A little while back I read this article published by Michael Siebel from Y Combinator, “Why Should I Start a Startup?”. His story mostly lined up with what I’ve seen and experienced working in the startup world. But there is one part that’s been bothering me for a while, centered around this:
For many people, the longer they work at a big company making a large salary, the higher their personal expenses rise, and the lower their chances will be of starting a startup, even if that is their eventual goal.
The statement is undoubtedly true. But it gets the causality wrong and adds to a pernicious narrative that circulates among the tech “elite”- that larger salaries lead to higher expenses in a push for consumption. I’ve heard Max Levchin refer to it as the “barnacles of good living”, implying character flaws in those who fall into this pattern. While undoubtedly there exist those who fall into the consumption addiction category, this hasn’t been my experience, nor has it been what I’ve observed in those I know, and I don’t believe it to be the norm.
My experience has been the exact opposite: Personal expenses rising have led to higher salaries, not the other way around. Why? Because, over time, life happens. When I was single my expenses were low. I had to feed myself. I had a roommates to share my living expenses with. I had a crappy car to get myself around. And I had ample time to do all the errands I needed and live my life. Over time things have changed. I’ve gone from needing to feed one person to needing to feed two, then three, then four. I needed enough living space for my family, not just myself. I needed a car that could fit the number of living beings that reside in our home, and get them from point A to point B safely. We’ve needed to pay for childcare and for help around the house because there just is not enough time for two working parents to get everything done, earn a living, and make sure that the little humans feel the love they need to develop into well rounded, confident individuals who can contribute positively to society. Every raise I’ve pushed for or higher salaried job I’ve taken has been based on my need to scale my income and cash flow through these different stages, and provide for the needs of those that I love. From the outside I’m not sure you could tell that I make a lot more than I used to. We live in the same house we did 5 years ago, with a mortgage that is fortunately less than the rent we’d pay on a 2 bedroom apartment in SF. We drove the same beat up cars until recently, where we are in the process of trading them both in for the cheapest minivan we could find to fit our growing brood. My clothes are the same, my food is the same, my shoes are the same. But my life is ALOT more expensive.
I’m not writing this to complain. I consider my life to be pretty great. My wife and partner is amazing. My kids are beautiful. We are fortunate to have six(!) very involved, very loving grandparents who dote on their grandchildren and also pitch in and help us out when we need it. I’m fortunate in lots of ways. I just happen to not have had a startup exit under my belt. The first two I was involved with failed. I’m hoping #3 will be different. I might found a startup again one day or I might not. But in the meantime I need to earn enough to live. And I’d love for the consumption addiction narrative to die. It does a disservice to those of us who are working to live and represents lazy thinking on the part of the founders and investors who perpetuate it.