. If he can do it ...

I really should not have been so surprised. The article may seem offensive to people who are not especially interested in doing a startup; it demands that they question their own motivations, and some people are quite content working for The Man. I can be, sometimes.

Applications are open for YC Summer 2018

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact