Why Join (or Start) a Startup?

I spoke briefly at yesterday’s Techvibes Start-Up Career Fair, introducing ten bright-eyed local startups who are trying to shake things up and are looking for some help along the way. I spent some time thinking about what I could tell the audience about why they should join a startup, or better yet, start one themselves. In thinking about it, I decided that I should really be targeting people who are about to finish school, have just finished school, or better yet, are just going into school.

Why should you join (or start) a startup? Three reasons:

  • You’re young
  • You don’t know any better
  • You’ve got nothing to lose

You’re young – Like Kevin Kelly, I have a death countdown clock on my laptop’s desktop that is counting down the number of years, months, and days until I will likely expire. It’s depressing, but it puts just how much time you’ve got on your hands into perspective. Statistics Canada estimates that the life expectancy of someone born today is 80 years, and all trends point to continued increasing longevity. In all likelihood, medical advances will extend life expectancy even further during your lifespan.

For someone early in their career, the implication is clear – you’ve got a lot of time on your clock (calculate it for yourself if you don’t believe me). Take it from someone who’s experienced the crushing desperation that can only be instilled by the beige walls (and carpet, and tile, and doors) of the old MPR Teltech building at SFU: forty years is too long to be stuck in a cubicle, playing silly corporate games, and building value for someone else.

You don’t know any better – Let’s face it, four years in university or two years in college probably haven’t taught you very much about the “real world”. While many might view that as a negative, I choose to look on it as a positive – you don’t know what’s impossible. Many of the greatest inventions were created by people who simply didn’t know any better. Or, to put it another by stealing a lyric from the Arrogant Worms, “History is made by stupid people – clever people wouldn’t even try”.

Consider the invention of the integrated circuit. This monumental achievement was created by Jack Kilby, a new employee at Texas Instruments, while the rest of the company was on vacation (as a new employee, he wasn’t yet entitled to the mass August vacation taken at the time by everyone at TI). Unencumbered by oversight and experience with what was or wasn’t possible, he created the first integrated circuit and revolutionized an industry. The greatest missed opportunities these days aren’t those that nobody knows about, they’re the ones that everyone thinks are “impossible” or “unrealistic” to pursue.

You’ve got nothing to lose – If you’re young, you’ve got relatively few responsibilities. You’re probably not married. You probably don’t have any kids. You probably don’t have a mortgage. You might have school debt, but you can always find ways to delay repayment anyway. You can live cheap.

In other words, there’s really not a lot of risk to taking some time to pursue a startup. How much money do you really need if you’re living with three other geeks in a house in Burnaby and eating Ramen noodles? And if you screw up, what’s the worst that will happen? You’ll have to get a job. In my experience, there will always be opportunities to work for someone else when you really need the money.

When I first decided to pursue being a part of a startup, it was the middle of the Web 1.0 boom. Everyone I worked with at IBM wanted to start a company or go join a startup, but no one did. Everyone had an excuse as to why they couldn’t go and do it – and that was when I realized I needed to leave. Since then, I’ve lived around the world, seen a lot, learned a lot, and, I’m proud to say, never once starved along the way. I’ve never regretted it. And neither will you if you take the leap.

So say it with me: I’m young, I don’t know better, and I’ve got nothing to lose.