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Got a million but what now
39 points by chamboo on May 12, 2012 | hide | past | favorite | 47 comments
I worked in oil and gas for 6 years. It paid well, and I have over a million in my bank account, I'm still 29 years old. I love reading and learning about startups, and it fits my personality so much better than O&G. I finally made the leap and left my job yesterday to focus full time on trying to steer my life in a new direction. My current plan is to learn enough about programming (Python and front end) to develop a prototype and try to get some traction. At some point I would like to acquire a co-founder, and try my hand at developing something that the world wants or needs. This sounded really good before I left, but the doubt level increased significantly after leaving my job. Am I crazy to think I can compete with all of these brilliant people? I really don't want to be damned into working at something I don't enjoy just for money, but I'm having a hard time seeing my way through this. I would like to work for a startup (even for free), but right now, I have no earthly clue why they would need someone with 0 programming skill sets.

Edit: I'm overwhelmed with the amount of high quality advice and different perspectives offered here. It's very inspiring and mood lifting to be surrounded by people like you, and I'm really grateful for all of you. Thanks.

Have you considered starting something in your wheelhouse? If you worked in oil and gas for six years, you probably know that space cold. I don't know much about it, but I'm guessing there is lots of money in it, and it has room for further disruption by technology.

If you take time to learn programming first, you may miss the current window of relatively easy seed money. Think of an angle, use $40-50K of your nest egg, and get a contractor to build a nice prototype quickly.

If/when you do go out to raise money, you'll have far more success if you can tell a convincing story about why you have an unfair advantage in your chosen space. Leverage your history and experience to its fullest; that's something others cannot compete with you on.

I would second this. This is a lucrative field, and being from the inside may offer you an insight that not many others have.

You also don't need to know how to code to begin a start-up. I would take the time to learn, but you can get the ball rolling with freelancers. Then, validate your idea and build a prototype.

If you really have zero programming experience, then the first thing you should do is read Peter Norvig's "Teach Yourself Programming in 10 Years": http://norvig.com/21-days.html

You love startups? Then get into them and try them out and see if it's a good fit, absolutely. Develop a prototype on your own? It really, really depends on what you want to build. You could probably pull off a simple web app in a reasonable amount of time. But, be wary of the excitement that gushes from all of the self-taught programmers out there; they have a tendency to kinda forget just how long they've been doing it once it becomes second-nature to them. Programming, systems administration, software engineering are all different disciplines with lots of breadth and depth and it can take a while just to get a handle on the basics.

Are you crazy to think you can compete with brilliant people? Hell no. I think most people have at least one talent that can make them one in 1,000. The trick is to figure out what your talent is, and then use it to compete. It might turn out that programming isn't actually your thing -- it takes a different mindset, a very fundamentally different way of thinking -- but there's something else you can do, technical or otherwise, that could make you shine in the startup scene. (I know a guy that hates programming anything from scratch, but he's a great maintenance programmer -- exactly the sort of thing that a lot of startup guys hate doing.)

You've got a nest egg that would make any ramen startup green with envy. So, make sure your expenses are minimal, relax, dive in to programming, try it out, talk to lots of people, meet some people, build some things. Don't get discouraged if you try one thing and it doesn't work; just try another.

Great link, it helps put things in perspective.

Don't worry too much about the "brilliant people" that may or may not be competing with you. I've never heard of a startup failing because of competitors. At the beginning you aren't competing, you're trying to get traction. Only once you have a product, once you're making money, once you have customers can you have competitors. Most startups fail before this point.

The second part is the fact that you seem to think startups are full of brilliant people. Some tech-oriented ones might (ones that are working on something like building a new database) but most aren't. Most have pretty horrific code quality and manage just fine because your customers won't ever see the code and if they stumble across your source they wouldn't be able to tell the difference between good and bad code anyway so they don't care. At all. All they care about is whether you solve a problem they have and whether it's worth the cost (even free products have a cost: the customer's time).

Find a problem worth solving, solve it the best way you know how and put it out there. If it's a problem people have they will use it. If it's helpful they will continue using it and give you feedback on how to improve it. Listen to your customers and iterate.

Thank you. It helps to remind myself of this.

My best advice:

- Buy some rental properties with your money. This will prevent you from burning through your cash based on your passion for your startup ideas, give you income to live on, and give you a certain secure, prudent confidence.

- Use your own cash very sparingly to create and test your MVPs. That's a plural.

- Other People's Money is very important validation of what you're working on. Investors give little meaning to how much of a founder's own money has been spent on a project, so why burn down your savings?

- Learning Python and front-end coding is a great idea. Even if you dont become a great developer, it will increase your understanding of developers and increase your cred with them.

- Read lecture 9 in Peter Thiel's Stanford course, and the excellent article posted here on being a "Growth Hacker".

- Be courageous, fail fast, break things, and enjoy. Keeping your financial house in stable order is a great way to feel confident and stay on an even keel through the rollercoaster that is startupland.

Another option in your situation would be to become an angel investor.

(cf Venkatesh Rao's answer to this question: http://www.quora.com/Startups/I-want-to-start-a-tech-startup...

"Find a couple of other older people with some experience and their own warchests, form an angel group. 200k will allow you to participate in like 4-5 good ideas within a year, and as an investor with good partners, you'll learn far faster than on the founder side. Founding is for people with no money, or people who've done it before. Money can buy you into the game in smarter ways. In particular it gives you the luxury of portfolio diversification which most founders lack.")

If you want to succeed in the startup game, a portfolio approach is best. That's possible for investors and employees (who can try several jobs until they find one that takes off), but not for founders, most of whom will spend years on a venture that likely doesn't go very far. So angel investing might be a better route.

Of course, that depends on how much you want to be playing the game yourself as a founder or just taking on an advisory role.

Heck, if you really want to ramp up your coding skills, I wouldn't mind tutoring you for a reasonable fee. Let me know if you're interested (email in my profile).

Idea sounds good but you need to make your own experience as an entrepreneur. As an angel you will get tons of good contacts and a general notion about upcoming trends and who is working on what, what ideas works and don't work but you don't know why because the information asymmetry between you and the founding teams is too strong—they don't tell you the entire story why something failed.

Being an angel on one or two ventures beside founding oneself is definitely a good way too make good contacts. But just being an angel could get boring and too abstract for somebody who haven't done it himself.

The advice to invest is terrible at this stage, closely akin to advising someone to buy after a significant a stock market rise. The underlying advice to get experience by some means other than founding your own startup might be wise, though. Not sure.

Great link, thank you. I did look into investing a little bit via angel.co, it did seem that in order to join their list, one either had to know someone, or have prior founder or angel investing experience. I really like the idea, purely from a learning standpoint, I would love to be even a silent partner if I was still offered the chance to sit in and learn.

I'm listed on angel.co as an accredited investor--I'd be happy to recommend you to get approved for an investor profile. I do early stage deals for an impact investment fund, specifically around news and information; glad to talk about how we work and evaluate deals (most are in emerging/frontier markets, but some in the US, too) and if there's anything you could participate in. My email address is on my profile page.

Attitude is everything when it comes to startups. Your post suggests you've got a good attitude.

There are no shortage of programmers with a lot more experience who have completely useless attitudes. They code well, but don't care for anything more than working as little as possible and earning a salary. Much easier to teach someone to program than teach someone entrepreneurial drive and determination.

If you're willing to trade a small measure of that cash stash to cofound a company (and be willing to keep an open mind), there are thousands of deserving startups (including mine) who'd probably love to have you on board.

Seek to surround yourself with people who think differently than you and who you'll learn a lot in every or most conversations. Take some time to just collaborate with folks recreationally. Figure out how to make sure you're around people enough day to day for your own personal happiness. Make sure you have habits that keep you sane and healthy even when busy and stressed.

Also: let me tell you a secret-- most tech startups aren't that technically interesting! :) Most are just a web shop for a thing, though some of those get interesting engineering challenges at the "web scale". Some startups do have amazingly interesting challenges at their core, but not all.

If you can come up with a product or service that has immediate value even if it has only a handful of users, go for it.

Learning to program isn't some mystic art, though like all parts of computer science there's a certain magic and mystique until you learn exactly how a thing works. To repeat what other folks have said, learn several languages and do a mini learning project in each. Pick up enough basic algorithms and the like so you can avoid odd performance problems, and maybe pick up a wee bit of scheme and haskell to stretch out your set of conceivable abstractions for your coding. ( so read things likes the structure and interpretation of computer programs and perhaps also something like learn you a Haskell)

Im also guesstimating that youre currently based in Texas. Take some time to do a teeny of lowkey travel and explore places like SF and NYC (NYC wooo!). Variety in environment helps the brain think better. Take advantage of that

Also feel free to drop me an email if your in NYC, there's a lot of really cool stuff going on in NYC in and outside of the eye of the press

I absolutely will, thank you.

just to double check, the email i just received is from you, right? :-)

I would say become an angel investor. A small amount of money can make a big difference to some people. Most Y-combinator companies start with under $20k. If you need help evaluating what companies to invest in, get a multitude of opinions (I will give you an opinion for free, just shoot me an email: gavanw@gmail.com -- I enjoy criticizing companies!).

I would recommend investing in companies that most VCs won't fund - namely, game companies (naturally I am biased here). Games are the "easiest" products to monetize and get traction for, assuming you have a capable team that is making something interesting (i.e. not a clone). Think of it this way: how many users look forward to a particular game coming out? Now how many users look forward to a given Web 2.0 product? Kickstarter is hard proof that users are more interested in games than other types of products. There is a lot of room for innovation in games -- whereas it is very hard to think of good ideas for typical startups.

The time it will take you to learn to code well enough to create a decent startup (read: nontrivial) is at least 1 year (and even that is a stretch), and that will cost you maybe 50k depending on the salary you give yourself. On the other hand, you could buy an experienced software engineer (with 50k + good equity).

On the other hand, you can start a business outside of software. Some of the most obvious businesses make buttloads of money: cleaning services, car washes (I know a guy who runs a carwash and makes over 3 million a year).

I am obviously not the leading expert on any given matter, these are just my humble opinions. :)

Congrats. You are in a great position that many hackers would kill for (no pun intended). My advice echoes and negates several of the comments already posted:

- I agree that, at best, you should launch something in a space you know about (ie oil) or at least in a vertical you are very interested in. However I would be less concerned about how "lucrative" the market is (as one commenter suggested), other than the fact that there is a market. Many businesses have been started in markets one wouldn't typically associate with "lucrative" - selling to teachers is one example. - Instead focus on creating value or solving a problem. Seems obvious but so often startups try to find problems for their solution that they've built. I've been guilty of this myself. - Don't angel invest. That is a good way to lose your position and some money. Plus you imply that your more interested in entrepreneurship anyway. - Learn how to code a little, even if you plan on finding technical co-founders or paying someone to build your product. It gives you perspective and depth while making you better at properly scoping projects for others.

Best of luck

A piece of honest advice - having money doesn't somehow qualify you to start / run a company.

It is great that you don't have to worry about working for a few years, but that can actually be more of a crutch slowing you down than a true success factor - one of the things I believe made my first company a success was not just the desire to succeed, but the need to succeed as "the farm had been bet".

I know this is not the specific question you were asking, and I don't presume you believe this, but just thought its an important distinction to make.

Also as an aside, I would hide the nature of your net worth when talking to other entrepreneurs / startup people until after you have built up a good relationship with them based on other factors (shared-interests, mutual intellectual respect, etc...) - as the goal of many "Startups" is not actually to find customers, but rather to find investors - and what you're looking for are people to learn from / partner with, not fund.

Its takes a lot of time and effort to become a good programmer. But you don't need to become one to have success.

1, Give yourself 2-3 month time and try learning basic php. mysql,unix and javascript/html/CSS. Also develop basic photoshop/fireworks skill. Lynda.com level skill is enough .This is not to code on your own but so that you can atleast understand other peoples code and maybe able to hack something quick.

2, Read everything you can about SEO, PPC, Open Graph and Viral marketing. This skills are more important for you than coding.

3, In the next 3 months develop atleast 3 web ideas. Go for simple ideas not tech intensive like a search engine or something. Hire a programmer or two from odesk to develop the most promising idea (not necessarily the most ambitious). Only hire highly rated coders for atleast $20/hr. Most web projects shouldnt cost more than $10k to develop (and maybe another $10k to market).

Why learn programming yourself? You have enough funds to hire people to build the thing "the world wants or needs", Learning programming takes time and it takes even more time to be able to build great stuff.

You should start thinking like a programmer, find the shortest path to your goal, just by learning python and front end will not take you too far.

You can get into startups in many ways, knowing how to code or have a great idea is not enough, and these are easily available.

Maybe is better to find a small startup that tries to build what you are trying to achieve and invest into it so you can share the fun and learn everything you need along.

Find your greatest strengths and use them to build the startup you want, starting from scratch by learning programming will take too long and when something takes too long it can be frustrating.

Good luck.

You're going to do great! You only need to do 2 things 1. Figure out your strengths, and play to them. Love that you're learning to program, and that's a great start so that you'll be able to contribute, but once you feel like you know the basics, go out there and get yourself a co-founder. Pay him/her BUT 2. Keep your expenses low. With $1mm in the bank, try to figure out a way to be extremely productive only spending, let's say, $200,000 a year. Is that possible given your expenses? I don't know. But is it POSSIBLE, let me tell you: yes it is. That gives you 5 years to make this work into something reasonably successful (at least you'll have built something: that counts for a lot) and you'll be able to go from there.

Set a good pace, don't overspend, and find someone awesome.

You first need some CS background ('CS', for lack of a better term. I don't mean Automata, just something deeper than, say, lynda.com!). Check out Harvard CS50 (cs50.tv), MIT OCW (ocw.mit.edu), see.stanford.edu, udacity, coursera, academicearth.org and Khan Academy (and in a few months, http://edxonline.org/). Start at the basic courses (CS50 is the best starting point).

That's the best thing you can do. Sure, you can start coding right now but you don't know what you're missing. You have the luxury of not having to worry about money in the sort term, so make the most out of it and educate yourself. You'll get nowhere if you don't know the fundamentals of how computers/web/operating systems/... work.

I would highly recommend taking a quick look at udacity.com. It's probably the most time-efficient means of getting started into developing code for a startup.

For your startup business skills, I highly recommend looking for meetups near you. Participating in those, talking to startup people, understand what they do, why they do and how they do. It can be even non-tech meetups like Startup Weekends or technical stuff like Hackathons (don't worry about having no technical background at hackatons, those who do will love to help you). Generally, the entrepreneurship community is very open and helpful, and kind of meetup will get you get a better grasp of things.

Thanks for the link, first time I've seen this.

Check this out, Chamboo: - http://www.quora.com/Career-Advice/Im-about-to-quit-my-job-t... and http://www.quora.com/In-Mircea-Goias-journey-from-coal-minin...

You are in a better situation today than me 10-12 years ago.

Thanks, these are some interesting links.

Incredible story, thank you for sharing.

At the beginning you won't be competing with anyone: http://cdixon.org/2010/06/26/competition-is-overrated/ And before you invest time in learning to code, you still have plenty of options to verify your concepts (interactive mockups, landing pages etc.) I believe that learning about them first is better investment and a good foundation for further learning (assuming that you really have zero skills).

Spend 20-30% of it to buy gold coins (not the collectables). Rent the cheapest apartment you can get. Sell all the crap you dont need and wait out the coming storm. Then, after the storm, buy up everything you can on the cheap and profit by doing something with what you buy. Much eaiser than learning how to code and rolling the dice, dont let this whole "web and app paradise" fool you. Im running away from the mob, what about you?

What about applying to a code school? I mean something IRL, 4 to 8 weeks of intensive programming with good teachers and most importantly other people like you who are willing to learn and may turn out to be potential cofounders. I believe there are quite a few options available, even though I can't remember the names right now.

Most importantly: don't stay alone or you have good chance of not doing anything at all.

Got a million put 500k in bank Use 500k for your idea. don't learn programming(you are going to waste your time), instead hire couple of good developers, see how viable your idea is for a year, if it works,good, if not at least you are not begging somewhere. You should know about limited resources, sine you've worked in the oil biz. Your limited resource is your time, don't waste it.

I might get downvoted for this, but don't learn to program if you don't have to. Do it for a few weeks, try it out and if you like it, keep going, otherwise, don't even bother. Try to find your strengths you could bring into a startup after prototype stage, and build those.

I have the opposite problem: the ideas, skills and not the cash. I've wanted to join a startup that will allow me to work the way I do best, but how do you actually find people? I've not found a "startup match" site. Do they even exist?

Try angel.co. Create a profile and check out the startups and incubators. I've also met quite a few helpful people by reaching out, just like this post.

Great starting position. Important is that you stay always active.

1.) Never worry. You have enough money to pay your rent for years

2.) Do anything to get quick experiences and success (important for your state and self-believe). Coding is very important and you will learn it soon enough. But to get started I would take any good idea you have and like and to try get a MVP (minimum viable product) on the markt. Getting a tech co-founder is hard and time consuming. So, try to find a contractor who builds you the a MVP for few bucks (1000-5000USD). Take this first project to learn: how to convince and sell ideas to people, how to lead people, how to lead tech people. If you work good together try to make a cofounder out of him and offer shares. Very important: don't take this too seriously, it's just something to get started and to make experience. If you like and want to speed up you personal development as an entrepreneur you can do multiple of such projects with different contractors and the odds that you find a talented cofounder are higher!

3.) You should quickly learn to code. There are many ways. You can ask your contractor if you can help on the frontend code and if he can teach you there (frontend code is dead simple and a good starter). Important is that you don't learn alone and buy a book or study CS and so on (there is too much to learn and the probability that you learn wrong stuff or focus on irrelevant things is just too high. That takes too long and is demotivating and frustrating. You need a real problem to solve and people who can help you. Just learning a language for the sake of learning a language won't work: you will read one, two books, do many exercises and then stop. Get a real problem to solve. Maybe it's just a simple website of your new identity as an entrepreneur or the site of your legal entity. Another idea is to code as an intern undercover in some startup (just start to learn some html and css and apply as frontend dev intern, should work). But don't start to study CS, takes too long and getting a really awesome coder doesnt work this way.

3.) Working in a startup CLOSE TO THE FOUNDERS (very important) is another good idea. You learn lot and maybe how to raise money. But do not do this for too long.

4.) Of course networking: go to every networking event and tech meetups in your area. Often you will think, what am I doing here, but carry on and visit really every event, you will learn a lot.

5.) Do not invest your 1 million in any venture!! You are too unexperienced yet. Just spend it on your living costs and really small stuff like building prototypes (max. 5000USD per prototype). After a while (12-18 months) you will get a much better feeling what works and what not. But then it's still better to raise money than taking your own.

Again, do something, don't stand still. Start tomorrow morning. Why is this so important? The earlier you have any kind of success the more you will thrive being an entrepreneur and carry on. If you waste time on the wrong idea/co-founder/place/whatever for years you get too intimidated by all this stuff and maybe you will never try it again (and starting something is easy if you are experienced and had few successes before—it's all about doing, doing, doing. Don't fear or doubt, just do it).

And btw, how did you save 1 million?

Thank you, definitely feel a lot more relieved after reading this. Actually, this is pretty much what my plan was while I was convincing myself that I should leave my job, and it made enough sense to do so at the time. As for the money, it was a combination of living like I had no money, having a really good CPA to manage my funds (and getting lucky after the 2008 crash), and receiving a large amount of company stock options that fortunately did very well over time. I also was fortunate enough to have my college paid for, and so I have never been in a debt situation. Also, the company I worked for matched 10% into a 401k, and I converted the mutual fund stock into company stock, and just got lucky that we did well. On top of it all, I was paid well for what I was doing. Counting all the benefits, it wasn't uncommon for someone to gross 200k+ in a low profile leadership position. Thanks again, this is all great advice.

What are your other skills that might be useful to a startup? Want to grab coffee sometime?

teach me how to make 1 million in 6 years and ill teach you programming, deal? :p

ha, more like 10 years when you count the engineering degree and apprenticeships. Also, unless you really enjoy the work, it can be a very hard grind (as it was for me). The hours were not 9 to 5 (I was on call 24/7), and when I was a drilling foreman, I would sometimes be up nearly 3 days at a time trying to manage a team of not so friendly people who didn't necessarily care about the project at hand. Also, I just got lucky. There was really nothing extraordinary about what I did. I was never proud of what I was doing.

So quit bitching, move somewhere nice, and teach yourself how to program.

Would you consider investing in a small start-up with a mature product? Our company is going into its 6th year of business. I have been lucky to be working with some very talented people.

Learn several very different programming languages. Make sure to include at least lisp, c, a scripting language (eg perl or php,) a parallel language (eg erlang or mozart-oz), something funky (prolog's nice this time of year,) and sql. These will give you a set of semi-compatible worldviews that'll let you start doing a better job of choosing tools than blub. If you dig in hard, you can do a pretty decent job of learning the wheel ruts of each of those in two months.

Spend the following year crapping out weekend projects to learn fast. Use that time to see what reaches customers, to see what breaks under load, et cetera.

After that you'll be in a much better position to take on founding.

I don't agree with this. He's not trying to become an all-star programmer, he just wants to learn how to build a prototype to get a startup off the ground. He should just jump right into what he will likely use. That's probably going to be Ruby on Rails or similar.

It's a little hard to believe that you'd be comfortable building your future on something you've only just learned to do, without getting to know the basics of your toolchest to the point that you can even make decisions well.

All I know is that when I've hired, the number of genuinely different languages that someone speaks has been a very strong predictor of whether their code can be kept in the long run.

But sure, picking a language without even knowing what the product will be? That could work too.

I know plenty of amazing devs who do extremely well either as an entrepreneur or as an employee who know none of what you originally suggested. I agree with Sean. He just needs something to start off with.

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