It’s been nearly eight months since I quit my job at AOL to become an entrepreneur. It’s hard. They tell you it’s going to be hard; you say, “Yeah, I know, it’s totally going to be hard;” and then it’s hard.
Not a week goes by in which I don’t fantasize about going back to work at a big company. That’s OK: in unfamiliar, uncomfortable terrain it’s inevitable I’ll want to retreat to the familiar. It would be just that: a retreat. I’ve chosen this path because I want to start something myself, because I want to build a company. And as I said, I knew it was going to be hard.
But I’m equipped to do it, in no small part because I’ve spent the last five years at big tech companies – first Yahoo!, then AOL. I was thrilled to be there, surrounded by talented, passionate people who knew more than I did. There were fascinating design reviews, brown bag talks, hallway conversations. There was so much to learn, and I loved it.
As a result I became a better product person, a better designer, a better developer, a better reader of the industry. I learned some of what works and doesn’t work inside an organization. I learned how to manage a team. I found mentors and advisors. And I built up the network I needed to get started on my own. I don’t want to go back to it, but I also wouldn’t trade it.
There’s a debate going on right now about acqui-hires and whether they’re good for the industry. I’ll leave that to folks who know what they’re talking about, but something struck me as I read through the posts so far.
In her criticism of acqui-hires Sarah Lacy wrote, “Not enough people moving to the Valley or coming out of school want to work at companies other people are starting, because it’s so easy to start their own.” In his response Mike Arrington said, “The article that needs to be written is how many entrepreneurs today expect an automatic Hollywood ending to their startup.” Too many young techies are becoming founders because it seems easy and romantic. When, in fact, it’s really hard. (I may have mentioned that already.)
In December I described tech entrepreneurship as “the Bay Area version of the American Dream.” But there are models of American success other than a white picket fence in the suburbs…and there are models of tech success other than Instagram.
If you’re just graduating college, founding a startup might be your least attractive option because you’re explicitly discarding some of the best opportunities to learn from others before striking out on your own.
If you’ve got a product idea burning a hole in your brain and it’s too big to fit into a side project sure, found a startup. But if you want to jump into the fray, work with great people, work on products that affect millions of users, and make a decent living the process – then update your LinkedIn and start interviewing. You’ll probably enjoy it, and you’ll find yourself better equipped to do your own thing in a few years as a result.