TITLE: Undergraduates and Start-Ups AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: October 12, 2006 4:51 PM DESC: ----- BODY: I enjoy following Paul Graham's writings about start-up companies and how to build one. One of my goals the last few years, and especially now as a department head, is to encourage our students to consider entrepreneurship as a career choice. Some students will be much better served, both intellectually and financially, by starting their own companies, and the resulting culture will benefit other students and our local and state business ecosystem. Graham's latest essay suggests that even undergraduate students might consider creating a start-up, and examines the trade-offs among undergrads, grad students, and experiences folks already in the working world. He has a lot more experience with start-ups than I, so I figure his suggestions are at least worth thinking about. Some of his advice is counterintuitive to most undergrads, especially to the undergrads in the more traditional Midwest. At one point, Graham tells students who may want to start their own companies that they probably should not take jobs at places where they will be treated well -- even Google.
I realize this seems odd advice. If they make your life so good that you don't want to leave, why not work there? Because, in effect, you're probably getting a local maximum. You need a certain activation energy to start a startup. So an employer who's fairly pleasant to work for can lull you into staying indefinitely, even if it would be a net win for you to leave.
It's hard for the typical 22-year-old to pass up a comfortable position at a top-notch but staid corporation. Why not enjoy your corporate work until you are ready to start your own company? You can make connections, build experience, learn some patterns and anti-patterns, and save up capital. The reason is that in short order you can create an incredible inertia against moving on -- not the least of which is the habit of receiving a comfortable paycheck each week. Going back to ramen noodles thrice daily is tough after you've had three squares paid for by your boss. I give similar advice to undergrads who say, "I plan to go to graduate school in a few years, after I work for a while." Some folks manage this, but it's harder than it looks to most students. I also give my students a piece of advice similar to another of Graham's suggestions:
Most people look at a company like Apple and think, how could I ever make such a thing? Apple is an institution, and I'm just a person. But every institution was at one point just a handful of people in a room deciding to start something. Institutions are made up, and made up by people no different from you.
The moral is: Don't be intimidated by a great company. Once it was just a few people mostly like us who had an idea and a willingness to make their idea work. I give similar advice about programs that intimidate my students, language interpreters and compilers. One of the morals of my programming languages and compilers courses is that each of these tools is "Just Another Program". Written by a knucklehead just like me. Learn some basic techniques, apply your knowledge of programming and data structures to the various sub-problems faced when building a language processor, and you can write one, too. This reference to professors raises another connection to Graham's advice, regarding how many students who want to create a start-up mistake the implementation of their idea as a commercial product with just a big class project:
That leads to our second difference [between a start-up's product and a class project]: the way class projects are measured. Professors will tend to judge you by the distance between the starting point and where you are now. If someone has achieved a lot, they should get a good grade. But customers will judge you from the other direction: the distance remaining between where you are now and the features they need. The market doesn't give a shit how hard you worked. Users just want your software to do what they need, and you get a zero otherwise. That is one of the most distinctive differences between school and the real world: there is no reward for putting in a good effort. In fact, the whole concept of a "good effort" is a fake idea adults invented to encourage kids. It is not found in nature.
The connection between effort, grade, and learning is not nearly as clean as most students think. Some courses require a lot of effort and require little learning; those are the courses that most of us hate. Sometimes one student has to exert much more effort than another to learn the concepts of a course, or to earn an equivalent grade. Every student starts in a different place, and courses exert different forces on different students. The key is to figure out which courses will best reward hard work -- preferably with maximum learning -- and then focus more of our attention there. Time and energy are scarce quantities, so we usually have to ration them. If an undergraduate knows that she wants to start her own company, she has a head start in making this sort of decision about where to exert their learning efforts:
Another thing you can do [as an undergrad, to prepare to start your own company] is learn skills that will be useful to you in a startup. These may be different from the skills you'd learn to get a job. For example, thinking about getting a job will make you want to learn programming languages you think employers want, like Java and C++. Whereas if you start a startup, you get to pick the language, so you have to think about which will actually let you get the most done. If you use that test you might end up learning Ruby or Python instead.
... or Scheme! (These days, I think I'd go with Ruby.) As in anything else, having some idea about what you want from your future can help you make better decisions about waht you want to do now. I admire young people have a big dream even as undergrads; sometimes they create cool companies. They also make interesting students to have in class, because their goals have a groundedness to them. They ask interesting questions, and sometimes doze off after a long night trying something new out. And even with this lead in making choices, they usually get out into the world and end up thinking, "Boy, I wish I had paid more attention in [some course]." Life is usually more complicated than we expect, even when we try to think ahead. -----