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When should you start a startup? (dave.is)
31 points by davidbalbert 2256 days ago | hide | past | web | 42 comments | favorite

I know OP means well, but there's one piece of advice that's exactly the opposite of my experience.

First he says:

There is very little you will learn in your current job...that will make you better at starting your own startup.


Good ideas only come through trial and error.

Both are terrible advice.

There is a whole universe of things you can learn in your current job: technique, experience, exposure to different ideas (in practice, not in theory), how to manage projects, how to deal with people, what to look out for in real world situations, and the two most important things: what NOT to do and what people need.

I can think of no better way to get good actionable ideas for a startup than from one's job.

And for many aspiring entrepreneurs, having a job and learning a few of these things is the single biggest missing piece in their bag of personal assets.

If you have a great idea and the wherewithal to start a business, then by all means go for it when you're ready. In the meantime, there's nothing wrong with having a job; it's probably the best thing you could be doing until you're ready.

Perhaps I was overly strong, but my point was that whatever you're learning at your job, you'll learn it faster if you're starting your own company. I worked a few jobs right out of college and I learned some stuff that I think is applicable to our startup, but I was still virtually clueless when we actually went to start it.

When it comes to the quickest way to put yourself in a position to successfully start your startup, there's no comparison between learning at your job and just starting it.

This is super important because the longer you wait, the more risky it becomes to start your startup in the first place.

The differences are much more involved: learning as part of a startup, especially if you have debt, is learning under duress. Learning while on a job, when the issue of the next paycheck doesnt loom over you, is a more steady process

Well significant debt complicates everything, but assuming you don't have any debt, necessity is the mother of invention. If your livelihood depends on you learning something, you will probably learn it much faster and better.

I think a job is great for learning, if you take an active role.

For me, I was working in IT, but I was able to build non-IT systems related marketing, sales, product development, HR, and business.

What I would do is listen for someone to say, "I wish I knew X" or "I wish we could do Y differently" and then I'd either write up a marketing/product report or else redesign their old system and have it to them a couple days later.

I learned a ton this way, but I was very active in achieving it.

I have to say I agree with "good ideas only come through trial and error". Perhaps "only" is too strong of a word, but if you ask any successful entrepreneur about how many ideas they've been through before figuring out the one that led to their success, I'm sure the average will be quite high.

That depends totally on the job. If it's a well paid megacorp job - very safe, but far from something that might spring ideas in your head, you're locked in a little corner doing your thing. Only in small companies the business side of things is transparent enough for the technical people.

If it's a well paid megacorp job - very safe, but far from something that might spring ideas in your head, you're locked in a little corner doing your thing. Only in small companies the business side of things is transparent enough for the technical people.

This is exactly the opposite of my experience. The bigger the company, the bigger the problems, in both number and size. It may seem counter-intuitive, but I have worked in many "megacorps" and you'd probably be stunned by the extent of their needs and their difficulty getting them fulfilled. I have hundreds of ideas accumulated over years of enterprise programming that I'll probably never have time to get to.

Sometimes I think it would be a great idea to put a tiger team of hungry programmers together with the right enterprise users. But since that rarely happens from within, attacking their problems from the outside is still probably the best approach.

I'll add to this a bit:

I worked for a 400 person company. The business side of things was very transparent. Maybe if there were 20,000 employees that'd make it less so. But at 400 employees, I could listen in my office for conversations that I found interesting, join them and then create a solution in a day or two.

It's also easier to justify a fix. If you can save 5 minutes a day for 100 employees that's one man-year of work saved. If you can do that for the most annoying process of the day that's worth at a least $35,000, plus any moral issues.

Keep your eyes and ears open and don't focus just on IT systems to improve, focus also on other systems that you can get in there and improve through your engineering mindset.

Maybe I'll just clarify what I mean by a megacorp. I'm talking from experience at working for a company with well over 100k employees. My most motivating and entertaining jobs were in companies with less than 50 employees. These however were the most tiring, so bootstrapping and "side thing" was out of the question.

Good post. I did my first startup straight out of college, which was great for a couple of reasons.

- I was used to living off very little. I didn't develop expensive tastes fueled by a regular paycheck. It helped that I could live at home while bootstrapping. My opportunity cost was getting an entry level job somewhere for decent pay.

- I was used to managing my own time and being disciplined about work schedules. This was helped by attending university in the UK where we had 6 hours' obligatory classes per week or less. The rest was optional lectures and self study time.

Totally forgot about this point. Starting up right out of college is great because you know how to live like a college student :).

I think the author misses the major argument, which is "I have to make rent". Most startups never get to the point of making a profit.

This is why now isn't generally a good time to start a company (unless you are able to raise substantial investment). Now is a great time to get a job at a funded startup, save money, learn skills, make friends - once the bubble pops you'd have the basic ingredients to start your own thing (and - possibly - without a job anyway, so have nothing to lose)

This works well assuming you're disciplined about it. When I graduated, I knew I wanted to start my own startup, but I planned on bootstrapping and needed money. I worked two years exactly, living cheaply and saving as much as I could.

My job was comfortable and I really loved it. It would have been very easy to stay. The advice to start "now" is really a reminder that if your answer is always "tomorrow," you'll never get started.

I'm not sure discipline has any place here at all. If there aren't 10 moments every day in your corporate job when you wish you were in a startup and could do things your way, then you probably wouldn't enjoy being in a startup anyway.

So.. I assume you did start a startup eventually?

EDIT: nevermind, looks like you're co-founder with OP.

Yes. I quit my job last year to start up (and OP is my cofounder).

I would say that falls under "I have debt." Perhaps better phrased is "I can't afford to bootstrap."

At the very least, it limits your options in terms of what kind of startup path you take. If you can't afford to bootstrap, then your only options are either working around a fulltime gig or trying to raise money out the door (from investors or friends/family or loan).

There is nothing stopping anyone from doing a startup on the side. Needing to pay rent and working on your own project are not mutually exclusive.

>As you age, you naturally accumulate things that will make >it harder for you to start your startup: a spouse, kids, >aging parents who need care, an expensive lifestyle, a >career, respectability.

I have to say I completely agree with this. I'm only 31 and finding it hard to take on much risk given the fact that my family relies on my income very heavily. This leaves me trying to spend time in the evenings and weekends to work a B2B SaaS product idea that I have. I've thought about paying another developer to write it, but it's an app that's targeted towards the IT Services/Managed Services industry and writing it requires some background knowledge of that industry.

There are no excuses. If the it is important and matters, you will always find a way.

If you have the know how, start by spending 30 minutes a day on it. Get up 30 minutes earlier. Pack your lunch and work on it then. Small steps are important. Try to make time daily.

You're in the process of discovering a product. When you close your eyes, can you see yourself using this product? Do have this feeling that you're using it as if it already exists? Do you find yourself constantly thinking about it?

Hiring developers can be toxic - they'll certainly be able bill hours for building features, but would they be able to help you discover your product?

Not sure why people down voted your comments. I agree with what you're saying and I appreciate the feedback.

I work for an IT Services provider as a Level II technician and I am in charge of providing a certain service to our clients on a daily basis. To administer this service I have to take time out of my normal routine of working tickets and sometimes I find it hard to find the time to do that. My app would make administering this service easier for me, but it would also allow me to pass the duties down to a Level I tech who isn't as busy with working tickets. There's not a product on the market that does this and I believe that the market is huge as far as IT Services providers goes.

Writing this app is all I can think about. I think about it before I go to sleep every night, I think about it in the shower, I think about it all day at work. I don't think it'll make me rich, but that's really not my goal anyways. It's more about contributing to the industry that I work in to make life easier for techs like myself.

I sort of agree with your thoughts on hiring developers, but I have to believe that this isn't the case with all developers. I think it's possible to find a developer to work with me instead of for me and in that case I think they'd play a key role in the discovery of the product.

"I have to believe that this isn't the case with all developers. I think it's possible to find a developer to work with me instead of for me and in that case I think they'd play a key role in the discovery of the product."

Very true. And that's key - to find a developer who shares your vision and passion.

You might want to consider picking up a copy of Balsamiq Mockups (<a href="http://balsamiq.com/products/mockups>Link</a>). You can quickly start mocking up the UI. You can even make it clickable and export one as a PDF (still clickable).

Having a mockup will allow for you to add to and take away from the UI. It would also come in handy when you're ready to pass work to a developer.

Having trouble finding tech savvy folks in Waco? Start a networking group, something akin to <a href="http://refreshingcities.com/>Refresh</a>.

Thanks for the advice on using refreshingcities.com, I hadn't seen that before. I've been meaning to look at balsamiq since it's recommended quite a bit. I'll take a look at it today.

I like the way you think but I'd caution you on working on your own project while on lunch as I think some employers may not be welcoming of you doing that while on "their time" with "their resources", even if you're on your lunch break using your own software/hardware.

Luckily I work from home and I'm paid 100% commission based on the hours that I bill. This means that I'm free to do what I want for the most part as long as our customers are taken care of. The downside to that is that if I'm not billing hours, I'm not making money.

And that's a good point. You've got to take common sense into account.

Is it a CRUD app? Forget the marketing, etc. Are you only Creating, reading, updating and deleting data?

If that's the case pick a language + web framework and go to town nights and weekends.

CRUD is a good part of it and I'm planning on using RoR, but there's also part of it that will interface with a POP3 server and do some regex on the messages that it grabs. The pricing model for the app will be a recurring monthly fee based on the number of clients the customer has signed up for the service. I'm still looking at options for handling the payment (recurly, braintree ..etc) and I've never built an app with a payment system, so I'm having a bit of trouble wrapping my head around that sort of thing.

Just start building it. What's your MVP look like?

Braintree makes the payments dead simple and for <1k you have someone integrate it all into your application. Don't worry about payments until you have the app built.

It sounds like you're afraid to make mistakes on the engineering side. Just start building the thing and don't worry about engineering. You can always refractor code later!

I'm not sure what you mean by MVP.

You're definitely right about me being afraid of making mistakes on the engineering side and now that you point that out I think you've helped me see that I just need to start building something instead of coming up with reasons why I can't or shouldn't.

Minimally Viable Product.

Basically, "What is the least you can do and still create value?" is your MVP. If you can build this you can figure out what value you actually add and how to leverage what you built to add even more value. Most people get who their real customers are wrong.

Gotcha.. I do have all sorts of ideas for functionality, but I think I'll start with the basic app and add more functionality later.

Sounds like you need a technical co-founder, in this case - someone who's technical and believes in your idea enough to put time developing for it.

I agree and I've tried that route a bit, but I've had a little bit of trouble conveying the idea to someone else in order to get them to believe in it. I've found that I really need to create a mockup if I'm going to go that route and I just haven't taken the time to do that yet. I also live in an area that's not rich in technical-minded people (Waco, Texas), much less developers. So finding someone locally is almost surely out of the question.

So true. To all of the people who think you will learn something at a big company, how many of you have founded a startup? Did the processes that you learned at a big company help you run that startup?

One of the reasons I decided not to pursue my idea for a Dropbox-like system in 2002 was because I thought I would actually learn something if I took a job at a profitable web commerce company. (See http://erickennedy.org/great-idea-before-Dropbox the full story.)

The only thing I learned at Expedia.com was how hard it is for publicly-traded companies to innovate if it has any threat on their existing business model. They were unwilling to allow their customers to write hotel reviews because they feared it would anger hotel suppliers. They paid advertising to TripAdvisor as it grew that business and only later acquired it. It was pointless innovate within Expedia -- even the CEO (Rich Barton) couldn't get the teams to add reviews.

Worse, I bought a condo and a car with debt at Expedia and no longer had the flexiblity to bootstrap a startup. Don't make that mistake. It's fine if you're working at a big company to build up a cushion to start your business, but don't believe that their processes are right for a startup.

> You don't want to start a startup.

I'd like to add "enough" to the end of this option: You don't want to start a startup enough. That's because starting one is just one of your many options--perhaps your current job is paying you a very comfortable salary. You have to compare starting a startup to your best alternative (opportunity cost), and see if you want it enough to justify giving up that alternative.

Excellent point. It's worth noting that there are a substantial group of people who say they want to do something but never find the time. Writer John Scalzi has an excellent response to that: http://whatever.scalzi.com/2010/09/16/writing-find-the-time-...

"This is why I don’t have an acting career, or am a musician — because as much as I’d like those, I somehow stubbornly don’t actually do the things I need to do in order to achieve them."

Being an entrepreneur isn't about sitting on a beach enjoying your millions, it's about solving lots of intensely hard (and often frustrating) problems.

An even better question would be 'what are you willing to give up to start a startup?'.

On most measures (experience, contacts, etc) you're better waiting a few years before starting. The trick is that people tend to accumulate personal and financial obligations during that time that make a startup a much bigger sacrifice. If you end up on the spouse->house->kids->midlife-crisis-at-45 track before starting, you'll have a very hard time changing direction.

I have had enough of people preaching startup advice.

When should you start a startup?

When the hell you want to.

You have a family, You have a mortgage, You have an aunt that left you $1M, You have no left arm, You are dyslexic, whatever.

Just start the damn company when you want to. At some point, stop wasting time on what other people think and think for yourself.

I agree with the debt reason. I personally want to make sure that if the ship goes down, I'm not stuck with inescapable student loans. Live cheaply, pay off your debts...then you have nothing holding you down from doing what you want!

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