I have some thoughts.
But before I dig into that, let me set the base. My first startup was at the age of 18. I joined the company just as I was entering college. I gave 100 hours each week to that startup, maybe more. We intentionally didn’t keep track. My entire life revolved around it. That’s not hyperbole, literally my entire life. Day and night it consumed my mind and body. I dropped out of school to focus on it full-time. I willingly sacrificed friends, family, relationships and everything else you can think of for over four years. It was my fire.
Okay, now we’re on the same page. Reading through those two articles, you’ll notice a lot of similarities to what I described above. Complete commitment at a very young age to building a startup. It’s commonplace today. Encouraged.
There’s a few reasons for that, in my opinion. First, the web is accessible to anyone, anywhere. As a teen, you don’t have to take some shit job anymore. You can build a startup. Second, there’s capital to support it. A startup can and will be funded by a venture capitalist at (almost) any age. Third, there’s unlimited energy and ignorance, and zero risk at that age to fuel the passion. No family or financials to worry about. And finally, it surrounds you. Everywhere you look, there’s a story about a new teen building the next hot startup. Lists like the Forbes 30 Under 30 (which I was shamelessly on) encourage it. It’s part of the culture.
This is where I’m torn.
On one hand, there’s so much I love about the culture of teens getting into startups. It’s incredibly empowering, at an age when, historically, you had to start at the very bottom of the pile. Startups completely flip that equation on its head. Youth is coveted. The experience provided in a startup environment is unlike anything else. Deep, deep learning. A special bond with the folks you work alongside is created. And the potential, however unlikely, to create a life for yourself and your family that most of these kids could ever dream of, myself included. It’s possible.
But there’s an underbelly to that upside.
Looking back on my time, I feel a number of things. At my core, I feel proud. But when I get past that, I feel regret. Arguably, between the ages and 18 and 25, you’re supposed to live your most carefree life. Party a bit. Date. Make friends. Ignore money. Have some fun without the stress of running a business. Place whatever level of value on that as you wish. When I was in the heat of it, I placed zero value on those things. My startup was where I felt most alive.
Today, I place a lot more. As soon as you start a startup, you’re catapulted into the “real world” and it’s damn hard to leave. Looking back, I feel like I missed out on years that I can never get back. Regardless of how successful I become.
At what cost? Sure, today I may be further ahead than some of my peers. I have more experience than most at my age. I’m battle-tested. But I feel like I missed out on a lot. I’m not sure what, exactly, but something.
That’s the soft impact.
The harder impact is what I’m more concerned with. Depression. The mind is fragile at that age. Close your eyes with me for a second. Imagine being 17, raising money, dropping out of school, moving to Silicon Valley and wait for it, failing, while a handful of your friends that you’ve surrounded yourself with become massively successful entrepreneurs. Think about the impact that would have on you. Seems like it’d have some consequences. Depression and startups have been well documented. As a teen, I believe that risk is heightened.
This depression that I mentioned above lingers for me, still, today. It’s not a debilitating depression, but it’s present. It’s a feeling of not being good enough. Ever. You could make the argument that this feeling would never be there if I hadn’t started so young. You could make the argument that it’d be there regardless. I’m not sure who’d be right. But it exists.
So what’s the right path forward? Like I said, I’m torn. But I do believe that we need to be cognizant of the psychological impact of Silicon Valley’s infatuation with teens and startups. It’s real.
After that thread with Tiffany, I received over a dozen direct messages from 15 year olds, 19 year olds, 22 year olds, all of whom are in the weeds of building their startup. And they’re all worried. They want to know if the depression and anxiety they feel is normal.
The answer is yes.
Like I said when I first read the article on Stefan. Don’t forget to live, kid.