In the meantime, a good friend of mine who started a little project on the side slowly grew it over a period of a couple years into something that supports his family very well and has a good shot at doing millions in revenue within the next 5-10 years. And I don't think he's been very stressed while doing it. He loves what he does, has tons of time for his family, etc. The cynical among us might term this a "lifestyle business" and they'd be right. But I don't think that bothers him and I can't say I blame him.
There's this really ugly side of the startup world that drives founders to completely unreasonable levels in pursuit of fast wealth creation, and it comes as a result of two factors: founders are naturally ambitious, driven people, and investors are in a hit-driven business. So the result is that investors naturally gravitate towards founders who either hit a billion dollars in a few years, or die trying (sometimes literally), and then investors and founders both are incentivized to craft this story that they only way to win is to win big, fast, and with all your chips on the line. And these things become self-reinforcing, so you have investors talking about how the real reason startups are so valuable is that founders can work so hard that they accomplish a career's worth of work in just a few years. The message is clear: you need to work 90 hours a week and either be the next Dropbox or flame out. And for the model most investors work under, that's the only way they really make money.
But the more I look around, the more I wonder if there's really much correlation between blowing your life up and startup success. Yes, you hear a lot of successful founders talking about how they killed themselves to get there. But thanks to survivorship bias, you don't hear from all the ones who risked everything, turned their lives and relationships and health upside down, and then lost. And increasingly, I'm seeing a lot of examples of very successful founders who definitely work hard, but keep an eye on themselves, their health, their relationships, etc. and have lines they're just not willing to cross. 37signals is the classic example here, but there are scores of others, many of them right here on HN. The key seems to be patience and humility, two things a lot of 20-something founders (including myself) have in very short supply
Maybe startups are so hard because we're doing them wrong.
You seem to be conflating the concepts of necessary and sufficient conditions. Working hard may be a necessary condition for success, but I don't think anyone has ever claimed it was a sufficient one.
I'm talking about the idea that you have to work so hard that it threatens or consumes everything else in your life. And no one claims that doing that is sufficient, but a lot of people claim it's necessary.
It probably is necessary if the plan is to hit a billion-dollar exit in a few years. I just think that path entails a lot of extra risk that investors overwhelmingly benefit from, and founders end up paying for in the event that things go south. And sadly, I feel that a lot of investors essentially exploit young founders who don't know enough yet to know that they're paying a very high price for a 1/10000 chance at a grand slam (making $20m in 2-5 years), when they'd be better off in almost every way by going for the 1/10 or 1/100 base hit (making $2m in 5-10 years).
And to be clear, I'm not lumping YC in with most investors here. However, YC does place a little too much emphasis on raising VC and not enough on building revenues. But that's a bubble for you :)
This is easier to understand if you consider e.g. the question of being over 7 feet tall. Maybe only 1 in 10000 (or whatever) people is over 7 feet tall. But that doesn't mean your probability of being over 7 feet tall is .01%. Your probability is either 0% or 100%.
So yes, I suppose some founders have a very high probability and some have almost no probability. But that's not useful when you don't know which group you're in yet. So the average actually IS useful.
You have either 0% or 100% probability of being over 7 feet tall, but what about your unborn child? Genetics aside, if 1 out of 10000 kids are born over 7 ft and you have a gun to your head, how will you calculate your kids odds of being that tall?
Even if you're one of those people, you can do way better than falling back an average. You can for example ask experienced investors. It's part of their job to judge the probability that you'll succeed.
For example, YC's whole investment model is based on the assumption that it's not just hindsight, and that the YC partners can use the data model that they have, that gets better with each batch, to predict which founders fall into the "success bin", and they choose to invest in those.
By your logic, this implies that in the best possible circumstances (YC), you're not going to get above a few percent chance a priori of a huge success if you work like crazy.
Whereas an equally intelligent person working reasonable hours on the side when appropriate has a decent chance of making a profitable lifestyle business in the millions without the possibility burnout and debt.
$10 million, minus the VC investment, split each among 2 or 3 founders. That ends up being what, $2-3 million in 4 years? I personally know several people who make more than that off of one iPhone app on the side. Apple's paid out billions to app developers.
Again, look at the numbers: what percent of YC investments have exited at $10 million+ in 4 years? Again, much closer to 10% than 100%. This is in a thread where pg implies that the chances of a big success are 2/3 or higher for some people. Empirical evidence proves that top investors are not right anywhere near the probability suggested.
No VC whose name you recognize will invest in bad startups to get the management fees.
"In a down market," for example, "the index's direction doesn't matter if you have the right stock which is going up".
The anthropic principle is that even though the number of planets hospitable to life is tiny the probability that humanity evolved on a planet that is hospitable to human life is 100%. The examples you gave are symmetrical.
Don't go all out working 90 hour weeks only to burn out, don't get into debt for your company, don't become distracted by the startup scene and Techcrunch and trying to get the millions in vc funding.
The founders I admire most have almost all spent decades building their companies. I don't know if anyone in our industry is capable of thinking beyond the next 18 months, let alone 18 years.
Wow, 18 years, I guess I still haven't learned my lessons!
Nevertheless, I am always wary of absolutes. Some people can't wait, and not going all in is very harmful for them. Some people have a lot to lose, and cannot afford such approach. As always, context is king.
On this particular subject, I would say that risking wealth is ok but risking relationship/health is not.
And I agree it is very hard to separate these issues... I guess one needs to be "indoctrinated" as a child.
I guess I just don't think that's possible. Yes, we could be better about separating these things to some extent, but not completely. Losing everything you own is incredibly stressful, and stress is damaging to health and relationships, period. Similarly, the dissolution of a marriage always results in a net decrease in wealth for the combined parties, at least in the short term. And battling health issues is damaging to both relationships and your financial situation, on average. This is just human nature. "Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger", but sadly, a lot of things actually do kill you (or your health, 401k, marriage, etc).
Furthermore, a big part of the correlation you see between relationships, health, and wealth are due to very similar "life management" skillsets being required for them all. It's obviously not perfect correlation, but it's there for a reason.
Just my .02, though :)
Here's the thing: I'd ask if it was even worth it at that point. Sure, the money is nice and pays off any debt accrued, but everything else is still there: effects of a long period of extreme stress; broken/damaged relationships; the life you missed along the way.
I'd argue (for myself, obviously!) that being stinking rich is simply not worth that.
The reason I hate the phrase "fuck-you money" is that it isn't really an amount of $$$: it's a mental state. It's the ability to say "screw this job; I don't care if I'm poor tomorrow. I'm free to do what I want and I'm adult enough to handle the consequences."
Perhaps doing a company is more in line with "wealth creation promise" than say getting better at music or chess or anything at all. And that's why startups being hard gets a special mention in the landscape of hard things?