Paul Graham: “Why to Not Not Start a Startup”

by Joey deVilla on March 29, 2007

Box for a computer game called “Start-Up”.

Paul Graham’s latest essay, Why to Not Not Start a Startup has an unwieldy title and is a little bit of a mess. It would seem that Paul can’t make up his mind between making a list of reasons why you shouldn’t start a startup, a list of reasons you really should start a startup and a list of excuses as to why you haven’t started your own startup yet.

However, that’s a minor quibble. If you’re thinking about starting your own startup, forget the thematic mess and just read it. It’s a good list of points to keep in mind.

  1. You’re not an “adult” yet. “There are a lot of adults who still react childishly to challenges, of course. What you don’t often find are kids who react to challenges like adults. When you do, you’ve found an adult, whatever their age.”
  2. You’re too inexperienced. “What really convinced me of this was the Kikos. They started a startup right out of college. Their inexperience caused them to make a lot of mistakes. But by the time we funded their second startup, a year later, they had become extremely formidable. They were certainly not tame animals. And there is no way they’d have grown so much if they’d spent that year working at Microsoft, or even Google. They’d still have been diffident junior programmers.”
  3. You’re not determined enough. “You need a lot of determination to succeed as a startup founder. It’s probably the single best predictor of success.”
  4. You’re not smart enough. “You may need to be moderately smart to succeed as a startup founder. But if you’re worried about this, you’re probably mistaken. If you’re smart enough to worry that you might not be smart enough to start a startup, you probably are…If you don’t think you’re smart enough to start a startup doing something technically difficult, just write enterprise software. Enterprise software companies aren’t technology companies, they’re sales companies, and sales depends mostly on effort.”
  5. You know nothing about business. Not actually a sign that you shouldn’t start a startup, but advice for someone starting one. “This is another variable whose coefficient should be zero. You don’t need to know anything about business to start a startup. The initial focus should be the product. All you need to know in this phase is how to build things people want. If you succeed, you’ll have to think about how to make money from it. But this is so easy you can pick it up on the fly.”
  6. You don’t have a cofounder. “Not having a cofounder is a real problem. A startup is too much for one person to bear. And though we differ from other investors on a lot of questions, we all agree on this. All investors, without exception, are more likely to fund you with a cofounder than without.”
  7. You don’t have an idea. This might not be an obstacle if you’re looking for funding from Y Combinator: “In a sense, it’s not a problem if you don’t have a good idea, because most startups change their idea anyway…In fact, we’re so sure the founders are more important than the initial idea that we’re going to try something new this funding cycle. We’re going to let people apply with no idea at all.”
  8. There’s no more room for more startups. This is also not a sign that you shouldn’t start a startup; this is Paul’s dismissal of the statement that there isn’t room for more startups. “A lot of people look at the ever-increasing number of startups and think ‘this can’t continue.’ Implicit in their thinking is a fallacy: that there is some limit on the number of startups there could be. But this is false. No one claims there’s any limit on the number of people who can work for salary at 1000-person companies. Why should there be any limit on the number who can work for equity at 5-person companies?”
  9. You have a fmaily to support. “This one is real. I wouldn’t advise anyone with a family to start a startup. I’m not saying it’s a bad idea, just that I don’t want to take responsibility for advising it…What you can do, if you have a family and want to start a startup, is start a consulting business you can then gradually turn into a product business…Another way to decrease the risk is to join an existing startup instead of starting your own. Being one of the first employees of a startup is a lot like being a founder, in both the good ways and the bad.”
  10. You’re independently wealthy. “Startups are stressful. Why do it if you don’t need the money? For every ‘serial entrepreneur,’ there are probably twenty sane ones who think ‘Start another company? Are you crazy?'”
  11. You’re not ready for commitment. “If you start a startup that succeeds, it’s going to consume at least three or four years. (If it fails, you’ll be done a lot quicker.) So you shouldn’t do it if you’re not ready for commitments on that scale. Be aware, though, that if you get a regular job, you’ll probably end up working there for as long as a startup would take, and you’ll find you have much less spare time than you might expect. So if you’re ready to clip on that ID badge and go to that orientation session, you may also be ready to start that startup.”
  12. You need structure. “I’m told there are people who need structure in their lives. This seems to be a nice way of saying they need someone to tell them what to do. I believe such people exist. There’s plenty of empirical evidence: armies, religious cults, and so on. They may even be the majority…If you’re one of these people, you probably shouldn’t start a startup. In fact, you probably shouldn’t even go to work for one.”
  13. You’re uncomfortable with uncertainty. “Perhaps some people are deterred from starting startups because they don’t like the uncertainty. If you go to work for Microsoft, you can predict fairly accurately what the next few years will be like—all too accurately, in fact. If you start a startup, anything might happen.”
  14. You don’t realize what you’re avoiding. “One reason people who’ve been out in the world for a year or two make better founders than people straight from college is that they know what they’re avoiding. If their startup fails, they’ll have to get a job, and they know how much jobs suck.”
  15. Your parents want you to be a doctor. “When I was a kid in the seventies, a doctor was the thing to be. There was a sort of golden triangle involving doctors, Mercedes 450SLs, and tennis. All three vertices now seem pretty dated. The parents who want you to be a doctor may simply not realize how much things have changed. Would they be that unhappy if you were Steve Jobs instead? So I think the way to deal with your parents’ opinions about what you should do is to treat them like feature requests. Even if your only goal is to please them, the way to do that is not simply to give them what they ask for. Instead think about why they’re asking for something, and see if there’s a better way to give them what they need.”
  16. You believe that having a job is the default. “This leads us to the last and probably most powerful reason people get regular jobs: it’s the default thing to do. Defaults are enormously powerful, precisely because they operate without any conscious choice…To almost everyone except criminals, it seems an axiom that if you need money, you should get a job. Actually this tradition is not much more than a hundred years old. Before that, the default way to make a living was by farming. It’s a bad plan to treat something only a hundred years old as an axiom. By historical standards, that’s something that’s changing pretty rapidly.

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