On Starting Companies
One Founder’s Take on Entrepeneurship
I spend a suprising amount of time talking to people about starting companies. Startups are where it’s at nowadays, and everyone wants in. “How should I look for an idea for my new startup?” people ask. “How should I approach starting a company?”
Don’t do it.
They look at me funny. “Alex”, they say, “but you’ve done it and it seems to be going well for you.”
Yes, I’ve done it, and yes, everything is going wonderfully well at the moment. The big difference here is that I did it because I felt like I had to. The idea we started with, a way to bring genomics into routine medical practice where it belongs, meant so much to me that not seeing through to the end was not an option. Basically, I had no choice other than to resign from my position and run around from VC to VC like a chicken with its head chopped off just as I hemorrhaged money and watched my savings dwindle.
Startups are a lot like marriages. When people ask me “should I marry him/her” my answer is always “no”. When you meet someone you should marry, you don’t go to your friend Alex for advice, you just know. And you do it.
Starting a company is a thankless and a stressful affair (unless you’ve done this before and have all the right relationships in place to make it easy, in which case you wouldn’t be going to me for advice). Pitching to potential investors is hard work, waiting for that coveted first term-sheet is stressful and demoralizing and frustrating. It’s not that great for you financially, either - if I was after maximizing my income, I’d be playing different games with greater and, more importantly, much safer returns.
Starting a company and watching it grow is also incredibly rewarding. It’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done in my life. The thing is, the rewards only come when you’re married to your idea, when you care deeply about the problem you’re trying to solve, deeply enough to dedicate a significant chunk of your life to it. Without that, it’s just a crappy job that will tire you out and will not pay as well as other options on the table. Sure, there’s a chance to make an appreciable amount of money with a successful exit, but the probability of that is low and the amounts are, in most cases, lower than people think.
When you come across a problem you want to solve so much that it’s burning a hole in your head, when you can’t imagine taking another job and working on something else, by all means start a company and prepare for a lot of pain. Pain is good for you. It builds character.
Until then, just wait. You’ll know it when it hits you.