Why pursuing your passion in life cannot be contained within a framework called ‘Startup’

We all dream from a very early stage of our lives. Sometimes these dreams are short term, where we wish to achieve something that is not so far from us. And most of the times, we dream of something that’s often far-fetched which we keep carrying with ourselves. Through time and age, our dreams become more mature and we start aspiring to achieving our profound or early childhood dreams at some point in life. As we grow deeply rooted to our own dreams, we become very passionate about how it affects us both while thinking of it or trying to work towards achieving it.

Dreams & Childhood

Being born in a middle class family, and having studied at local Bangla Medium schools, I was already among the millions of young teenagers who had a rather mediocre education throughout the 12 years we spent in primary and secondary schools. Joining university wasn’t much different either, as it was the same peers, who come from similar backgrounds with very limited view of life. Despite that, I was always curious when it comes to personal development and capacity building of our own self. I was always involved with opportunities where I could learn for myself and help others learn new skills in life. Such was the realization that gave birth to my idea, almost 5 years ago, to build an institute or a platform that will connect talented, entrepreneurial, and passionate young people in Bangladesh with experienced individuals, mentors, entrepreneurs, and organizations, both locally and internationally. A platform that will work towards building the capacity of the youth and unlock their real potential through meaningful, curated, and engineered paths within a structured process.

When dreams collide with a broken model

But I was swept away at the very beginning, when I went into giving shape to my idea 5 years from now, as I was introduced with the then global buzz word, ‘startup’. When I bought the website domain for my idea, called InternCity, I even chose a .org domain. The reason behind the .org domain was mainly because of my state of mind at that point in my life. I was very active in the community organizing scene in Dhaka. I was doing social work. I was training and mentoring students at schools and universities. And I had this personal ambition to do good for the people around me, the society we live in, and enabling the dreams of others while chasing the ones I had dreamt for myself. I also had a daytime job that I was happy with, I had great friends, I was in love with a beautiful girl, my family was doing well, and I had no complains in life whatsoever.

Looking backward, I can only imagine myself at that time, trying to pursue an early self-actualization in life, and do something meaningful with my existence.

But the more I started to explore the concept of a ‘startup’, the more I slowed down from my enthusiasm for bringing my idea into a reality. I was given a big list of To-Dos that are basic requirements to starting a startup. And I was told, without following these rules or checkboxes, I won’t be successful. As months went by, I struggled to find a developer who would build the backend of my platform (or just even a website) since I come from purely non-engineering background. I actually realized most developers in Bangladesh hardly have a full-stack development experience, while their ego and demands are as if they are some Zuckerbergs of the world. I was also advised that I have to prepare a business model, a 3 year financial model on a spreadsheet, a 10 slide pitch deck for some ‘angel’ like investors, I have to do an MVP and validate my concept by showing some tractions for a period of 3–6 months. I have to hire a CTO, and/or some co-founders in order to take on the pressure of starting a startup, since quitting my day-time job, burning all my bridges, screwing up my relationship, and losing my friends and families if needed, were also part of sermons I had received. From startup evangelists I met, the endless ‘how-to’s I had read, and valuable wisdom I was bestowed upon by people who never even had experienced building a startup of their own, I was utterly confused and lost!

Present Day, The Epiphany!

Over the last 5 years of my life, I tried launching my dream 3 times, and each time I was far from complete by the standards given by the ‘startup’ rule book. I was so consumed with the theories and recipes around me, that I started fitting in and molding my dream, my ideas, my passion within this framework called ‘startup’. It was more difficult and painful every time I tried to make it right.

What I didn’t observe all these years, being consumed by the ‘startup fever’ like thousands of aspiring young individuals like me, was that the startup model that was preached to us, is by default a broken one. It’s a model where 95% of all startups in the west fail despite all the remedies, 4% of the remaining 5% barely makes money, and only 1% gets to enjoy the actual growth and profit.

I didn’t realize that millions of young people like me, everyday, are throwing their dreams into this incomplete model called ‘startup’ and having an early death of their professional career and personal development. I didn’t realize that I could just launch my idea 5 years ago as it was, without a website or a cofounder or a pitch deck or some angel fund, and continue running like a turtle with my own weight to carry towards a distant finishing line.

> If I had mentored 5 students every month on average, by now I would have mentored 300 students.

> If I had trained 15 students every month on average in my limited capacity, by now I would have trained 900 students.

> If I had built a simple spreadsheet and tracked the growth, personal development and skills of these 900 some students, I could also have them get at least 3 internships and 1 full time jobs, making it a total of 18,000 job placements over the past 5 year timeline.

Bottomline? I have nothing against the idea of startup. I just think that startup is rather a career choice in life. It’s a personal career to build your own business instead of building someone else’s business. It’s a choice to work for self. It is not the only solution for making our dreams happen. It’s not the guiding star to help us achieve what we want to make of ourselves. I just strongly oppose the idea of asking the younger generation to jump into building their startup with the ideas they have while studying or after graduation. My contention is that we will mislead an entire generation by this and will only create much more depressed future generations with too many things going wrong at the foundation of their professional self early on.

Instead, especially in the context of Bangladesh or similar developing economies, if the youth were engaged for few years of strong learning, mentoring, and crafting a few skills of their own, not only they could be ready enough to start building their own ideas but also contribute greatly in the professional job market. The objective here is to differentiate between a personal ambition and the means we use to achieve it.

If Adnan S Fakir, a freelance film maker, wanted to build a film-making ‘startup’ while being a university student, he would have never completed Finding Bangladesh documentary with a bunch of volunteers, working with limited resources and almost no external supports. Not only did he finish the film, it was awarded at an international film festival, received recognition locally and encouraged them to make the Finding Bangladesh 2 (the second installation of the series).

If Ovick Alam, a university first year student back in 2010, wanted to follow the ‘startup’ concepts and rule books to build his first company BridgeWee, a preparation center for English medium students to appear at the Dhaka University, DU admission test (first of it’s kind), he would have never accomplished what he eventually did in the next 4 years by becoming a premiere admission coaching center among the English medium students for DU admission.

If Ejaj Ahmed wanted to build a not for profit ‘startup’ after returning with a degree from Harvard, I doubt if BYLC, the first and only premiere leadership institute in Bangladesh, would’ve existed for the past 6 years and still growing strong.

I can go on and argue about this particular opinion of mine and show enough examples how our ambitions most often cannot be contained within the existing model of launching one’s self or a starting a startup. I have never heard Elon Musk to mention the word startup when talking about his past experiences of building Pay Pal or even ZIP2. I didn’t find Steve Jobs mentioning building a startup when we started Apple or even Pixar, and NeXT in the 80s.

So what’s now for me?

Ever since I got into university 12 years ago, I didn’t stop for a moment to learn beyond my usual scopes of life. Having spent almost 8 years working in 5 different industries throughout my 20s, I had my share of learning, mistakes, and self discovery. But running like a racing horse for the past 12 years taking only 2–3 holidays (I took only 21 days of paid holidays out of 126 in past 6 years!), I felt it was time to take a break and reflect! I needed to decompress, escape from the everyday clutter, enjoy reading, traveling, writing etc before starting my next big endeavor!

Here’s to my second month on my Sabbatical, before I settle for something awesome! And I have an epiphany already!
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