“When are you going to start your own company?”
I get asked this question frequently. I reckon this is because
1. It’s the hot thing to do. There is general startup fever in the tech industry, fueled by particularly eye-catching success stories like Instagram, Dropbox, Airbnb, Pinterest, Square, etc. and easier pathways to entry like idea-less application to YCombinator.
2. I have worked at two early-stage startups now, which may indicate (a) I like / am predispositioned to like startups and/or (b) I have learned something about startups, and actually just see point 1. It’s the hot thing to do.
I have many answers to the implicit “why not now?” but the all-encompassing one is that I ultimately care most about creating value for the world and at this moment starting my own company is not a leading contender as a means to achieve that goal. To rephrase and elaborate:
At this moment I believe I can create more value working as an engineer for someone else’s growing and successful company than starting a company for the sake of starting a company, lacking a mission I’m passionate about, and without as self-sufficient a set of skills, resources, or insights as would give me confidence in my ability to be successful in a meaningful product- and team-building endeavor.
I also believe I can set myself up for creating more value down the line by learning as much as possible about building products and teams in my current environment at Pinterest and in the broader Silicon Valley ecosystem, where I am surrounded by incredible engineers, designers, product managers, community managers, partner managers, marketers, lawyers, HR managers, investors, general-purpose operators and hustlers, mentors, managers, leaders, and everybody else who makes everything happen, as we iterate on and grow products and teams. Here is a good place to be, because it’s where the capital and talent is dense, and ambition and audacity abound.
But that’s not to forget that there are a lot of big problems out there. Outside the bubble of the Valley and its iPads and Teslas and “scrappy” startups with fully stocked microkitchens, there are big gaping holes in the fabric of society left to patch. There is appalling inequity in access to clean water, education, healthcare; across countries, socioeconomic classes, genders, ethnicities — I have been so privileged that I sometimes feel guilty for how much I have and take for granted, but I know that I am learning and that these lessons I am learning will still be imminently useful in a future career more directly guided by achieving social impact.
On the technical side I’m learning now how to build products: how to prototype and build out web and mobile apps, how to design and scale systems and codebases, how to iterate with design and product and community. On the people side I’m learning now how to work with teams, particularly teams that need to grow and are growing, I’m learning about hiring, culture, communication, decision-making, management, leadership.
And even more than all that I’m learning to see the power of technology and where it can take us. I’m learning now how technology can make people’s lives more efficient and delightful and even fully transform them. “Life 2.0" startups a la Uber (“everyone’s private driver”) and Postmates (one-hour on-demand delivery service!) in San Francisco can seem frivolous, services for the 1% or even 0.1%, but they illustrate how technology, artfully applied, can completely change the character of one’s day-to-day schedule — I can see eventual applications of this service model in more efficient job marketplaces. Beautiful apps like Flipboard and Paper don’t really seem necessary for anything, but they push the envelope in user interface and interaction design — I can see eventual applications in intuitive education software designed for self instruction, distributed on cheap tablet devices to the economically disadvantaged, who may not have access to good, if any, teachers or classrooms.
So when am I going to start my own company? I don’t know when, or even if — but if that time does come that I truly believe the most effective way to achieve impact is to start my own company (or non-profit), I hope I’m ready with the skills, resources, and insights to do something great.