AGILEVC My idle thoughts on tech startups

October 5, 2012

I had the pleasure of giving a talk on entrepreneurship at UPenn last week, which happens to be my alma mater.  I’m always thrilled to speak with undergraduates who are interested in startups.  One of the most common questions I get is “What’s the best career path to becoming a founder someday?”

The very short answer is that most people who are ultimately founders (or usually co-founders) of a company “tack” towards that goal in a series of career steps.  For those less familiar with sailboats, tacking (and conceptually similar jibing) is the process sailors employ as they zig-zag towards their ultimate destination.  While it’s theoretically possible to sail straight towards your destination if the winds are just right (downwind generally), most of the time sailors have to change direction repeatedly to get where they want to go.  But while the winds may be capricious, tacking is a highly intentional and continuous process to get to a specific goal.

To me the process of becoming a founder is very similar to sailing and tacking, and so I try to relate this concept to folks who are about to set out on their careers.  A small minority of folks who will ultimately become founders of a business do so right off the bat… while they’re in college or just after college.  These are the stories we all know and celebrate like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Sergey Brin & Larry Page, Elon Musk, and Mark Zuckerberg.

But most people aren’t ready to start a business of their own at the age of 21 or 22.  It’s not usually a lack of intellectual horsepower, inherent willingness to take risk, or exceptional work ethic … folks who don’t possess these traits at a young age rarely acquire them later in life.  Rather it’s usually an underdeveloped sense of a market opportunity worth pursuing or a desire to gain more experience before trying to launch a company.  There are a great many examples of successful founders who started companies some years after college like Larry Ellison, Jeff Bezos, Andy Grove & Gordon Moore, and even my own mentor Reid Hoffman.

If you’re ready to be a founder at a young age go for it… I’ll be the last person to try to stop you.  But my recommendation to people who aspire to be a founder but aren’t quite ready for it is to think about entrepreneurship as a career path and tack towards being a founder someday.  People often ask me “If I want to be a founder in 3-5 years [or 5-10 or whatever], should I pursue job X now or job Y?”  My advice is usually the following:

  1. IMO the best first job you can get on the path towards being a founder is to join a startup.  Even if that startup is ultimately unsuccessful or you’re joining a fairly large, later stage startup, getting the experience of being in a high growth company surrounded by other entrepreneurially minded people is the single best way to prepare for being a founder.  It’s also far and away the most fertile ground for meeting future co-founders.
  2. The next best thing would be to join a recently public (e.g. <3 years) company that began as a startup.  Joining Microsoft in 1987 or Yahoo in 1997 or Google in 2005 or Facebook today still gives someone new to the professional world a lot of the exposure to the “startup” world.  Yes these are all big companies with hundreds or thousands of employees at this point, but often many of the senior execs and junior to mid level people were involved in the company when it was still a startup.  These companies are often organized and run more like startups than mature businesses, and tend to still be far more innovative and rapidly growing than a mature business.
  3. After #2 the next best thing you can do is join a large, mature publicly traded company in the field you’re interested in starting a business.  So for software based businesses it’s obviously Oracle, Microsoft, and others but if you want to start a biotech company someday it’d be Genzyme, Biogen, Genentech, and others.
  4. Join a mature, non-technical operating company.  Working at P&G or Ford isn’t going to feel like a startup and isn’t likely to help you build an entrepreneurially-minded network.  But you may be able to gain either industry expertise that’s relevant to being a founder and/or functional expertise in marketing, sales, operations, etc.
  5. Professional services (accounting, mgmt consulting, investment banking, etc) can be a fine career path for many.  And there are certainly plenty of examples of great entrepreneurs who started their careers in these types of jobs.  But overall, professional services is a less good place to start your career if you want to be a founder some day.  These careers are one or more steps removed from the day to day decision making and execution involved in an operating company.  Also the professional network you build in these fields tends to be less relevant to entrepreneurship relative to #1-3.
  6. Non-profits and public policy (e.g. politics, policy think tanks, etc) are also a great career path in general, but often not well suited to helping a young person ultimately become a founder.  One advantage of the policy/politics world is that exceptional people can often get a lot of responsibility at a very young age, similar to working in a startup.  But again the day-to-day tasks are farther removed from operating a business, and it’s rare to be able to develop domain expertise that’s relevant in the longer term.

So all things being equal, it’s better to start at #1 or #2 than at #5 or #6.  But regardless where a recent college grad starts their career, if you truly have the ambition of being a founder someday the best thing you can do is keep tacking towards your intended course.  If you start in professional services, try to shift to an operating role in a big company or a startup before too long.  If you start in a big company, keep an eye out for potential collaborators (e.g. future co-founders) and think about jumping out to start something when the time is right.  And overall don’t worry if you’re not a founder the day after you graduate… most people who are ultimately founders aren’t, but nearly all of them worked purposefully to tack towards their goal.

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