Alex Payne’s Advice to Young Programmers Considering Startups

alex payneI know Alex Payne from his days on Joi Ito’s IRC channel from about ten years ago, and he’s since gone on to work at some startups you might have heard of, including Simple and this little social media thingy called Twitter. He’s now got his own business with the equal-parts-techy-and-highbrow name Syntax Atelier, which provides technical consulting to early-stage startups. He describes the idea behind it in more detail here.

Earlier this year, he wrote a post on his blog titled Letter to a Young Programmer Considering a Startup. As the platform lead at Twitter in its early years, he gets a fair volume of email from young developers trying to make career decisions, including whether or not to join a startup.

The article, which you should read in full, makes these points that you’re not likely to hear from the startup cheerleader crowd:

  • A startup is just a means to an end. Many people forget that a startup is a category of business and that what the business does, who it serves, how it makes money, and where it takes you are far more important considerations.
  • Startup jobs are the new office jobs; startup culture is now the new corporate culture. Many people choose to work at a startup to break away from the herd mentality of cubicle-bound corporate life, but it turns out that not only does corporate life have its own advantages (I know; I’ve done it myself), but startup life has its own stultifying sameness and herd mentality.
  • Startups are part of the system, not a rebellious wrench in the cogs. They’re just another piece — a high risk one, the hope of making high returns — in an investor’s portfolio. As Alex says, “The machine doesn’t care about you. In fact, the machine is designed with the understanding that most startups will fail, or at most offer unremarkable returns to investors. The majority of the companies in many VC portfolios are acknowledged duds.”
  • There’s a personal cost to being in a startup. Entrepreneurial work is often lonely work. It can also exact a toll on your relationships with friends, family, and lovers.
  • And then, there’s Alex’s summary: “I won’t equivocate: I am deeply skeptical of this system. I’m skeptical of this system’s slavering, self-congratulatory fetishization of “disruption” while so obviously becoming the sort of stolid institution it seeks to displace. I’m skeptical of the startup community’s often short-term outlook. I’m particularly skeptical of its callous disregard for both the lives of the people who participate in it and the lives of those who live in the world that startups seek to reshape. Let’s not even begin to discuss how commonplace collusionprice fixing, and other market-corrupting activities are in the world of VC. The point being: it’s a bad game and a rigged one.”

Since writing that article, he’s refined his ideas, which appear in this talk he gave at the recent Monktoberfest conference. The video’s about an hour long, and it’s worthwhile viewing:

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