The Electric Typewriter
12 great essays by paul graham, life skills, is it worth being wise, keep your identity small, how to disagree, what you can’t say, good and bad procrastination, the submarine, taste for makers, the acceleration of addictiveness, post-medium publishing.
Words and Writing
The age of the essay, writing, briefly, writing and speaking, see also…, 10 great articles by venkat rao, 12 great articles by gary wolf, subscribe to our email newsletter.
Our favorite Paul Graham Essays
Paul Graham has been a source of wisdom and advice for countless entrepreneurs over the past few decades. He started Y-Combinator, the world’s most successful startup incubator/accelerators and many of the most successful starts today were born at YC – from Dropbox to AirBnB and Stripe. His writings are available for free on his website and below we’ve highlighted a few of our absolute favorites.
How to Write Usefully
What should an essay be? Many people would say persuasive. That’s what a lot of us were taught essays should be. But I think we can aim for something more ambitious: that an essay should be useful. Read More >>
How to Do What You Love
To do something well you have to like it. That idea is not exactly novel. We’ve got it down to four words: “Do what you love.” But it’s not enough just to tell people that. Doing what you love is complicated. Read More >>
Six Principles for Making New Things
Here it is: I like to find (a) simple solutions (b) to overlooked problems (c) that actually need to be solved, and (d) deliver them as informally as possible, (e) starting with a very crude version 1, then (f) iterating rapidly. Read More >>
What Happened to Yahoo
When I went to work for Yahoo after they bought our startup in 1998, it felt like the center of the world. It was supposed to be the next big thing. It was supposed to be what Google turned out to be.
What went wrong? The problems that hosed Yahoo go back a long time, practically to the beginning of the company. They were already very visible when I got there in 1998. Yahoo had two problems Google didn’t: easy money, and ambivalence about being a technology company. Read More >>
The Age of the Essay
The most obvious difference between real essays and the things one has to write in school is that real essays are not exclusively about English literature. Certainly schools should teach students how to write. But due to a series of historical accidents the teaching of writing has gotten mixed together with the study of literature. And so all over the country students are writing not about how a baseball team with a small budget might compete with the Yankees, or the role of color in fashion, or what constitutes a good dessert, but about symbolism in Dickens.
With the result that writing is made to seem boring and pointless. Who cares about symbolism in Dickens? Dickens himself would be more interested in an essay about color or baseball. Read More >>
What role has risk played in your life and career?
Perspectives on Success
Thinking through the first steps of starting a business
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Meet Maitejosune Urrechaga Tony Kapel: Pocket Of Lollipops (musician)
Decision Makers Series: to start or to not to start
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Books Recommended By
The Lord of the Rings
J.r.r. tolkien, recommended by.
Elon Musk: "I know it's cliche, but Lord of the Rings is my favorite book ever."
Naval Ravikant: "Loved Lord of The Rings and other fiction when [I was] younger."
As a teenager, Peter Thiel's favorite book was 'The Lord of the Rings,' which he read again and again.
Paul Graham's answer to "Any book recommendations for young adults?"
Reid Hoffman: "The book that I’ve most often read is Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
Because it’s so important to show this journey of these hobbits, these little people in a hero’s journey about how you can change the world within a context where Tolkien is fairly sophisticated around the questions of the corruption of power, the intersection of races, and the needs for us all to work together."
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
Paul Graham: "It's a great book, probably in my all time top 100."
Elon Musk: "[Benjamin Franklin] was an entrepreneur. He started from nothing. Basically just a runaway kid."
Charlie Munger recommended 'The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin' in his book Poor Charlie's Almanack.
Included on Jamie Dimon's list of favorite books he sent to JP Morgan summer interns in 2010.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Robert m. pirsig.
Fred Wilson: "A great one"
Austen Allred: "[One of the books] that has inspired me the most or changed the way I live."
Paul Graham mentioned this book on Twitter.
Paul Graham: "Hard Drive, about Microsoft, is good."
The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress
One of Elon Musk's favorite books about space.
Paul Graham: "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress made me want to work on AI, which led to Lisp."
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
Mark Zuckerberg: "It's a history of science book that explores the question of whether science and technology make consistent forward progress or whether progress comes in bursts related to other social forces."
Paul Graham mentioned re-reading this book on Twitter.
The Art of War in the Middle Ages
One of Paul Graham's answers to "What should I read to learn more about history?"
One of Sam Altman's recommended books for young startup founders.
The Old Way
Elizabeth marshall thomas.
Paul Graham: "If you want to learn more about hunter gatherers I strongly recommend Elizabeth Marshall Thomas's 'The Old Way'."
This book was on Sam Altman's bookshelf.
Founders at Work
Alexis Ohanian: "A bunch of really great interviews [Jessica] did with a bunch of just OGs of entrepreneurship. I am begging her to do a second book because the first one is just a must read."
Paul Graham: "It is probably the single most valuable book a startup founder could read."
Medieval Technology and Social Change
Paul Graham: "White's Medieval Technology and Social Change is the most fabulous book."
Sam Altman: "It really is great."
My Family and Other Animals
Paul Graham: "It is a wonderful book"
One of Matt Ridley's all-time favorite books that he recommends to everybody.
Guns, Sails, and Empires
Carlo m. cipolla.
Paul Graham: "Amazing"
Sam Altman: "It was excellent!"
Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs
Paul Graham: "This is one of the great classics of computer science.
I bought my first copy 15 years ago, and I still don't feel I have learned everything the book has to teach."
Max Levchin: "Easier to read [than 'The Art of Computer Programming'] end-to-end quickly."
The Soul of A New Machine
Fred Wilson: "I love Kidder’s book. First it is a story. Second it captures the passion of engineers who are driven to ship a revolutionary product. Great read"
One of Paul Graham's answers to 'Do you know of any good books about startups?'
The Double Helix
James d. watson ph.d..
Paul Graham: "The most impressive feature of The Double Helix is how much Watson admits he didn't know.
He's constantly talking about papers he couldn't understand and important concepts he didn't grasp."
Matt Ridley: "[This book] gave me the important message — which my teachers had somehow mostly missed telling me — that science is not a catalog of facts, but the search for new and bigger mysteries."
How To Win Friends and Influence People
Paul Graham: "The one book we encourage startup founders to read is Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People .
It's critically important for anyone in business."
One of Sahil Lavingia's most recommended books.
The Origin of Species
Matt Ridley: "Books about science tend to fall into two categories: those that explain it to lay people in the hope of cultivating a wide readership, and those that try to persuade fellow scientists to support a new theory, usually with equations.
Books that achieve both — changing science and reaching the public — are rare. Charles Darwin's 'On the Origin of Species' was one."
Paul Graham mentioned 'The Origin of Species' on Twitter.
The Ancient City
Paul Graham: "Peter Connolly's The Ancient City is one of the best books I've found for explaining history to kids."
Marc Andreessen mentioned The Ancient City on Twitter.
One of Richard Branson's top books to read in a lifetime.
Paul Graham: "[My kids and I] have already read 'The Hobbit' twice."
The Power Law
Paul Graham: "If you want to understand how venture capital works and the effect it has had on the US economy, this is the book to read.
Lots of people talk about VC. Few of them understand it. But Mallaby does."
Patrick Collison: "By far the best book I've read on the sector."
Paul Graham: "It's a rare combination of broad historical panorama and all-too-topical bestseller.
There are interesting insights on every page."
Paul Graham: "If you read books, read William Finnegan's Barbarian Days.
It's one of those rare books that divide your life into two parts: before you read it, and after."
A Sense of Where You Are
Paul Graham's answer to 'What’s the most beautiful book you’ve ever read?'"
A Mathematician's Apology
G. h. hardy.
Paul Graham: "Among the most inspiring books I know."
A History of Rome
One of Paul Graham's answers to 'What should I read to learn more about history?'
Paul Graham: "While there are many popular books on math, few seem good.
The best I can think of are W. W. Sawyer's. And of course Euclid."
The Making of Europe
Paul Graham: "I know I've recommended this book already, but it's so good I have to do it again.
Bartlett brings history to life by explaining how and why the things happened that other books merely tell you happened."
Very Good, Jeeves
P. g. wodehouse.
Paul Graham: "Wodehouse is so good that I get distracted by his perfection. Not a word wrong."
Harry g. frankfurt.
Paul Graham mentioned 'On Bullshit' in this essay.
Paul Graham: "Banesh Hoffman's biography of Einstein is the most exciting I've read.
The author is a physicist who is genuinely excited about Einstein's discoveries, and it moves fast instead of trying to leave no detail unpublished."
The World We Have Lost
Fall of Constantinople
The Lives of the Artists
The Extension of Man
A Story Lately Told
Paul Graham: "Anjelica Huston's Story Lately Told is wonderful."
The German Generals Talk
Basil h. liddell hart.
One of Paul Graham's answers to 'What’s your favorite book that almost nobody else knows or talks about?'
Clocks and Culture
Paul Graham: "I recommend Clocks and Culture"
How to Be Topp
Paul Graham: "I read this during dinner and laughed so much that people must have wondered what was wrong with me."
History of the World
Plagues and Peoples
Paul Graham: "I suspect if you'd read Guns, Sails, and Empires and Plagues and Peoples, little in Guns, Germs, and Steel would surprise you."
No Easy Day
Paul Graham: "Simultaneously reading Rousseau's Confessions and No Easy Day. Triangulating..."
An Autobiography of Anthony Trollope
Paul Graham: "Trollope's Autobiography is a wonderfully candid and inspiring one"
Clarence L. Johnson
Paul Graham: "How did I not know about this book til now?"
Mohammed and Charlemagne
Richard Feynman: A Life In Science
Paul Graham: "Excellent biography"
The Man Who Knew Infinity
Paul Graham: "Great biography of Ramanujan."
The Battle of Alcazar
Paul Graham: "Excellent"
The Complete Sherlock Holmes
Arthur conan doyle.
Paul Graham: "Few thoughts happier than realizing it's been long enough since you last read the Sherlocks Holmes stories that you can read them again."
Paul Graham: "Dog Man is aimed at 5-10 year olds."
The Complete Calvin and Hobbes
Paul Graham: "Watterson is like Wodehouse. Because he works in an unpretentious medium, few realize how timelessly great he is."
Paul Graham: "Hugh Popham's Sea Flight is a wonderful book.
I'm looking at the few pages left and wishing there were more."
The Quest for El Cid
One of Paul Graham's answers to 'Are there any books on medieval history you can recommend?'
Life in the English Country House
Paul Graham: "Flying Start is a wonderful book."
Memoirs or Chronicle of the Fourth Crusade and the Conquest of Constantinople
Geoffrey de villehardouin.
Paul Graham: "I've read Villehardouin's chronicle of the Fourth Crusade at least two times, maybe three."
Concorde: The Inside Story
Paul Graham mentioned 'Concorde: The Inside Story' on Twitter.
The Autobiography of Charles Darwin
Paul Graham mentioned Charles Darwin's autobiography on Twitter.
Paul Graham: "Fletcher's 'Moorish Spain' is a great book."
Maisy Mouse Collection
Paul Graham: "My favorite books for bedtime reading to 2 year olds"
Paul Graham's answer to 'What are your favourite books with a politics very different to your own?'
Paul Graham recommended 'Born Red' on Twitter.
Paul Graham: "A book that will be deeply pleasing to [its] respective audience"
The Harmless People
Paul Graham: "If you want to learn more about hunter gatherers I strongly recommend Elizabeth Marshall Thomas's The Harmless People"
Fauna & Family
Paul Graham: "So good I'm reading slow to make it last."
The Fry Chronicles
Paul Graham: "As perfect as Wodehouse."
The Complete Novels of Jane Austen
Paul Graham's answer to 'Examples of books that you reread years later, & found to be much better?'
The Inimitable Jeeves
Paul Graham's answer to 'Which P. G. Wodehouse book do you recommend?'
Paul Graham mentioned reading this book on Twitter.
Diocletian and the Roman Recovery
Paul Graham: "One of the best books about the late 3rd century"
The Gallic Wars
Sunset at Blandings
Paul Graham: "The writing in the novel Wodehouse left unfinished when he died at 93 is crisp as ever."
With the Old Breed
E. b. sledge.
Paul Graham: "Read this book"
The Copernican Revolution
Thomas s. kuhn.
Paul Graham: "Kuhn was surely most influenced by the Copernican Revolution. Excellent book incidentally."
Paul Graham mentioned the Harry Potter collection on Twitter.
Moab Is My Washpot
Paul Graham's answer to 'Which Stephen Fry book do you recommend?'
Memoirs of My Life
Paul Graham mentioned Edward Gibbon's autobiography on Twitter.
The Oxford History of Britain: Roman and Anglo-Saxon Britain
Paul Graham: "Salway and Blair's 'Roman and Anglo-Saxon Britain' is really excellent."
The New Penguin Atlas of Ancient History
Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy
The Golden Trade of the Moors
E. w. bovill.
My Forty Years with Ford
Charles e sorensen.
Paul Graham: "I particularly liked Sorensen's My Forty Years with Ford ."
The Gun Seller
Good Night, Little Bear
Paul Graham: "I loved that book"
The Conquest of Gaul
Paul Graham: "One of my favorite autobiographical works"
The Persian Expedition
I Want To Be A Mathematician
Paul Graham: "Paul Halmos's autobiography, I Want to Be a Mathematician, is a very pleasing book.
I don't understand all the math, but it's clear he'd be an amusing guy to know."
From Galileo to Newton
A. rupert hall.
Paul Graham: "One of the best books I've read on the history of science"
Sailing Alone Around The World
Paul Graham: "Slocum's Sailing Alone Around the World is great.
As well as being the first to sail single-handed around the world, he writes with such humor and directness that this may also be the best book on sailing period."
Most Recommended Investing Books
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Paul Graham's best essays
How to make wealth, if you wanted to get rich, how would you do it i think your best bet would be to start or join a startup. that's been a reliable way to get rich for hundreds of years. the word "startup" dates from the 1960s, but what happens in one is very similar to the venture-backed trading voyages of the middle ages [...], how to start a startup, you need three things to create a successful startup: to start with good people, to make something customers actually want, and to spend as little money as possible. most startups that fail do it because they fail at one of these. a startup that does all three will probably succeed [...], hiring is obsolete, the three big powers on the internet now are yahoo, google, and microsoft. average age of their founders: 24. so it is pretty well established now that grad students can start successful companies. and if grad students can do it, why not undergrads [...], the hardest lessons for startups to learn, the startups we've funded so far are pretty quick, but they seem quicker to learn some lessons than others. i think it's because some things about startups are kind of counterintuitive [...], the 18 mistakes that kill startups, in the q & a period after a recent talk, someone asked what made startups fail. after standing there gaping for a few seconds i realized this was kind of a trick question. it's equivalent to asking how to make a startup succeed—if you avoid every cause of failure, you succeed—and that's too big a question to answer on the fly., why to not not start a startup, we've now been doing y combinator long enough to have some data about success rates. our first batch, in the summer of 2005, had eight startups in it. of those eight, it now looks as if at least four succeeded. three have been acquired: reddit was a merger of two, reddit and infogami, and a third was acquired that we can't talk about yet. another from that batch was loopt, which is doing so well they could probably be acquired in about ten minutes if they wanted to [...], holding a program in one's head, a good programmer working intensively on his own code can hold it in his mind the way a mathematician holds a problem he's working on. mathematicians don't answer questions by working them out on paper the way schoolchildren are taught to [...], cities and ambition, great cities attract ambitious people. you can sense it when you walk around one. in a hundred subtle ways, the city sends you a message: you could do more; you should try harder [...], relentlessly resourceful, a couple days ago i finally got being a good startup founder down to two words: relentlessly resourceful [...], what startups are really like, i wasn't sure what to talk about at startup school, so i decided to ask the founders of the startups we'd funded. what hadn't i written about yeti'm in the unusual position of being able to test the essays i write about startups. i hope the ones on other topics are right, but i have no way to test them. the ones on startups get tested by about 70 people every 6 months [...].
(This essay was originally published in Hackers & Painters .)
If you wanted to get rich, how would you do it? I think your best bet would be to start or join a startup. That's been a reliable way to get rich for hundreds of years. The word "startup" dates from the 1960s, but what happens in one is very similar to the venture-backed trading voyages of the Middle Ages.
Startups usually involve technology, so much so that the phrase "high-tech startup" is almost redundant. A startup is a small company that takes on a hard technical problem.
Lots of people get rich knowing nothing more than that. You don't have to know physics to be a good pitcher. But I think it could give you an edge to understand the underlying principles. Why do startups have to be small? Will a startup inevitably stop being a startup as it grows larger? And why do they so often work on developing new technology? Why are there so many startups selling new drugs or computer software, and none selling corn oil or laundry detergent?
Economically, you can think of a startup as a way to compress your whole working life into a few years. Instead of working at a low intensity for forty years, you work as hard as you possibly can for four. This pays especially well in technology, where you earn a premium for working fast.
Here is a brief sketch of the economic proposition. If you're a good hacker in your mid twenties, you can get a job paying about $80,000 per year. So on average such a hacker must be able to do at least $80,000 worth of work per year for the company just to break even. You could probably work twice as many hours as a corporate employee, and if you focus you can probably get three times as much done in an hour. [ 1 ] You should get another multiple of two, at least, by eliminating the drag of the pointy-haired middle manager who would be your boss in a big company. Then there is one more multiple: how much smarter are you than your job description expects you to be? Suppose another multiple of three. Combine all these multipliers, and I'm claiming you could be 36 times more productive than you're expected to be in a random corporate job. [ 2 ] If a fairly good hacker is worth $80,000 a year at a big company, then a smart hacker working very hard without any corporate bullshit to slow him down should be able to do work worth about $3 million a year.
Like all back-of-the-envelope calculations, this one has a lot of wiggle room. I wouldn't try to defend the actual numbers. But I stand by the structure of the calculation. I'm not claiming the multiplier is precisely 36, but it is certainly more than 10, and probably rarely as high as 100.
If $3 million a year seems high, remember that we're talking about the limit case: the case where you not only have zero leisure time but indeed work so hard that you endanger your health.
Startups are not magic. They don't change the laws of wealth creation. They just represent a point at the far end of the curve. There is a conservation law at work here: if you want to make a million dollars, you have to endure a million dollars' worth of pain. For example, one way to make a million dollars would be to work for the Post Office your whole life, and save every penny of your salary. Imagine the stress of working for the Post Office for fifty years. In a startup you compress all this stress into three or four years. You do tend to get a certain bulk discount if you buy the economy-size pain, but you can't evade the fundamental conservation law. If starting a startup were easy, everyone would do it.
Millions, not Billions
If $3 million a year seems high to some people, it will seem low to others. Three million? How do I get to be a billionaire, like Bill Gates?
So let's get Bill Gates out of the way right now. It's not a good idea to use famous rich people as examples, because the press only write about the very richest, and these tend to be outliers. Bill Gates is a smart, determined, and hardworking man, but you need more than that to make as much money as he has. You also need to be very lucky.
There is a large random factor in the success of any company. So the guys you end up reading about in the papers are the ones who are very smart, totally dedicated, and win the lottery. Certainly Bill is smart and dedicated, but Microsoft also happens to have been the beneficiary of one of the most spectacular blunders in the history of business: the licensing deal for DOS. No doubt Bill did everything he could to steer IBM into making that blunder, and he has done an excellent job of exploiting it, but if there had been one person with a brain on IBM's side, Microsoft's future would have been very different. Microsoft at that stage had little leverage over IBM. They were effectively a component supplier. If IBM had required an exclusive license, as they should have, Microsoft would still have signed the deal. It would still have meant a lot of money for them, and IBM could easily have gotten an operating system elsewhere.
Instead IBM ended up using all its power in the market to give Microsoft control of the PC standard. From that point, all Microsoft had to do was execute. They never had to bet the company on a bold decision. All they had to do was play hardball with licensees and copy more innovative products reasonably promptly.
If IBM hadn't made this mistake, Microsoft would still have been a successful company, but it could not have grown so big so fast. Bill Gates would be rich, but he'd be somewhere near the bottom of the Forbes 400 with the other guys his age.
There are a lot of ways to get rich, and this essay is about only one of them. This essay is about how to make money by creating wealth and getting paid for it. There are plenty of other ways to get money, including chance, speculation, marriage, inheritance, theft, extortion, fraud, monopoly, graft, lobbying, counterfeiting, and prospecting. Most of the greatest fortunes have probably involved several of these.
The advantage of creating wealth, as a way to get rich, is not just that it's more legitimate (many of the other methods are now illegal) but that it's more straightforward. You just have to do something people want.
Money Is Not Wealth
If you want to create wealth, it will help to understand what it is. Wealth is not the same thing as money. [ 3 ] Wealth is as old as human history. Far older, in fact; ants have wealth. Money is a comparatively recent invention.
Wealth is the fundamental thing. Wealth is stuff we want: food, clothes, houses, cars, gadgets, travel to interesting places, and so on. You can have wealth without having money. If you had a magic machine that could on command make you a car or cook you dinner or do your laundry, or do anything else you wanted, you wouldn't need money. Whereas if you were in the middle of Antarctica, where there is nothing to buy, it wouldn't matter how much money you had.
Wealth is what you want, not money. But if wealth is the important thing, why does everyone talk about making money? It is a kind of shorthand: money is a way of moving wealth, and in practice they are usually interchangeable. But they are not the same thing, and unless you plan to get rich by counterfeiting, talking about making money can make it harder to understand how to make money.
Money is a side effect of specialization. In a specialized society, most of the things you need, you can't make for yourself. If you want a potato or a pencil or a place to live, you have to get it from someone else.
How do you get the person who grows the potatoes to give you some? By giving him something he wants in return. But you can't get very far by trading things directly with the people who need them. If you make violins, and none of the local farmers wants one, how will you eat?
The solution societies find, as they get more specialized, is to make the trade into a two-step process. Instead of trading violins directly for potatoes, you trade violins for, say, silver, which you can then trade again for anything else you need. The intermediate stuff-- the medium of exchange -- can be anything that's rare and portable. Historically metals have been the most common, but recently we've been using a medium of exchange, called the dollar , that doesn't physically exist. It works as a medium of exchange, however, because its rarity is guaranteed by the U.S. Government.
The advantage of a medium of exchange is that it makes trade work. The disadvantage is that it tends to obscure what trade really means. People think that what a business does is make money. But money is just the intermediate stage-- just a shorthand-- for whatever people want. What most businesses really do is make wealth. They do something people want. [ 4 ]
The Pie Fallacy
A surprising number of people retain from childhood the idea that there is a fixed amount of wealth in the world. There is, in any normal family, a fixed amount of money at any moment. But that's not the same thing.
When wealth is talked about in this context, it is often described as a pie. "You can't make the pie larger," say politicians. When you're talking about the amount of money in one family's bank account, or the amount available to a government from one year's tax revenue, this is true. If one person gets more, someone else has to get less.
I can remember believing, as a child, that if a few rich people had all the money, it left less for everyone else. Many people seem to continue to believe something like this well into adulthood. This fallacy is usually there in the background when you hear someone talking about how x percent of the population have y percent of the wealth. If you plan to start a startup, then whether you realize it or not, you're planning to disprove the Pie Fallacy.
What leads people astray here is the abstraction of money. Money is not wealth. It's just something we use to move wealth around. So although there may be, in certain specific moments (like your family, this month) a fixed amount of money available to trade with other people for things you want, there is not a fixed amount of wealth in the world. You can make more wealth. Wealth has been getting created and destroyed (but on balance, created) for all of human history.
Suppose you own a beat-up old car. Instead of sitting on your butt next summer, you could spend the time restoring your car to pristine condition. In doing so you create wealth. The world is-- and you specifically are-- one pristine old car the richer. And not just in some metaphorical way. If you sell your car, you'll get more for it.
In restoring your old car you have made yourself richer. You haven't made anyone else poorer. So there is obviously not a fixed pie. And in fact, when you look at it this way, you wonder why anyone would think there was. [ 5 ]
Kids know, without knowing they know, that they can create wealth. If you need to give someone a present and don't have any money, you make one. But kids are so bad at making things that they consider home-made presents to be a distinct, inferior, sort of thing to store-bought ones-- a mere expression of the proverbial thought that counts. And indeed, the lumpy ashtrays we made for our parents did not have much of a resale market.
The people most likely to grasp that wealth can be created are the ones who are good at making things, the craftsmen. Their hand-made objects become store-bought ones. But with the rise of industrialization there are fewer and fewer craftsmen. One of the biggest remaining groups is computer programmers.
A programmer can sit down in front of a computer and create wealth . A good piece of software is, in itself, a valuable thing. There is no manufacturing to confuse the issue. Those characters you type are a complete, finished product. If someone sat down and wrote a web browser that didn't suck (a fine idea, by the way), the world would be that much richer. [ 5b ]
Everyone in a company works together to create wealth, in the sense of making more things people want. Many of the employees (e.g. the people in the mailroom or the personnel department) work at one remove from the actual making of stuff. Not the programmers. They literally think the product, one line at a time. And so it's clearer to programmers that wealth is something that's made, rather than being distributed, like slices of a pie, by some imaginary Daddy.
It's also obvious to programmers that there are huge variations in the rate at which wealth is created. At Viaweb we had one programmer who was a sort of monster of productivity. I remember watching what he did one long day and estimating that he had added several hundred thousand dollars to the market value of the company. A great programmer, on a roll, could create a million dollars worth of wealth in a couple weeks. A mediocre programmer over the same period will generate zero or even negative wealth (e.g. by introducing bugs).
This is why so many of the best programmers are libertarians. In our world, you sink or swim, and there are no excuses. When those far removed from the creation of wealth-- undergraduates, reporters, politicians-- hear that the richest 5% of the people have half the total wealth, they tend to think injustice! An experienced programmer would be more likely to think is that all? The top 5% of programmers probably write 99% of the good software.
Wealth can be created without being sold. Scientists, till recently at least, effectively donated the wealth they created. We are all richer for knowing about penicillin, because we're less likely to die from infections. Wealth is whatever people want, and not dying is certainly something we want. Hackers often donate their work by writing open source software that anyone can use for free. I am much the richer for the operating system FreeBSD, which I'm running on the computer I'm using now, and so is Yahoo, which runs it on all their servers.
What a Job Is
In industrialized countries, people belong to one institution or another at least until their twenties. After all those years you get used to the idea of belonging to a group of people who all get up in the morning, go to some set of buildings, and do things that they do not, ordinarily, enjoy doing. Belonging to such a group becomes part of your identity: name, age, role, institution. If you have to introduce yourself, or someone else describes you, it will be as something like, John Smith, age 10, a student at such and such elementary school, or John Smith, age 20, a student at such and such college.
When John Smith finishes school he is expected to get a job. And what getting a job seems to mean is joining another institution. Superficially it's a lot like college. You pick the companies you want to work for and apply to join them. If one likes you, you become a member of this new group. You get up in the morning and go to a new set of buildings, and do things that you do not, ordinarily, enjoy doing. There are a few differences: life is not as much fun, and you get paid, instead of paying, as you did in college. But the similarities feel greater than the differences. John Smith is now John Smith, 22, a software developer at such and such corporation.
In fact John Smith's life has changed more than he realizes. Socially, a company looks much like college, but the deeper you go into the underlying reality, the more different it gets.
What a company does, and has to do if it wants to continue to exist, is earn money. And the way most companies make money is by creating wealth. Companies can be so specialized that this similarity is concealed, but it is not only manufacturing companies that create wealth. A big component of wealth is location. Remember that magic machine that could make you cars and cook you dinner and so on? It would not be so useful if it delivered your dinner to a random location in central Asia. If wealth means what people want, companies that move things also create wealth. Ditto for many other kinds of companies that don't make anything physical. Nearly all companies exist to do something people want.
And that's what you do, as well, when you go to work for a company. But here there is another layer that tends to obscure the underlying reality. In a company, the work you do is averaged together with a lot of other people's. You may not even be aware you're doing something people want. Your contribution may be indirect. But the company as a whole must be giving people something they want, or they won't make any money. And if they are paying you x dollars a year, then on average you must be contributing at least x dollars a year worth of work, or the company will be spending more than it makes, and will go out of business.
Someone graduating from college thinks, and is told, that he needs to get a job, as if the important thing were becoming a member of an institution. A more direct way to put it would be: you need to start doing something people want. You don't need to join a company to do that. All a company is is a group of people working together to do something people want. It's doing something people want that matters, not joining the group. [ 6 ]
For most people the best plan probably is to go to work for some existing company. But it is a good idea to understand what's happening when you do this. A job means doing something people want, averaged together with everyone else in that company.
That averaging gets to be a problem. I think the single biggest problem afflicting large companies is the difficulty of assigning a value to each person's work. For the most part they punt. In a big company you get paid a fairly predictable salary for working fairly hard. You're expected not to be obviously incompetent or lazy, but you're not expected to devote your whole life to your work.
It turns out, though, that there are economies of scale in how much of your life you devote to your work. In the right kind of business, someone who really devoted himself to work could generate ten or even a hundred times as much wealth as an average employee. A programmer, for example, instead of chugging along maintaining and updating an existing piece of software, could write a whole new piece of software, and with it create a new source of revenue.
Companies are not set up to reward people who want to do this. You can't go to your boss and say, I'd like to start working ten times as hard, so will you please pay me ten times as much? For one thing, the official fiction is that you are already working as hard as you can. But a more serious problem is that the company has no way of measuring the value of your work.
Salesmen are an exception. It's easy to measure how much revenue they generate, and they're usually paid a percentage of it. If a salesman wants to work harder, he can just start doing it, and he will automatically get paid proportionally more.
There is one other job besides sales where big companies can hire first-rate people: in the top management jobs. And for the same reason: their performance can be measured. The top managers are held responsible for the performance of the entire company. Because an ordinary employee's performance can't usually be measured, he is not expected to do more than put in a solid effort. Whereas top management, like salespeople, have to actually come up with the numbers. The CEO of a company that tanks cannot plead that he put in a solid effort. If the company does badly, he's done badly.
A company that could pay all its employees so straightforwardly would be enormously successful. Many employees would work harder if they could get paid for it. More importantly, such a company would attract people who wanted to work especially hard. It would crush its competitors.
Unfortunately, companies can't pay everyone like salesmen. Salesmen work alone. Most employees' work is tangled together. Suppose a company makes some kind of consumer gadget. The engineers build a reliable gadget with all kinds of new features; the industrial designers design a beautiful case for it; and then the marketing people convince everyone that it's something they've got to have. How do you know how much of the gadget's sales are due to each group's efforts? Or, for that matter, how much is due to the creators of past gadgets that gave the company a reputation for quality? There's no way to untangle all their contributions. Even if you could read the minds of the consumers, you'd find these factors were all blurred together.
If you want to go faster, it's a problem to have your work tangled together with a large number of other people's. In a large group, your performance is not separately measurable-- and the rest of the group slows you down.
Measurement and Leverage
To get rich you need to get yourself in a situation with two things, measurement and leverage. You need to be in a position where your performance can be measured, or there is no way to get paid more by doing more. And you have to have leverage, in the sense that the decisions you make have a big effect.
Measurement alone is not enough. An example of a job with measurement but not leverage is doing piecework in a sweatshop. Your performance is measured and you get paid accordingly, but you have no scope for decisions. The only decision you get to make is how fast you work, and that can probably only increase your earnings by a factor of two or three.
An example of a job with both measurement and leverage would be lead actor in a movie. Your performance can be measured in the gross of the movie. And you have leverage in the sense that your performance can make or break it.
CEOs also have both measurement and leverage. They're measured, in that the performance of the company is their performance. And they have leverage in that their decisions set the whole company moving in one direction or another.
I think everyone who gets rich by their own efforts will be found to be in a situation with measurement and leverage. Everyone I can think of does: CEOs, movie stars, hedge fund managers, professional athletes. A good hint to the presence of leverage is the possibility of failure. Upside must be balanced by downside, so if there is big potential for gain there must also be a terrifying possibility of loss. CEOs, stars, fund managers, and athletes all live with the sword hanging over their heads; the moment they start to suck, they're out. If you're in a job that feels safe, you are not going to get rich, because if there is no danger there is almost certainly no leverage.
But you don't have to become a CEO or a movie star to be in a situation with measurement and leverage. All you need to do is be part of a small group working on a hard problem.
Smallness = Measurement
If you can't measure the value of the work done by individual employees, you can get close. You can measure the value of the work done by small groups.
One level at which you can accurately measure the revenue generated by employees is at the level of the whole company. When the company is small, you are thereby fairly close to measuring the contributions of individual employees. A viable startup might only have ten employees, which puts you within a factor of ten of measuring individual effort.
Starting or joining a startup is thus as close as most people can get to saying to one's boss, I want to work ten times as hard, so please pay me ten times as much. There are two differences: you're not saying it to your boss, but directly to the customers (for whom your boss is only a proxy after all), and you're not doing it individually, but along with a small group of other ambitious people.
It will, ordinarily, be a group. Except in a few unusual kinds of work, like acting or writing books, you can't be a company of one person. And the people you work with had better be good, because it's their work that yours is going to be averaged with.
A big company is like a giant galley driven by a thousand rowers. Two things keep the speed of the galley down. One is that individual rowers don't see any result from working harder. The other is that, in a group of a thousand people, the average rower is likely to be pretty average.
If you took ten people at random out of the big galley and put them in a boat by themselves, they could probably go faster. They would have both carrot and stick to motivate them. An energetic rower would be encouraged by the thought that he could have a visible effect on the speed of the boat. And if someone was lazy, the others would be more likely to notice and complain.
But the real advantage of the ten-man boat shows when you take the ten best rowers out of the big galley and put them in a boat together. They will have all the extra motivation that comes from being in a small group. But more importantly, by selecting that small a group you can get the best rowers. Each one will be in the top 1%. It's a much better deal for them to average their work together with a small group of their peers than to average it with everyone.
That's the real point of startups. Ideally, you are getting together with a group of other people who also want to work a lot harder, and get paid a lot more, than they would in a big company. And because startups tend to get founded by self-selecting groups of ambitious people who already know one another (at least by reputation), the level of measurement is more precise than you get from smallness alone. A startup is not merely ten people, but ten people like you.
Steve Jobs once said that the success or failure of a startup depends on the first ten employees. I agree. If anything, it's more like the first five. Being small is not, in itself, what makes startups kick butt, but rather that small groups can be select. You don't want small in the sense of a village, but small in the sense of an all-star team.
The larger a group, the closer its average member will be to the average for the population as a whole. So all other things being equal, a very able person in a big company is probably getting a bad deal, because his performance is dragged down by the overall lower performance of the others. Of course, all other things often are not equal: the able person may not care about money, or may prefer the stability of a large company. But a very able person who does care about money will ordinarily do better to go off and work with a small group of peers.
Technology = Leverage
Startups offer anyone a way to be in a situation with measurement and leverage. They allow measurement because they're small, and they offer leverage because they make money by inventing new technology.
What is technology? It's technique . It's the way we all do things. And when you discover a new way to do things, its value is multiplied by all the people who use it. It is the proverbial fishing rod, rather than the fish. That's the difference between a startup and a restaurant or a barber shop. You fry eggs or cut hair one customer at a time. Whereas if you solve a technical problem that a lot of people care about, you help everyone who uses your solution. That's leverage.
If you look at history, it seems that most people who got rich by creating wealth did it by developing new technology. You just can't fry eggs or cut hair fast enough. What made the Florentines rich in 1200 was the discovery of new techniques for making the high-tech product of the time, fine woven cloth. What made the Dutch rich in 1600 was the discovery of shipbuilding and navigation techniques that enabled them to dominate the seas of the Far East.
Fortunately there is a natural fit between smallness and solving hard problems. The leading edge of technology moves fast. Technology that's valuable today could be worthless in a couple years. Small companies are more at home in this world, because they don't have layers of bureaucracy to slow them down. Also, technical advances tend to come from unorthodox approaches, and small companies are less constrained by convention.
Big companies can develop technology. They just can't do it quickly. Their size makes them slow and prevents them from rewarding employees for the extraordinary effort required. So in practice big companies only get to develop technology in fields where large capital requirements prevent startups from competing with them, like microprocessors, power plants, or passenger aircraft. And even in those fields they depend heavily on startups for components and ideas.
It's obvious that biotech or software startups exist to solve hard technical problems, but I think it will also be found to be true in businesses that don't seem to be about technology. McDonald's, for example, grew big by designing a system, the McDonald's franchise, that could then be reproduced at will all over the face of the earth. A McDonald's franchise is controlled by rules so precise that it is practically a piece of software. Write once, run everywhere. Ditto for Wal-Mart. Sam Walton got rich not by being a retailer, but by designing a new kind of store.
Use difficulty as a guide not just in selecting the overall aim of your company, but also at decision points along the way. At Viaweb one of our rules of thumb was run upstairs. Suppose you are a little, nimble guy being chased by a big, fat, bully. You open a door and find yourself in a staircase. Do you go up or down? I say up. The bully can probably run downstairs as fast as you can. Going upstairs his bulk will be more of a disadvantage. Running upstairs is hard for you but even harder for him.
What this meant in practice was that we deliberately sought hard problems. If there were two features we could add to our software, both equally valuable in proportion to their difficulty, we'd always take the harder one. Not just because it was more valuable, but because it was harder. We delighted in forcing bigger, slower competitors to follow us over difficult ground. Like guerillas, startups prefer the difficult terrain of the mountains, where the troops of the central government can't follow. I can remember times when we were just exhausted after wrestling all day with some horrible technical problem. And I'd be delighted, because something that was hard for us would be impossible for our competitors.
This is not just a good way to run a startup. It's what a startup is. Venture capitalists know about this and have a phrase for it: barriers to entry. If you go to a VC with a new idea and ask him to invest in it, one of the first things he'll ask is, how hard would this be for someone else to develop? That is, how much difficult ground have you put between yourself and potential pursuers? [ 7 ] And you had better have a convincing explanation of why your technology would be hard to duplicate. Otherwise as soon as some big company becomes aware of it, they'll make their own, and with their brand name, capital, and distribution clout, they'll take away your market overnight. You'd be like guerillas caught in the open field by regular army forces.
One way to put up barriers to entry is through patents. But patents may not provide much protection. Competitors commonly find ways to work around a patent. And if they can't, they may simply violate it and invite you to sue them. A big company is not afraid to be sued; it's an everyday thing for them. They'll make sure that suing them is expensive and takes a long time. Ever heard of Philo Farnsworth? He invented television. The reason you've never heard of him is that his company was not the one to make money from it. [ 8 ] The company that did was RCA, and Farnsworth's reward for his efforts was a decade of patent litigation.
Here, as so often, the best defense is a good offense. If you can develop technology that's simply too hard for competitors to duplicate, you don't need to rely on other defenses. Start by picking a hard problem, and then at every decision point, take the harder choice. [ 9 ]
If it were simply a matter of working harder than an ordinary employee and getting paid proportionately, it would obviously be a good deal to start a startup. Up to a point it would be more fun. I don't think many people like the slow pace of big companies, the interminable meetings, the water-cooler conversations, the clueless middle managers, and so on.
Unfortunately there are a couple catches. One is that you can't choose the point on the curve that you want to inhabit. You can't decide, for example, that you'd like to work just two or three times as hard, and get paid that much more. When you're running a startup, your competitors decide how hard you work. And they pretty much all make the same decision: as hard as you possibly can.
The other catch is that the payoff is only on average proportionate to your productivity. There is, as I said before, a large random multiplier in the success of any company. So in practice the deal is not that you're 30 times as productive and get paid 30 times as much. It is that you're 30 times as productive, and get paid between zero and a thousand times as much. If the mean is 30x, the median is probably zero. Most startups tank, and not just the dogfood portals we all heard about during the Internet Bubble. It's common for a startup to be developing a genuinely good product, take slightly too long to do it, run out of money, and have to shut down.
A startup is like a mosquito. A bear can absorb a hit and a crab is armored against one, but a mosquito is designed for one thing: to score. No energy is wasted on defense. The defense of mosquitos, as a species, is that there are a lot of them, but this is little consolation to the individual mosquito.
Startups, like mosquitos, tend to be an all-or-nothing proposition. And you don't generally know which of the two you're going to get till the last minute. Viaweb came close to tanking several times. Our trajectory was like a sine wave. Fortunately we got bought at the top of the cycle, but it was damned close. While we were visiting Yahoo in California to talk about selling the company to them, we had to borrow a conference room to reassure an investor who was about to back out of a new round of funding that we needed to stay alive.
The all-or-nothing aspect of startups was not something we wanted. Viaweb's hackers were all extremely risk-averse. If there had been some way just to work super hard and get paid for it, without having a lottery mixed in, we would have been delighted. We would have much preferred a 100% chance of $1 million to a 20% chance of $10 million, even though theoretically the second is worth twice as much. Unfortunately, there is not currently any space in the business world where you can get the first deal.
The closest you can get is by selling your startup in the early stages, giving up upside (and risk) for a smaller but guaranteed payoff. We had a chance to do this, and stupidly, as we then thought, let it slip by. After that we became comically eager to sell. For the next year or so, if anyone expressed the slightest curiosity about Viaweb we would try to sell them the company. But there were no takers, so we had to keep going.
It would have been a bargain to buy us at an early stage, but companies doing acquisitions are not looking for bargains. A company big enough to acquire startups will be big enough to be fairly conservative, and within the company the people in charge of acquisitions will be among the more conservative, because they are likely to be business school types who joined the company late. They would rather overpay for a safe choice. So it is easier to sell an established startup, even at a large premium, than an early-stage one.
I think it's a good idea to get bought, if you can. Running a business is different from growing one. It is just as well to let a big company take over once you reach cruising altitude. It's also financially wiser, because selling allows you to diversify. What would you think of a financial advisor who put all his client's assets into one volatile stock?
How do you get bought? Mostly by doing the same things you'd do if you didn't intend to sell the company. Being profitable, for example. But getting bought is also an art in its own right, and one that we spent a lot of time trying to master.
Potential buyers will always delay if they can. The hard part about getting bought is getting them to act. For most people, the most powerful motivator is not the hope of gain, but the fear of loss. For potential acquirers, the most powerful motivator is the prospect that one of their competitors will buy you. This, as we found, causes CEOs to take red-eyes. The second biggest is the worry that, if they don't buy you now, you'll continue to grow rapidly and will cost more to acquire later, or even become a competitor.
In both cases, what it all comes down to is users. You'd think that a company about to buy you would do a lot of research and decide for themselves how valuable your technology was. Not at all. What they go by is the number of users you have.
In effect, acquirers assume the customers know who has the best technology. And this is not as stupid as it sounds. Users are the only real proof that you've created wealth. Wealth is what people want, and if people aren't using your software, maybe it's not just because you're bad at marketing. Maybe it's because you haven't made what they want.
Venture capitalists have a list of danger signs to watch out for. Near the top is the company run by techno-weenies who are obsessed with solving interesting technical problems, instead of making users happy. In a startup, you're not just trying to solve problems. You're trying to solve problems that users care about.
So I think you should make users the test, just as acquirers do. Treat a startup as an optimization problem in which performance is measured by number of users. As anyone who has tried to optimize software knows, the key is measurement. When you try to guess where your program is slow, and what would make it faster, you almost always guess wrong.
Number of users may not be the perfect test, but it will be very close. It's what acquirers care about. It's what revenues depend on. It's what makes competitors unhappy. It's what impresses reporters, and potential new users. Certainly it's a better test than your a priori notions of what problems are important to solve, no matter how technically adept you are.
Among other things, treating a startup as an optimization problem will help you avoid another pitfall that VCs worry about, and rightly-- taking a long time to develop a product. Now we can recognize this as something hackers already know to avoid: premature optimization. Get a version 1.0 out there as soon as you can. Until you have some users to measure, you're optimizing based on guesses.
The ball you need to keep your eye on here is the underlying principle that wealth is what people want. If you plan to get rich by creating wealth, you have to know what people want. So few businesses really pay attention to making customers happy. How often do you walk into a store, or call a company on the phone, with a feeling of dread in the back of your mind? When you hear "your call is important to us, please stay on the line," do you think, oh good, now everything will be all right?
A restaurant can afford to serve the occasional burnt dinner. But in technology, you cook one thing and that's what everyone eats. So any difference between what people want and what you deliver is multiplied. You please or annoy customers wholesale. The closer you can get to what they want, the more wealth you generate.
Wealth and Power
Making wealth is not the only way to get rich. For most of human history it has not even been the most common. Until a few centuries ago, the main sources of wealth were mines, slaves and serfs, land, and cattle, and the only ways to acquire these rapidly were by inheritance, marriage, conquest, or confiscation. Naturally wealth had a bad reputation.
Two things changed. The first was the rule of law. For most of the world's history, if you did somehow accumulate a fortune, the ruler or his henchmen would find a way to steal it. But in medieval Europe something new happened. A new class of merchants and manufacturers began to collect in towns. [ 10 ] Together they were able to withstand the local feudal lord. So for the first time in our history, the bullies stopped stealing the nerds' lunch money. This was naturally a great incentive, and possibly indeed the main cause of the second big change, industrialization.
A great deal has been written about the causes of the Industrial Revolution. But surely a necessary, if not sufficient, condition was that people who made fortunes be able to enjoy them in peace. [ 11 ] One piece of evidence is what happened to countries that tried to return to the old model, like the Soviet Union, and to a lesser extent Britain under the labor governments of the 1960s and early 1970s. Take away the incentive of wealth, and technical innovation grinds to a halt.
Remember what a startup is, economically: a way of saying, I want to work faster. Instead of accumulating money slowly by being paid a regular wage for fifty years, I want to get it over with as soon as possible. So governments that forbid you to accumulate wealth are in effect decreeing that you work slowly. They're willing to let you earn $3 million over fifty years, but they're not willing to let you work so hard that you can do it in two. They are like the corporate boss that you can't go to and say, I want to work ten times as hard, so please pay me ten times a much. Except this is not a boss you can escape by starting your own company.
The problem with working slowly is not just that technical innovation happens slowly. It's that it tends not to happen at all. It's only when you're deliberately looking for hard problems, as a way to use speed to the greatest advantage, that you take on this kind of project. Developing new technology is a pain in the ass. It is, as Edison said, one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. Without the incentive of wealth, no one wants to do it. Engineers will work on sexy projects like fighter planes and moon rockets for ordinary salaries, but more mundane technologies like light bulbs or semiconductors have to be developed by entrepreneurs.
Startups are not just something that happened in Silicon Valley in the last couple decades. Since it became possible to get rich by creating wealth, everyone who has done it has used essentially the same recipe: measurement and leverage, where measurement comes from working with a small group, and leverage from developing new techniques. The recipe was the same in Florence in 1200 as it is in Santa Clara today.
Understanding this may help to answer an important question: why Europe grew so powerful. Was it something about the geography of Europe? Was it that Europeans are somehow racially superior? Was it their religion? The answer (or at least the proximate cause) may be that the Europeans rode on the crest of a powerful new idea: allowing those who made a lot of money to keep it.
Once you're allowed to do that, people who want to get rich can do it by generating wealth instead of stealing it. The resulting technological growth translates not only into wealth but into military power. The theory that led to the stealth plane was developed by a Soviet mathematician. But because the Soviet Union didn't have a computer industry, it remained for them a theory; they didn't have hardware capable of executing the calculations fast enough to design an actual airplane.
In that respect the Cold War teaches the same lesson as World War II and, for that matter, most wars in recent history. Don't let a ruling class of warriors and politicians squash the entrepreneurs. The same recipe that makes individuals rich makes countries powerful. Let the nerds keep their lunch money, and you rule the world.
[ 1 ] One valuable thing you tend to get only in startups is uninterruptability . Different kinds of work have different time quanta. Someone proofreading a manuscript could probably be interrupted every fifteen minutes with little loss of productivity. But the time quantum for hacking is very long: it might take an hour just to load a problem into your head. So the cost of having someone from personnel call you about a form you forgot to fill out can be huge.
This is why hackers give you such a baleful stare as they turn from their screen to answer your question. Inside their heads a giant house of cards is tottering.
The mere possibility of being interrupted deters hackers from starting hard projects. This is why they tend to work late at night, and why it's next to impossible to write great software in a cubicle (except late at night).
One great advantage of startups is that they don't yet have any of the people who interrupt you. There is no personnel department, and thus no form nor anyone to call you about it.
[ 2 ] Faced with the idea that people working for startups might be 20 or 30 times as productive as those working for large companies, executives at large companies will naturally wonder, how could I get the people working for me to do that? The answer is simple: pay them to.
Internally most companies are run like Communist states. If you believe in free markets, why not turn your company into one?
Hypothesis: A company will be maximally profitable when each employee is paid in proportion to the wealth they generate.
[ 3 ] Until recently even governments sometimes didn't grasp the distinction between money and wealth. Adam Smith ( Wealth of Nations , v:i) mentions several that tried to preserve their "wealth" by forbidding the export of gold or silver. But having more of the medium of exchange would not make a country richer; if you have more money chasing the same amount of material wealth, the only result is higher prices.
[ 4 ] There are many senses of the word "wealth," not all of them material. I'm not trying to make a deep philosophical point here about which is the true kind. I'm writing about one specific, rather technical sense of the word "wealth." What people will give you money for. This is an interesting sort of wealth to study, because it is the kind that prevents you from starving. And what people will give you money for depends on them, not you.
When you're starting a business, it's easy to slide into thinking that customers want what you do. During the Internet Bubble I talked to a woman who, because she liked the outdoors, was starting an "outdoor portal." You know what kind of business you should start if you like the outdoors? One to recover data from crashed hard disks.
What's the connection? None at all. Which is precisely my point. If you want to create wealth (in the narrow technical sense of not starving) then you should be especially skeptical about any plan that centers on things you like doing. That is where your idea of what's valuable is least likely to coincide with other people's.
[ 5 ] In the average car restoration you probably do make everyone else microscopically poorer, by doing a small amount of damage to the environment. While environmental costs should be taken into account, they don't make wealth a zero-sum game. For example, if you repair a machine that's broken because a part has come unscrewed, you create wealth with no environmental cost.
[ 5b ] This essay was written before Firefox.
[ 6 ] Many people feel confused and depressed in their early twenties. Life seemed so much more fun in college. Well, of course it was. Don't be fooled by the surface similarities. You've gone from guest to servant. It's possible to have fun in this new world. Among other things, you now get to go behind the doors that say "authorized personnel only." But the change is a shock at first, and all the worse if you're not consciously aware of it.
[ 7 ] When VCs asked us how long it would take another startup to duplicate our software, we used to reply that they probably wouldn't be able to at all. I think this made us seem naive, or liars.
[ 8 ] Few technologies have one clear inventor. So as a rule, if you know the "inventor" of something (the telephone, the assembly line, the airplane, the light bulb, the transistor) it is because their company made money from it, and the company's PR people worked hard to spread the story. If you don't know who invented something (the automobile, the television, the computer, the jet engine, the laser), it's because other companies made all the money.
[ 9 ] This is a good plan for life in general. If you have two choices, choose the harder. If you're trying to decide whether to go out running or sit home and watch TV, go running. Probably the reason this trick works so well is that when you have two choices and one is harder, the only reason you're even considering the other is laziness. You know in the back of your mind what's the right thing to do, and this trick merely forces you to acknowledge it.
[ 10 ] It is probably no accident that the middle class first appeared in northern Italy and the low countries, where there were no strong central governments. These two regions were the richest of their time and became the twin centers from which Renaissance civilization radiated. If they no longer play that role, it is because other places, like the United States, have been truer to the principles they discovered.
[ 11 ] It may indeed be a sufficient condition. But if so, why didn't the Industrial Revolution happen earlier? Two possible (and not incompatible) answers: (a) It did. The Industrial Revolution was one in a series. (b) Because in medieval towns, monopolies and guild regulations initially slowed the development of new means of production.
(This essay is derived from a talk at the Harvard Computer Society.)
You need three things to create a successful startup: to start with good people, to make something customers actually want, and to spend as little money as possible. Most startups that fail do it because they fail at one of these. A startup that does all three will probably succeed.
And that's kind of exciting, when you think about it, because all three are doable. Hard, but doable. And since a startup that succeeds ordinarily makes its founders rich, that implies getting rich is doable too. Hard, but doable.
If there is one message I'd like to get across about startups, that's it. There is no magically difficult step that requires brilliance to solve.
In particular, you don't need a brilliant idea to start a startup around. The way a startup makes money is to offer people better technology than they have now. But what people have now is often so bad that it doesn't take brilliance to do better.
Google's plan, for example, was simply to create a search site that didn't suck. They had three new ideas: index more of the Web, use links to rank search results, and have clean, simple web pages with unintrusive keyword-based ads. Above all, they were determined to make a site that was good to use. No doubt there are great technical tricks within Google, but the overall plan was straightforward. And while they probably have bigger ambitions now, this alone brings them a billion dollars a year. 
There are plenty of other areas that are just as backward as search was before Google. I can think of several heuristics for generating ideas for startups, but most reduce to this: look at something people are trying to do, and figure out how to do it in a way that doesn't suck.
For example, dating sites currently suck far worse than search did before Google. They all use the same simple-minded model. They seem to have approached the problem by thinking about how to do database matches instead of how dating works in the real world. An undergrad could build something better as a class project. And yet there's a lot of money at stake. Online dating is a valuable business now, and it might be worth a hundred times as much if it worked.
An idea for a startup, however, is only a beginning. A lot of would-be startup founders think the key to the whole process is the initial idea, and from that point all you have to do is execute. Venture capitalists know better. If you go to VC firms with a brilliant idea that you'll tell them about if they sign a nondisclosure agreement, most will tell you to get lost. That shows how much a mere idea is worth. The market price is less than the inconvenience of signing an NDA.
Another sign of how little the initial idea is worth is the number of startups that change their plan en route. Microsoft's original plan was to make money selling programming languages, of all things. Their current business model didn't occur to them until IBM dropped it in their lap five years later.
Ideas for startups are worth something, certainly, but the trouble is, they're not transferrable. They're not something you could hand to someone else to execute. Their value is mainly as starting points: as questions for the people who had them to continue thinking about.
What matters is not ideas, but the people who have them. Good people can fix bad ideas, but good ideas can't save bad people.
What do I mean by good people? One of the best tricks I learned during our startup was a rule for deciding who to hire. Could you describe the person as an animal? It might be hard to translate that into another language, but I think everyone in the US knows what it means. It means someone who takes their work a little too seriously; someone who does what they do so well that they pass right through professional and cross over into obsessive.
What it means specifically depends on the job: a salesperson who just won't take no for an answer; a hacker who will stay up till 4:00 AM rather than go to bed leaving code with a bug in it; a PR person who will cold-call New York Times reporters on their cell phones; a graphic designer who feels physical pain when something is two millimeters out of place.
Almost everyone who worked for us was an animal at what they did. The woman in charge of sales was so tenacious that I used to feel sorry for potential customers on the phone with her. You could sense them squirming on the hook, but you knew there would be no rest for them till they'd signed up.
If you think about people you know, you'll find the animal test is easy to apply. Call the person's image to mind and imagine the sentence "so-and-so is an animal." If you laugh, they're not. You don't need or perhaps even want this quality in big companies, but you need it in a startup.
For programmers we had three additional tests. Was the person genuinely smart? If so, could they actually get things done? And finally, since a few good hackers have unbearable personalities, could we stand to have them around?
That last test filters out surprisingly few people. We could bear any amount of nerdiness if someone was truly smart. What we couldn't stand were people with a lot of attitude. But most of those weren't truly smart, so our third test was largely a restatement of the first.
When nerds are unbearable it's usually because they're trying too hard to seem smart. But the smarter they are, the less pressure they feel to act smart. So as a rule you can recognize genuinely smart people by their ability to say things like "I don't know," "Maybe you're right," and "I don't understand x well enough."
This technique doesn't always work, because people can be influenced by their environment. In the MIT CS department, there seems to be a tradition of acting like a brusque know-it-all. I'm told it derives ultimately from Marvin Minsky, in the same way the classic airline pilot manner is said to derive from Chuck Yeager. Even genuinely smart people start to act this way there, so you have to make allowances.
It helped us to have Robert Morris, who is one of the readiest to say "I don't know" of anyone I've met. (At least, he was before he became a professor at MIT.) No one dared put on attitude around Robert, because he was obviously smarter than they were and yet had zero attitude himself.
Like most startups, ours began with a group of friends, and it was through personal contacts that we got most of the people we hired. This is a crucial difference between startups and big companies. Being friends with someone for even a couple days will tell you more than companies could ever learn in interviews. 
It's no coincidence that startups start around universities, because that's where smart people meet. It's not what people learn in classes at MIT and Stanford that has made technology companies spring up around them. They could sing campfire songs in the classes so long as admissions worked the same.
If you start a startup, there's a good chance it will be with people you know from college or grad school. So in theory you ought to try to make friends with as many smart people as you can in school, right? Well, no. Don't make a conscious effort to schmooze; that doesn't work well with hackers.
What you should do in college is work on your own projects. Hackers should do this even if they don't plan to start startups, because it's the only real way to learn how to program. In some cases you may collaborate with other students, and this is the best way to get to know good hackers. The project may even grow into a startup. But once again, I wouldn't aim too directly at either target. Don't force things; just work on stuff you like with people you like.
Ideally you want between two and four founders. It would be hard to start with just one. One person would find the moral weight of starting a company hard to bear. Even Bill Gates, who seems to be able to bear a good deal of moral weight, had to have a co-founder. But you don't want so many founders that the company starts to look like a group photo. Partly because you don't need a lot of people at first, but mainly because the more founders you have, the worse disagreements you'll have. When there are just two or three founders, you know you have to resolve disputes immediately or perish. If there are seven or eight, disagreements can linger and harden into factions. You don't want mere voting; you need unanimity.
In a technology startup, which most startups are, the founders should include technical people. During the Internet Bubble there were a number of startups founded by business people who then went looking for hackers to create their product for them. This doesn't work well. Business people are bad at deciding what to do with technology, because they don't know what the options are, or which kinds of problems are hard and which are easy. And when business people try to hire hackers, they can't tell which ones are good . Even other hackers have a hard time doing that. For business people it's roulette.
Do the founders of a startup have to include business people? That depends. We thought so when we started ours, and we asked several people who were said to know about this mysterious thing called "business" if they would be the president. But they all said no, so I had to do it myself. And what I discovered was that business was no great mystery. It's not something like physics or medicine that requires extensive study. You just try to get people to pay you for stuff.
I think the reason I made such a mystery of business was that I was disgusted by the idea of doing it. I wanted to work in the pure, intellectual world of software, not deal with customers' mundane problems. People who don't want to get dragged into some kind of work often develop a protective incompetence at it. Paul Erdos was particularly good at this. By seeming unable even to cut a grapefruit in half (let alone go to the store and buy one), he forced other people to do such things for him, leaving all his time free for math. Erdos was an extreme case, but most husbands use the same trick to some degree.
Once I was forced to discard my protective incompetence, I found that business was neither so hard nor so boring as I feared. There are esoteric areas of business that are quite hard, like tax law or the pricing of derivatives, but you don't need to know about those in a startup. All you need to know about business to run a startup are commonsense things people knew before there were business schools, or even universities.
If you work your way down the Forbes 400 making an x next to the name of each person with an MBA, you'll learn something important about business school. After Warren Buffett, you don't hit another MBA till number 22, Phil Knight, the CEO of Nike. There are only 5 MBAs in the top 50. What you notice in the Forbes 400 are a lot of people with technical backgrounds. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, Michael Dell, Jeff Bezos, Gordon Moore. The rulers of the technology business tend to come from technology, not business. So if you want to invest two years in something that will help you succeed in business, the evidence suggests you'd do better to learn how to hack than get an MBA. 
There is one reason you might want to include business people in a startup, though: because you have to have at least one person willing and able to focus on what customers want. Some believe only business people can do this-- that hackers can implement software, but not design it. That's nonsense. There's nothing about knowing how to program that prevents hackers from understanding users, or about not knowing how to program that magically enables business people to understand them.
If you can't understand users, however, you should either learn how or find a co-founder who can. That is the single most important issue for technology startups, and the rock that sinks more of them than anything else.
What Customers Want
It's not just startups that have to worry about this. I think most businesses that fail do it because they don't give customers what they want. Look at restaurants. A large percentage fail, about a quarter in the first year. But can you think of one restaurant that had really good food and went out of business?
Restaurants with great food seem to prosper no matter what. A restaurant with great food can be expensive, crowded, noisy, dingy, out of the way, and even have bad service, and people will keep coming. It's true that a restaurant with mediocre food can sometimes attract customers through gimmicks. But that approach is very risky. It's more straightforward just to make the food good.
It's the same with technology. You hear all kinds of reasons why startups fail. But can you think of one that had a massively popular product and still failed?
In nearly every failed startup, the real problem was that customers didn't want the product. For most, the cause of death is listed as "ran out of funding," but that's only the immediate cause. Why couldn't they get more funding? Probably because the product was a dog, or never seemed likely to be done, or both.
When I was trying to think of the things every startup needed to do, I almost included a fourth: get a version 1 out as soon as you can. But I decided not to, because that's implicit in making something customers want. The only way to make something customers want is to get a prototype in front of them and refine it based on their reactions.
The other approach is what I call the "Hail Mary" strategy. You make elaborate plans for a product, hire a team of engineers to develop it (people who do this tend to use the term "engineer" for hackers), and then find after a year that you've spent two million dollars to develop something no one wants. This was not uncommon during the Bubble, especially in companies run by business types, who thought of software development as something terrifying that therefore had to be carefully planned.
We never even considered that approach. As a Lisp hacker, I come from the tradition of rapid prototyping. I would not claim (at least, not here) that this is the right way to write every program, but it's certainly the right way to write software for a startup. In a startup, your initial plans are almost certain to be wrong in some way, and your first priority should be to figure out where. The only way to do that is to try implementing them.
Like most startups, we changed our plan on the fly. At first we expected our customers to be Web consultants. But it turned out they didn't like us, because our software was easy to use and we hosted the site. It would be too easy for clients to fire them. We also thought we'd be able to sign up a lot of catalog companies, because selling online was a natural extension of their existing business. But in 1996 that was a hard sell. The middle managers we talked to at catalog companies saw the Web not as an opportunity, but as something that meant more work for them.
We did get a few of the more adventurous catalog companies. Among them was Frederick's of Hollywood, which gave us valuable experience dealing with heavy loads on our servers. But most of our users were small, individual merchants who saw the Web as an opportunity to build a business. Some had retail stores, but many only existed online. And so we changed direction to focus on these users. Instead of concentrating on the features Web consultants and catalog companies would want, we worked to make the software easy to use.
I learned something valuable from that. It's worth trying very, very hard to make technology easy to use. Hackers are so used to computers that they have no idea how horrifying software seems to normal people. Stephen Hawking's editor told him that every equation he included in his book would cut sales in half. When you work on making technology easier to use, you're riding that curve up instead of down. A 10% improvement in ease of use doesn't just increase your sales 10%. It's more likely to double your sales.
How do you figure out what customers want? Watch them. One of the best places to do this was at trade shows. Trade shows didn't pay as a way of getting new customers, but they were worth it as market research. We didn't just give canned presentations at trade shows. We used to show people how to build real, working stores. Which meant we got to watch as they used our software, and talk to them about what they needed.
No matter what kind of startup you start, it will probably be a stretch for you, the founders, to understand what users want. The only kind of software you can build without studying users is the sort for which you are the typical user. But this is just the kind that tends to be open source: operating systems, programming languages, editors, and so on. So if you're developing technology for money, you're probably not going to be developing it for people like you. Indeed, you can use this as a way to generate ideas for startups: what do people who are not like you want from technology?
When most people think of startups, they think of companies like Apple or Google. Everyone knows these, because they're big consumer brands. But for every startup like that, there are twenty more that operate in niche markets or live quietly down in the infrastructure. So if you start a successful startup, odds are you'll start one of those.
Another way to say that is, if you try to start the kind of startup that has to be a big consumer brand, the odds against succeeding are steeper. The best odds are in niche markets. Since startups make money by offering people something better than they had before, the best opportunities are where things suck most. And it would be hard to find a place where things suck more than in corporate IT departments. You would not believe the amount of money companies spend on software, and the crap they get in return. This imbalance equals opportunity.
If you want ideas for startups, one of the most valuable things you could do is find a middle-sized non-technology company and spend a couple weeks just watching what they do with computers. Most good hackers have no more idea of the horrors perpetrated in these places than rich Americans do of what goes on in Brazilian slums.
Start by writing software for smaller companies, because it's easier to sell to them. It's worth so much to sell stuff to big companies that the people selling them the crap they currently use spend a lot of time and money to do it. And while you can outhack Oracle with one frontal lobe tied behind your back, you can't outsell an Oracle salesman. So if you want to win through better technology, aim at smaller customers. 
They're the more strategically valuable part of the market anyway. In technology, the low end always eats the high end. It's easier to make an inexpensive product more powerful than to make a powerful product cheaper. So the products that start as cheap, simple options tend to gradually grow more powerful till, like water rising in a room, they squash the "high-end" products against the ceiling. Sun did this to mainframes, and Intel is doing it to Sun. Microsoft Word did it to desktop publishing software like Interleaf and Framemaker. Mass-market digital cameras are doing it to the expensive models made for professionals. Avid did it to the manufacturers of specialized video editing systems, and now Apple is doing it to Avid. Henry Ford did it to the car makers that preceded him. If you build the simple, inexpensive option, you'll not only find it easier to sell at first, but you'll also be in the best position to conquer the rest of the market.
It's very dangerous to let anyone fly under you. If you have the cheapest, easiest product, you'll own the low end. And if you don't, you're in the crosshairs of whoever does.
To make all this happen, you're going to need money. Some startups have been self-funding-- Microsoft for example-- but most aren't. I think it's wise to take money from investors. To be self-funding, you have to start as a consulting company, and it's hard to switch from that to a product company.
Financially, a startup is like a pass/fail course. The way to get rich from a startup is to maximize the company's chances of succeeding, not to maximize the amount of stock you retain. So if you can trade stock for something that improves your odds, it's probably a smart move.
To most hackers, getting investors seems like a terrifying and mysterious process. Actually it's merely tedious. I'll try to give an outline of how it works.
The first thing you'll need is a few tens of thousands of dollars to pay your expenses while you develop a prototype. This is called seed capital. Because so little money is involved, raising seed capital is comparatively easy-- at least in the sense of getting a quick yes or no.
Usually you get seed money from individual rich people called "angels." Often they're people who themselves got rich from technology. At the seed stage, investors don't expect you to have an elaborate business plan. Most know that they're supposed to decide quickly. It's not unusual to get a check within a week based on a half-page agreement.
We started Viaweb with $10,000 of seed money from our friend Julian. But he gave us a lot more than money. He's a former CEO and also a corporate lawyer, so he gave us a lot of valuable advice about business, and also did all the legal work of getting us set up as a company. Plus he introduced us to one of the two angel investors who supplied our next round of funding.
Some angels, especially those with technology backgrounds, may be satisfied with a demo and a verbal description of what you plan to do. But many will want a copy of your business plan, if only to remind themselves what they invested in.
Our angels asked for one, and looking back, I'm amazed how much worry it caused me. "Business plan" has that word "business" in it, so I figured it had to be something I'd have to read a book about business plans to write. Well, it doesn't. At this stage, all most investors expect is a brief description of what you plan to do and how you're going to make money from it, and the resumes of the founders. If you just sit down and write out what you've been saying to one another, that should be fine. It shouldn't take more than a couple hours, and you'll probably find that writing it all down gives you more ideas about what to do.
For the angel to have someone to make the check out to, you're going to have to have some kind of company. Merely incorporating yourselves isn't hard. The problem is, for the company to exist, you have to decide who the founders are, and how much stock they each have. If there are two founders with the same qualifications who are both equally committed to the business, that's easy. But if you have a number of people who are expected to contribute in varying degrees, arranging the proportions of stock can be hard. And once you've done it, it tends to be set in stone.
I have no tricks for dealing with this problem. All I can say is, try hard to do it right. I do have a rule of thumb for recognizing when you have, though. When everyone feels they're getting a slightly bad deal, that they're doing more than they should for the amount of stock they have, the stock is optimally apportioned.
There is more to setting up a company than incorporating it, of course: insurance, business license, unemployment compensation, various things with the IRS. I'm not even sure what the list is, because we, ah, skipped all that. When we got real funding near the end of 1996, we hired a great CFO, who fixed everything retroactively. It turns out that no one comes and arrests you if you don't do everything you're supposed to when starting a company. And a good thing too, or a lot of startups would never get started. 
It can be dangerous to delay turning yourself into a company, because one or more of the founders might decide to split off and start another company doing the same thing. This does happen. So when you set up the company, as well as as apportioning the stock, you should get all the founders to sign something agreeing that everyone's ideas belong to this company, and that this company is going to be everyone's only job.
[If this were a movie, ominous music would begin here.]
While you're at it, you should ask what else they've signed. One of the worst things that can happen to a startup is to run into intellectual property problems. We did, and it came closer to killing us than any competitor ever did.
As we were in the middle of getting bought, we discovered that one of our people had, early on, been bound by an agreement that said all his ideas belonged to the giant company that was paying for him to go to grad school. In theory, that could have meant someone else owned big chunks of our software. So the acquisition came to a screeching halt while we tried to sort this out. The problem was, since we'd been about to be acquired, we'd allowed ourselves to run low on cash. Now we needed to raise more to keep going. But it's hard to raise money with an IP cloud over your head, because investors can't judge how serious it is.
Our existing investors, knowing that we needed money and had nowhere else to get it, at this point attempted certain gambits which I will not describe in detail, except to remind readers that the word "angel" is a metaphor. The founders thereupon proposed to walk away from the company, after giving the investors a brief tutorial on how to administer the servers themselves. And while this was happening, the acquirers used the delay as an excuse to welch on the deal.
Miraculously it all turned out ok. The investors backed down; we did another round of funding at a reasonable valuation; the giant company finally gave us a piece of paper saying they didn't own our software; and six months later we were bought by Yahoo for much more than the earlier acquirer had agreed to pay. So we were happy in the end, though the experience probably took several years off my life.
Don't do what we did. Before you consummate a startup, ask everyone about their previous IP history.
Once you've got a company set up, it may seem presumptuous to go knocking on the doors of rich people and asking them to invest tens of thousands of dollars in something that is really just a bunch of guys with some ideas. But when you look at it from the rich people's point of view, the picture is more encouraging. Most rich people are looking for good investments. If you really think you have a chance of succeeding, you're doing them a favor by letting them invest. Mixed with any annoyance they might feel about being approached will be the thought: are these guys the next Google?
Usually angels are financially equivalent to founders. They get the same kind of stock and get diluted the same amount in future rounds. How much stock should they get? That depends on how ambitious you feel. When you offer x percent of your company for y dollars, you're implicitly claiming a certain value for the whole company. Venture investments are usually described in terms of that number. If you give an investor new shares equal to 5% of those already outstanding in return for $100,000, then you've done the deal at a pre-money valuation of $2 million.
How do you decide what the value of the company should be? There is no rational way. At this stage the company is just a bet. I didn't realize that when we were raising money. Julian thought we ought to value the company at several million dollars. I thought it was preposterous to claim that a couple thousand lines of code, which was all we had at the time, were worth several million dollars. Eventually we settled on one millon, because Julian said no one would invest in a company with a valuation any lower. 
What I didn't grasp at the time was that the valuation wasn't just the value of the code we'd written so far. It was also the value of our ideas, which turned out to be right, and of all the future work we'd do, which turned out to be a lot.
The next round of funding is the one in which you might deal with actual venture capital firms . But don't wait till you've burned through your last round of funding to start approaching them. VCs are slow to make up their minds. They can take months. You don't want to be running out of money while you're trying to negotiate with them.
Getting money from an actual VC firm is a bigger deal than getting money from angels. The amounts of money involved are larger, millions usually. So the deals take longer, dilute you more, and impose more onerous conditions.
Sometimes the VCs want to install a new CEO of their own choosing. Usually the claim is that you need someone mature and experienced, with a business background. Maybe in some cases this is true. And yet Bill Gates was young and inexperienced and had no business background, and he seems to have done ok. Steve Jobs got booted out of his own company by someone mature and experienced, with a business background, who then proceeded to ruin the company. So I think people who are mature and experienced, with a business background, may be overrated. We used to call these guys "newscasters," because they had neat hair and spoke in deep, confident voices, and generally didn't know much more than they read on the teleprompter.
We talked to a number of VCs, but eventually we ended up financing our startup entirely with angel money. The main reason was that we feared a brand-name VC firm would stick us with a newscaster as part of the deal. That might have been ok if he was content to limit himself to talking to the press, but what if he wanted to have a say in running the company? That would have led to disaster, because our software was so complex. We were a company whose whole m.o. was to win through better technology. The strategic decisions were mostly decisions about technology, and we didn't need any help with those.
This was also one reason we didn't go public. Back in 1998 our CFO tried to talk me into it. In those days you could go public as a dogfood portal, so as a company with a real product and real revenues, we might have done well. But I feared it would have meant taking on a newscaster-- someone who, as they say, "can talk Wall Street's language."
I'm happy to see Google is bucking that trend. They didn't talk Wall Street's language when they did their IPO, and Wall Street didn't buy. And now Wall Street is collectively kicking itself. They'll pay attention next time. Wall Street learns new languages fast when money is involved.
You have more leverage negotiating with VCs than you realize. The reason is other VCs. I know a number of VCs now, and when you talk to them you realize that it's a seller's market. Even now there is too much money chasing too few good deals.
VCs form a pyramid. At the top are famous ones like Sequoia and Kleiner Perkins, but beneath those are a huge number you've never heard of. What they all have in common is that a dollar from them is worth one dollar. Most VCs will tell you that they don't just provide money, but connections and advice. If you're talking to Vinod Khosla or John Doerr or Mike Moritz, this is true. But such advice and connections can come very expensive. And as you go down the food chain the VCs get rapidly dumber. A few steps down from the top you're basically talking to bankers who've picked up a few new vocabulary words from reading Wired . (Does your product use XML? ) So I'd advise you to be skeptical about claims of experience and connections. Basically, a VC is a source of money. I'd be inclined to go with whoever offered the most money the soonest with the least strings attached.
You may wonder how much to tell VCs. And you should, because some of them may one day be funding your competitors. I think the best plan is not to be overtly secretive, but not to tell them everything either. After all, as most VCs say, they're more interested in the people than the ideas. The main reason they want to talk about your idea is to judge you, not the idea. So as long as you seem like you know what you're doing, you can probably keep a few things back from them. 
Talk to as many VCs as you can, even if you don't want their money, because a) they may be on the board of someone who will buy you, and b) if you seem impressive, they'll be discouraged from investing in your competitors. The most efficient way to reach VCs, especially if you only want them to know about you and don't want their money, is at the conferences that are occasionally organized for startups to present to them.
Not Spending It
When and if you get an infusion of real money from investors, what should you do with it? Not spend it, that's what. In nearly every startup that fails, the proximate cause is running out of money. Usually there is something deeper wrong. But even a proximate cause of death is worth trying hard to avoid.
During the Bubble many startups tried to "get big fast." Ideally this meant getting a lot of customers fast. But it was easy for the meaning to slide over into hiring a lot of people fast.
Of the two versions, the one where you get a lot of customers fast is of course preferable. But even that may be overrated. The idea is to get there first and get all the users, leaving none for competitors. But I think in most businesses the advantages of being first to market are not so overwhelmingly great. Google is again a case in point. When they appeared it seemed as if search was a mature market, dominated by big players who'd spent millions to build their brands: Yahoo, Lycos, Excite, Infoseek, Altavista, Inktomi. Surely 1998 was a little late to arrive at the party.
But as the founders of Google knew, brand is worth next to nothing in the search business. You can come along at any point and make something better, and users will gradually seep over to you. As if to emphasize the point, Google never did any advertising. They're like dealers; they sell the stuff, but they know better than to use it themselves.
The competitors Google buried would have done better to spend those millions improving their software. Future startups should learn from that mistake. Unless you're in a market where products are as undifferentiated as cigarettes or vodka or laundry detergent, spending a lot on brand advertising is a sign of breakage. And few if any Web businesses are so undifferentiated. The dating sites are running big ad campaigns right now, which is all the more evidence they're ripe for the picking. (Fee, fie, fo, fum, I smell a company run by marketing guys.)
We were compelled by circumstances to grow slowly, and in retrospect it was a good thing. The founders all learned to do every job in the company. As well as writing software, I had to do sales and customer support. At sales I was not very good. I was persistent, but I didn't have the smoothness of a good salesman. My message to potential customers was: you'd be stupid not to sell online, and if you sell online you'd be stupid to use anyone else's software. Both statements were true, but that's not the way to convince people.
I was great at customer support though. Imagine talking to a customer support person who not only knew everything about the product, but would apologize abjectly if there was a bug, and then fix it immediately, while you were on the phone with them. Customers loved us. And we loved them, because when you're growing slow by word of mouth, your first batch of users are the ones who were smart enough to find you by themselves. There is nothing more valuable, in the early stages of a startup, than smart users. If you listen to them, they'll tell you exactly how to make a winning product. And not only will they give you this advice for free, they'll pay you.
We officially launched in early 1996. By the end of that year we had about 70 users. Since this was the era of "get big fast," I worried about how small and obscure we were. But in fact we were doing exactly the right thing. Once you get big (in users or employees) it gets hard to change your product. That year was effectively a laboratory for improving our software. By the end of it, we were so far ahead of our competitors that they never had a hope of catching up. And since all the hackers had spent many hours talking to users, we understood online commerce way better than anyone else.
That's the key to success as a startup. There is nothing more important than understanding your business. You might think that anyone in a business must, ex officio, understand it. Far from it. Google's secret weapon was simply that they understood search. I was working for Yahoo when Google appeared, and Yahoo didn't understand search. I know because I once tried to convince the powers that be that we had to make search better, and I got in reply what was then the party line about it: that Yahoo was no longer a mere "search engine." Search was now only a small percentage of our page views, less than one month's growth, and now that we were established as a "media company," or "portal," or whatever we were, search could safely be allowed to wither and drop off, like an umbilical cord.
Well, a small fraction of page views they may be, but they are an important fraction, because they are the page views that Web sessions start with. I think Yahoo gets that now.
Google understands a few other things most Web companies still don't. The most important is that you should put users before advertisers, even though the advertisers are paying and users aren't. One of my favorite bumper stickers reads "if the people lead, the leaders will follow." Paraphrased for the Web, this becomes "get all the users, and the advertisers will follow." More generally, design your product to please users first, and then think about how to make money from it. If you don't put users first, you leave a gap for competitors who do.
To make something users love, you have to understand them. And the bigger you are, the harder that is. So I say "get big slow." The slower you burn through your funding, the more time you have to learn.
The other reason to spend money slowly is to encourage a culture of cheapness. That's something Yahoo did understand. David Filo's title was "Chief Yahoo," but he was proud that his unofficial title was "Cheap Yahoo." Soon after we arrived at Yahoo, we got an email from Filo, who had been crawling around our directory hierarchy, asking if it was really necessary to store so much of our data on expensive RAID drives. I was impressed by that. Yahoo's market cap then was already in the billions, and they were still worrying about wasting a few gigs of disk space.
When you get a couple million dollars from a VC firm, you tend to feel rich. It's important to realize you're not. A rich company is one with large revenues. This money isn't revenue. It's money investors have given you in the hope you'll be able to generate revenues. So despite those millions in the bank, you're still poor.
For most startups the model should be grad student, not law firm. Aim for cool and cheap, not expensive and impressive. For us the test of whether a startup understood this was whether they had Aeron chairs. The Aeron came out during the Bubble and was very popular with startups. Especially the type, all too common then, that was like a bunch of kids playing house with money supplied by VCs. We had office chairs so cheap that the arms all fell off. This was slightly embarrassing at the time, but in retrospect the grad-studenty atmosphere of our office was another of those things we did right without knowing it.
Our offices were in a wooden triple-decker in Harvard Square. It had been an apartment until about the 1970s, and there was still a claw-footed bathtub in the bathroom. It must once have been inhabited by someone fairly eccentric, because a lot of the chinks in the walls were stuffed with aluminum foil, as if to protect against cosmic rays. When eminent visitors came to see us, we were a bit sheepish about the low production values. But in fact that place was the perfect space for a startup. We felt like our role was to be impudent underdogs instead of corporate stuffed shirts, and that is exactly the spirit you want.
An apartment is also the right kind of place for developing software. Cube farms suck for that, as you've probably discovered if you've tried it. Ever notice how much easier it is to hack at home than at work? So why not make work more like home?
When you're looking for space for a startup, don't feel that it has to look professional. Professional means doing good work, not elevators and glass walls. I'd advise most startups to avoid corporate space at first and just rent an apartment. You want to live at the office in a startup, so why not have a place designed to be lived in as your office?
Besides being cheaper and better to work in, apartments tend to be in better locations than office buildings. And for a startup location is very important. The key to productivity is for people to come back to work after dinner. Those hours after the phone stops ringing are by far the best for getting work done. Great things happen when a group of employees go out to dinner together, talk over ideas, and then come back to their offices to implement them. So you want to be in a place where there are a lot of restaurants around, not some dreary office park that's a wasteland after 6:00 PM. Once a company shifts over into the model where everyone drives home to the suburbs for dinner, however late, you've lost something extraordinarily valuable. God help you if you actually start in that mode.
If I were going to start a startup today, there are only three places I'd consider doing it: on the Red Line near Central, Harvard, or Davis Squares (Kendall is too sterile); in Palo Alto on University or California Aves; and in Berkeley immediately north or south of campus. These are the only places I know that have the right kind of vibe.
The most important way to not spend money is by not hiring people. I may be an extremist, but I think hiring people is the worst thing a company can do. To start with, people are a recurring expense, which is the worst kind. They also tend to cause you to grow out of your space, and perhaps even move to the sort of uncool office building that will make your software worse. But worst of all, they slow you down: instead of sticking your head in someone's office and checking out an idea with them, eight people have to have a meeting about it. So the fewer people you can hire, the better.
During the Bubble a lot of startups had the opposite policy. They wanted to get "staffed up" as soon as possible, as if you couldn't get anything done unless there was someone with the corresponding job title. That's big company thinking. Don't hire people to fill the gaps in some a priori org chart. The only reason to hire someone is to do something you'd like to do but can't.
If hiring unnecessary people is expensive and slows you down, why do nearly all companies do it? I think the main reason is that people like the idea of having a lot of people working for them. This weakness often extends right up to the CEO. If you ever end up running a company, you'll find the most common question people ask is how many employees you have. This is their way of weighing you. It's not just random people who ask this; even reporters do. And they're going to be a lot more impressed if the answer is a thousand than if it's ten.
This is ridiculous, really. If two companies have the same revenues, it's the one with fewer employees that's more impressive. When people used to ask me how many people our startup had, and I answered "twenty," I could see them thinking that we didn't count for much. I used to want to add "but our main competitor, whose ass we regularly kick, has a hundred and forty, so can we have credit for the larger of the two numbers?"
As with office space, the number of your employees is a choice between seeming impressive, and being impressive. Any of you who were nerds in high school know about this choice. Keep doing it when you start a company.
But should you start a company? Are you the right sort of person to do it? If you are, is it worth it?
More people are the right sort of person to start a startup than realize it. That's the main reason I wrote this. There could be ten times more startups than there are, and that would probably be a good thing.
I was, I now realize, exactly the right sort of person to start a startup. But the idea terrified me at first. I was forced into it because I was a Lisp hacker. The company I'd been consulting for seemed to be running into trouble, and there were not a lot of other companies using Lisp. Since I couldn't bear the thought of programming in another language (this was 1995, remember, when "another language" meant C++) the only option seemed to be to start a new company using Lisp.
I realize this sounds far-fetched, but if you're a Lisp hacker you'll know what I mean. And if the idea of starting a startup frightened me so much that I only did it out of necessity, there must be a lot of people who would be good at it but who are too intimidated to try.
So who should start a startup? Someone who is a good hacker, between about 23 and 38, and who wants to solve the money problem in one shot instead of getting paid gradually over a conventional working life.
I can't say precisely what a good hacker is. At a first rate university this might include the top half of computer science majors. Though of course you don't have to be a CS major to be a hacker; I was a philosophy major in college.
It's hard to tell whether you're a good hacker, especially when you're young. Fortunately the process of starting startups tends to select them automatically. What drives people to start startups is (or should be) looking at existing technology and thinking, don't these guys realize they should be doing x, y, and z? And that's also a sign that one is a good hacker.
I put the lower bound at 23 not because there's something that doesn't happen to your brain till then, but because you need to see what it's like in an existing business before you try running your own. The business doesn't have to be a startup. I spent a year working for a software company to pay off my college loans. It was the worst year of my adult life, but I learned, without realizing it at the time, a lot of valuable lessons about the software business. In this case they were mostly negative lessons: don't have a lot of meetings; don't have chunks of code that multiple people own; don't have a sales guy running the company; don't make a high-end product; don't let your code get too big; don't leave finding bugs to QA people; don't go too long between releases; don't isolate developers from users; don't move from Cambridge to Route 128; and so on.  But negative lessons are just as valuable as positive ones. Perhaps even more valuable: it's hard to repeat a brilliant performance, but it's straightforward to avoid errors. 
The other reason it's hard to start a company before 23 is that people won't take you seriously. VCs won't trust you, and will try to reduce you to a mascot as a condition of funding. Customers will worry you're going to flake out and leave them stranded. Even you yourself, unless you're very unusual, will feel your age to some degree; you'll find it awkward to be the boss of someone much older than you, and if you're 21, hiring only people younger rather limits your options.
Some people could probably start a company at 18 if they wanted to. Bill Gates was 19 when he and Paul Allen started Microsoft. (Paul Allen was 22, though, and that probably made a difference.) So if you're thinking, I don't care what he says, I'm going to start a company now, you may be the sort of person who could get away with it.
The other cutoff, 38, has a lot more play in it. One reason I put it there is that I don't think many people have the physical stamina much past that age. I used to work till 2:00 or 3:00 AM every night, seven days a week. I don't know if I could do that now.
Also, startups are a big risk financially. If you try something that blows up and leaves you broke at 26, big deal; a lot of 26 year olds are broke. By 38 you can't take so many risks-- especially if you have kids.
My final test may be the most restrictive. Do you actually want to start a startup? What it amounts to, economically, is compressing your working life into the smallest possible space. Instead of working at an ordinary rate for 40 years, you work like hell for four. And maybe end up with nothing-- though in that case it probably won't take four years.
During this time you'll do little but work, because when you're not working, your competitors will be. My only leisure activities were running, which I needed to do to keep working anyway, and about fifteen minutes of reading a night. I had a girlfriend for a total of two months during that three year period. Every couple weeks I would take a few hours off to visit a used bookshop or go to a friend's house for dinner. I went to visit my family twice. Otherwise I just worked.
Working was often fun, because the people I worked with were some of my best friends. Sometimes it was even technically interesting. But only about 10% of the time. The best I can say for the other 90% is that some of it is funnier in hindsight than it seemed then. Like the time the power went off in Cambridge for about six hours, and we made the mistake of trying to start a gasoline powered generator inside our offices. I won't try that again.
I don't think the amount of bullshit you have to deal with in a startup is more than you'd endure in an ordinary working life. It's probably less, in fact; it just seems like a lot because it's compressed into a short period. So mainly what a startup buys you is time. That's the way to think about it if you're trying to decide whether to start one. If you're the sort of person who would like to solve the money problem once and for all instead of working for a salary for 40 years, then a startup makes sense.
For a lot of people the conflict is between startups and graduate school. Grad students are just the age, and just the sort of people, to start software startups. You may worry that if you do you'll blow your chances of an academic career. But it's possible to be part of a startup and stay in grad school, especially at first. Two of our three original hackers were in grad school the whole time, and both got their degrees . There are few sources of energy so powerful as a procrastinating grad student.
If you do have to leave grad school, in the worst case it won't be for too long. If a startup fails, it will probably fail quickly enough that you can return to academic life. And if it succeeds, you may find you no longer have such a burning desire to be an assistant professor.
If you want to do it, do it. Starting a startup is not the great mystery it seems from outside. It's not something you have to know about "business" to do. Build something users love, and spend less than you make. How hard is that?
 Google's revenues are about two billion a year, but half comes from ads on other sites.
 One advantage startups have over established companies is that there are no discrimination laws about starting businesses. For example, I would be reluctant to start a startup with a woman who had small children, or was likely to have them soon. But you're not allowed to ask prospective employees if they plan to have kids soon. Believe it or not, under current US law, you're not even allowed to discriminate on the basis of intelligence. Whereas when you're starting a company, you can discriminate on any basis you want about who you start it with.
 Learning to hack is a lot cheaper than business school, because you can do it mostly on your own. For the price of a Linux box, a copy of K&R, and a few hours of advice from your neighbor's fifteen year old son, you'll be well on your way.
 Corollary: Avoid starting a startup to sell things to the biggest company of all, the government. Yes, there are lots of opportunities to sell them technology. But let someone else start those startups.
 A friend who started a company in Germany told me they do care about the paperwork there, and that there's more of it. Which helps explain why there are not more startups in Germany.
 At the seed stage our valuation was in principle $100,000, because Julian got 10% of the company. But this is a very misleading number, because the money was the least important of the things Julian gave us.
 The same goes for companies that seem to want to acquire you. There will be a few that are only pretending to in order to pick your brains. But you can never tell for sure which these are, so the best approach is to seem entirely open, but to fail to mention a few critical technical secrets.
 I was as bad an employee as this place was a company. I apologize to anyone who had to work with me there.
 You could probably write a book about how to succeed in business by doing everything in exactly the opposite way from the DMV.
Thanks to Trevor Blackwell, Sarah Harlin, Jessica Livingston, and Robert Morris for reading drafts of this essay, and to Steve Melendez and Gregory Price for inviting me to speak.
In the Q & A period after a recent talk, someone asked what made startups fail. After standing there gaping for a few seconds I realized this was kind of a trick question. It's equivalent to asking how to make a startup succeed—if you avoid every cause of failure, you succeed—and that's too big a question to answer on the fly.
Afterwards I realized it could be helpful to look at the problem from this direction. If you have a list of all the things you shouldn't do, you can turn that into a recipe for succeeding just by negating. And this form of list may be more useful in practice. It's easier to catch yourself doing something you shouldn't than always to remember to do something you should. [ 1 ]
In a sense there's just one mistake that kills startups: not making something users want. If you make something users want, you'll probably be fine, whatever else you do or don't do. And if you don't make something users want, then you're dead, whatever else you do or don't do. So really this is a list of 18 things that cause startups not to make something users want. Nearly all failure funnels through that.
1. Single Founder
Have you ever noticed how few successful startups were founded by just one person? Even companies you think of as having one founder, like Oracle, usually turn out to have more. It seems unlikely this is a coincidence.
What's wrong with having one founder? To start with, it's a vote of no confidence. It probably means the founder couldn't talk any of his friends into starting the company with him. That's pretty alarming, because his friends are the ones who know him best.
But even if the founder's friends were all wrong and the company is a good bet, he's still at a disadvantage. Starting a startup is too hard for one person. Even if you could do all the work yourself, you need colleagues to brainstorm with, to talk you out of stupid decisions, and to cheer you up when things go wrong.
The last one might be the most important. The low points in a startup are so low that few could bear them alone. When you have multiple founders, esprit de corps binds them together in a way that seems to violate conservation laws. Each thinks "I can't let my friends down." This is one of the most powerful forces in human nature, and it's missing when there's just one founder.
2. Bad Location
Startups prosper in some places and not others. Silicon Valley dominates, then Boston, then Seattle, Austin, Denver, and New York. After that there's not much. Even in New York the number of startups per capita is probably a 20th of what it is in Silicon Valley. In towns like Houston and Chicago and Detroit it's too small to measure.
Why is the falloff so sharp? Probably for the same reason it is in other industries. What's the sixth largest fashion center in the US? The sixth largest center for oil, or finance, or publishing? Whatever they are they're probably so far from the top that it would be misleading even to call them centers.
It's an interesting question why cities become startup hubs, but the reason startups prosper in them is probably the same as it is for any industry: that's where the experts are. Standards are higher; people are more sympathetic to what you're doing; the kind of people you want to hire want to live there; supporting industries are there; the people you run into in chance meetings are in the same business. Who knows exactly how these factors combine to boost startups in Silicon Valley and squish them in Detroit, but it's clear they do from the number of startups per capita in each.
3. Marginal Niche
Most of the groups that apply to Y Combinator suffer from a common problem: choosing a small, obscure niche in the hope of avoiding competition.
If you watch little kids playing sports, you notice that below a certain age they're afraid of the ball. When the ball comes near them their instinct is to avoid it. I didn't make a lot of catches as an eight year old outfielder, because whenever a fly ball came my way, I used to close my eyes and hold my glove up more for protection than in the hope of catching it.
Choosing a marginal project is the startup equivalent of my eight year old strategy for dealing with fly balls. If you make anything good, you're going to have competitors, so you may as well face that. You can only avoid competition by avoiding good ideas.
I think this shrinking from big problems is mostly unconscious. It's not that people think of grand ideas but decide to pursue smaller ones because they seem safer. Your unconscious won't even let you think of grand ideas. So the solution may be to think about ideas without involving yourself. What would be a great idea for someone else to do as a startup?
4. Derivative Idea
Many of the applications we get are imitations of some existing company. That's one source of ideas, but not the best. If you look at the origins of successful startups, few were started in imitation of some other startup. Where did they get their ideas? Usually from some specific, unsolved problem the founders identified.
Our startup made software for making online stores. When we started it, there wasn't any; the few sites you could order from were hand-made at great expense by web consultants. We knew that if online shopping ever took off, these sites would have to be generated by software, so we wrote some. Pretty straightforward.
It seems like the best problems to solve are ones that affect you personally. Apple happened because Steve Wozniak wanted a computer, Google because Larry and Sergey couldn't find stuff online, Hotmail because Sabeer Bhatia and Jack Smith couldn't exchange email at work.
So instead of copying the Facebook, with some variation that the Facebook rightly ignored, look for ideas from the other direction. Instead of starting from companies and working back to the problems they solved, look for problems and imagine the company that might solve them. [ 2 ] What do people complain about? What do you wish there was?
In some fields the way to succeed is to have a vision of what you want to achieve, and to hold true to it no matter what setbacks you encounter. Starting startups is not one of them. The stick-to-your-vision approach works for something like winning an Olympic gold medal, where the problem is well-defined. Startups are more like science, where you need to follow the trail wherever it leads.
So don't get too attached to your original plan, because it's probably wrong. Most successful startups end up doing something different than they originally intended—often so different that it doesn't even seem like the same company. You have to be prepared to see the better idea when it arrives. And the hardest part of that is often discarding your old idea.
But openness to new ideas has to be tuned just right. Switching to a new idea every week will be equally fatal. Is there some kind of external test you can use? One is to ask whether the ideas represent some kind of progression. If in each new idea you're able to re-use most of what you built for the previous ones, then you're probably in a process that converges. Whereas if you keep restarting from scratch, that's a bad sign.
Fortunately there's someone you can ask for advice: your users. If you're thinking about turning in some new direction and your users seem excited about it, it's probably a good bet.
6. Hiring Bad Programmers
I forgot to include this in the early versions of the list, because nearly all the founders I know are programmers. This is not a serious problem for them. They might accidentally hire someone bad, but it's not going to kill the company. In a pinch they can do whatever's required themselves.
But when I think about what killed most of the startups in the e-commerce business back in the 90s, it was bad programmers. A lot of those companies were started by business guys who thought the way startups worked was that you had some clever idea and then hired programmers to implement it. That's actually much harder than it sounds—almost impossibly hard in fact—because business guys can't tell which are the good programmers. They don't even get a shot at the best ones, because no one really good wants a job implementing the vision of a business guy.
In practice what happens is that the business guys choose people they think are good programmers (it says here on his resume that he's a Microsoft Certified Developer) but who aren't. Then they're mystified to find that their startup lumbers along like a World War II bomber while their competitors scream past like jet fighters. This kind of startup is in the same position as a big company, but without the advantages.
So how do you pick good programmers if you're not a programmer? I don't think there's an answer. I was about to say you'd have to find a good programmer to help you hire people. But if you can't recognize good programmers, how would you even do that?
7. Choosing the Wrong Platform
A related problem (since it tends to be done by bad programmers) is choosing the wrong platform. For example, I think a lot of startups during the Bubble killed themselves by deciding to build server-based applications on Windows. Hotmail was still running on FreeBSD for years after Microsoft bought it, presumably because Windows couldn't handle the load. If Hotmail's founders had chosen to use Windows, they would have been swamped.
PayPal only just dodged this bullet. After they merged with X.com, the new CEO wanted to switch to Windows—even after PayPal cofounder Max Levchin showed that their software scaled only 1% as well on Windows as Unix. Fortunately for PayPal they switched CEOs instead.
Platform is a vague word. It could mean an operating system, or a programming language, or a "framework" built on top of a programming language. It implies something that both supports and limits, like the foundation of a house.
The scary thing about platforms is that there are always some that seem to outsiders to be fine, responsible choices and yet, like Windows in the 90s, will destroy you if you choose them. Java applets were probably the most spectacular example. This was supposed to be the new way of delivering applications. Presumably it killed just about 100% of the startups who believed that.
How do you pick the right platforms? The usual way is to hire good programmers and let them choose. But there is a trick you could use if you're not a programmer: visit a top computer science department and see what they use in research projects.
8. Slowness in Launching
Companies of all sizes have a hard time getting software done. It's intrinsic to the medium; software is always 85% done. It takes an effort of will to push through this and get something released to users. [ 3 ]
Startups make all kinds of excuses for delaying their launch. Most are equivalent to the ones people use for procrastinating in everyday life. There's something that needs to happen first. Maybe. But if the software were 100% finished and ready to launch at the push of a button, would they still be waiting?
One reason to launch quickly is that it forces you to actually finish some quantum of work. Nothing is truly finished till it's released; you can see that from the rush of work that's always involved in releasing anything, no matter how finished you thought it was. The other reason you need to launch is that it's only by bouncing your idea off users that you fully understand it.
Several distinct problems manifest themselves as delays in launching: working too slowly; not truly understanding the problem; fear of having to deal with users; fear of being judged; working on too many different things; excessive perfectionism. Fortunately you can combat all of them by the simple expedient of forcing yourself to launch something fairly quickly.
9. Launching Too Early
Launching too slowly has probably killed a hundred times more startups than launching too fast, but it is possible to launch too fast. The danger here is that you ruin your reputation. You launch something, the early adopters try it out, and if it's no good they may never come back.
So what's the minimum you need to launch? We suggest startups think about what they plan to do, identify a core that's both (a) useful on its own and (b) something that can be incrementally expanded into the whole project, and then get that done as soon as possible.
This is the same approach I (and many other programmers) use for writing software. Think about the overall goal, then start by writing the smallest subset of it that does anything useful. If it's a subset, you'll have to write it anyway, so in the worst case you won't be wasting your time. But more likely you'll find that implementing a working subset is both good for morale and helps you see more clearly what the rest should do.
The early adopters you need to impress are fairly tolerant. They don't expect a newly launched product to do everything; it just has to do something .
10. Having No Specific User in Mind
You can't build things users like without understanding them. I mentioned earlier that the most successful startups seem to have begun by trying to solve a problem their founders had. Perhaps there's a rule here: perhaps you create wealth in proportion to how well you understand the problem you're solving, and the problems you understand best are your own. [ 4 ]
That's just a theory. What's not a theory is the converse: if you're trying to solve problems you don't understand, you're hosed.
And yet a surprising number of founders seem willing to assume that someone, they're not sure exactly who, will want what they're building. Do the founders want it? No, they're not the target market. Who is? Teenagers. People interested in local events (that one is a perennial tarpit). Or "business" users. What business users? Gas stations? Movie studios? Defense contractors?
You can of course build something for users other than yourself. We did. But you should realize you're stepping into dangerous territory. You're flying on instruments, in effect, so you should (a) consciously shift gears, instead of assuming you can rely on your intuitions as you ordinarily would, and (b) look at the instruments.
In this case the instruments are the users. When designing for other people you have to be empirical. You can no longer guess what will work; you have to find users and measure their responses. So if you're going to make something for teenagers or "business" users or some other group that doesn't include you, you have to be able to talk some specific ones into using what you're making. If you can't, you're on the wrong track.
11. Raising Too Little Money
Most successful startups take funding at some point. Like having more than one founder, it seems a good bet statistically. How much should you take, though?
Startup funding is measured in time. Every startup that isn't profitable (meaning nearly all of them, initially) has a certain amount of time left before the money runs out and they have to stop. This is sometimes referred to as runway, as in "How much runway do you have left?" It's a good metaphor because it reminds you that when the money runs out you're going to be airborne or dead.
Too little money means not enough to get airborne. What airborne means depends on the situation. Usually you have to advance to a visibly higher level: if all you have is an idea, a working prototype; if you have a prototype, launching; if you're launched, significant growth. It depends on investors, because until you're profitable that's who you have to convince.
So if you take money from investors, you have to take enough to get to the next step, whatever that is. [ 5 ] Fortunately you have some control over both how much you spend and what the next step is. We advise startups to set both low, initially: spend practically nothing, and make your initial goal simply to build a solid prototype. This gives you maximum flexibility.
12. Spending Too Much
It's hard to distinguish spending too much from raising too little. If you run out of money, you could say either was the cause. The only way to decide which to call it is by comparison with other startups. If you raised five million and ran out of money, you probably spent too much.
Burning through too much money is not as common as it used to be. Founders seem to have learned that lesson. Plus it keeps getting cheaper to start a startup. So as of this writing few startups spend too much. None of the ones we've funded have. (And not just because we make small investments; many have gone on to raise further rounds.)
The classic way to burn through cash is by hiring a lot of people. This bites you twice: in addition to increasing your costs, it slows you down—so money that's getting consumed faster has to last longer. Most hackers understand why that happens; Fred Brooks explained it in The Mythical Man-Month.
We have three general suggestions about hiring: (a) don't do it if you can avoid it, (b) pay people with equity rather than salary, not just to save money, but because you want the kind of people who are committed enough to prefer that, and (c) only hire people who are either going to write code or go out and get users, because those are the only things you need at first.
13. Raising Too Much Money
It's obvious how too little money could kill you, but is there such a thing as having too much?
Yes and no. The problem is not so much the money itself as what comes with it. As one VC who spoke at Y Combinator said, "Once you take several million dollars of my money, the clock is ticking." If VCs fund you, they're not going to let you just put the money in the bank and keep operating as two guys living on ramen. They want that money to go to work. [ 6 ] At the very least you'll move into proper office space and hire more people. That will change the atmosphere, and not entirely for the better. Now most of your people will be employees rather than founders. They won't be as committed; they'll need to be told what to do; they'll start to engage in office politics.
When you raise a lot of money, your company moves to the suburbs and has kids.
Perhaps more dangerously, once you take a lot of money it gets harder to change direction. Suppose your initial plan was to sell something to companies. After taking VC money you hire a sales force to do that. What happens now if you realize you should be making this for consumers instead of businesses? That's a completely different kind of selling. What happens, in practice, is that you don't realize that. The more people you have, the more you stay pointed in the same direction.
Another drawback of large investments is the time they take. The time required to raise money grows with the amount. [ 7 ] When the amount rises into the millions, investors get very cautious. VCs never quite say yes or no; they just engage you in an apparently endless conversation. Raising VC scale investments is thus a huge time sink—more work, probably, than the startup itself. And you don't want to be spending all your time talking to investors while your competitors are spending theirs building things.
We advise founders who go on to seek VC money to take the first reasonable deal they get. If you get an offer from a reputable firm at a reasonable valuation with no unusually onerous terms, just take it and get on with building the company. [ 8 ] Who cares if you could get a 30% better deal elsewhere? Economically, startups are an all-or-nothing game. Bargain-hunting among investors is a waste of time.
14. Poor Investor Management
As a founder, you have to manage your investors. You shouldn't ignore them, because they may have useful insights. But neither should you let them run the company. That's supposed to be your job. If investors had sufficient vision to run the companies they fund, why didn't they start them?
Pissing off investors by ignoring them is probably less dangerous than caving in to them. In our startup, we erred on the ignoring side. A lot of our energy got drained away in disputes with investors instead of going into the product. But this was less costly than giving in, which would probably have destroyed the company. If the founders know what they're doing, it's better to have half their attention focused on the product than the full attention of investors who don't.
How hard you have to work on managing investors usually depends on how much money you've taken. When you raise VC-scale money, the investors get a great deal of control. If they have a board majority, they're literally your bosses. In the more common case, where founders and investors are equally represented and the deciding vote is cast by neutral outside directors, all the investors have to do is convince the outside directors and they control the company.
If things go well, this shouldn't matter. So long as you seem to be advancing rapidly, most investors will leave you alone. But things don't always go smoothly in startups. Investors have made trouble even for the most successful companies. One of the most famous examples is Apple, whose board made a nearly fatal blunder in firing Steve Jobs. Apparently even Google got a lot of grief from their investors early on.
15. Sacrificing Users to (Supposed) Profit
When I said at the beginning that if you make something users want, you'll be fine, you may have noticed I didn't mention anything about having the right business model. That's not because making money is unimportant. I'm not suggesting that founders start companies with no chance of making money in the hope of unloading them before they tank. The reason we tell founders not to worry about the business model initially is that making something people want is so much harder.
I don't know why it's so hard to make something people want. It seems like it should be straightforward. But you can tell it must be hard by how few startups do it.
Because making something people want is so much harder than making money from it, you should leave business models for later, just as you'd leave some trivial but messy feature for version 2. In version 1, solve the core problem. And the core problem in a startup is how to create wealth (= how much people want something x the number who want it), not how to convert that wealth into money.
The companies that win are the ones that put users first. Google, for example. They made search work, then worried about how to make money from it. And yet some startup founders still think it's irresponsible not to focus on the business model from the beginning. They're often encouraged in this by investors whose experience comes from less malleable industries.
It is irresponsible not to think about business models. It's just ten times more irresponsible not to think about the product.
16. Not Wanting to Get Your Hands Dirty
Nearly all programmers would rather spend their time writing code and have someone else handle the messy business of extracting money from it. And not just the lazy ones. Larry and Sergey apparently felt this way too at first. After developing their new search algorithm, the first thing they tried was to get some other company to buy it.
Start a company? Yech. Most hackers would rather just have ideas. But as Larry and Sergey found, there's not much of a market for ideas. No one trusts an idea till you embody it in a product and use that to grow a user base. Then they'll pay big time.
Maybe this will change, but I doubt it will change much. There's nothing like users for convincing acquirers. It's not just that the risk is decreased. The acquirers are human, and they have a hard time paying a bunch of young guys millions of dollars just for being clever. When the idea is embodied in a company with a lot of users, they can tell themselves they're buying the users rather than the cleverness, and this is easier for them to swallow. [ 9 ]
If you're going to attract users, you'll probably have to get up from your computer and go find some. It's unpleasant work, but if you can make yourself do it you have a much greater chance of succeeding. In the first batch of startups we funded, in the summer of 2005, most of the founders spent all their time building their applications. But there was one who was away half the time talking to executives at cell phone companies, trying to arrange deals. Can you imagine anything more painful for a hacker? [ 10 ] But it paid off, because this startup seems the most successful of that group by an order of magnitude.
If you want to start a startup, you have to face the fact that you can't just hack. At least one hacker will have to spend some of the time doing business stuff.
17. Fights Between Founders
Fights between founders are surprisingly common. About 20% of the startups we've funded have had a founder leave. It happens so often that we've reversed our attitude to vesting. We still don't require it, but now we advise founders to vest so there will be an orderly way for people to quit.
A founder leaving doesn't necessarily kill a startup, though. Plenty of successful startups have had that happen. [ 11 ] Fortunately it's usually the least committed founder who leaves. If there are three founders and one who was lukewarm leaves, big deal. If you have two and one leaves, or a guy with critical technical skills leaves, that's more of a problem. But even that is survivable. Blogger got down to one person, and they bounced back.
Most of the disputes I've seen between founders could have been avoided if they'd been more careful about who they started a company with. Most disputes are not due to the situation but the people. Which means they're inevitable. And most founders who've been burned by such disputes probably had misgivings, which they suppressed, when they started the company. Don't suppress misgivings. It's much easier to fix problems before the company is started than after. So don't include your housemate in your startup because he'd feel left out otherwise. Don't start a company with someone you dislike because they have some skill you need and you worry you won't find anyone else. The people are the most important ingredient in a startup, so don't compromise there.
18. A Half-Hearted Effort
The failed startups you hear most about are the spectactular flameouts. Those are actually the elite of failures. The most common type is not the one that makes spectacular mistakes, but the one that doesn't do much of anything—the one we never even hear about, because it was some project a couple guys started on the side while working on their day jobs, but which never got anywhere and was gradually abandoned.
Statistically, if you want to avoid failure, it would seem like the most important thing is to quit your day job. Most founders of failed startups don't quit their day jobs, and most founders of successful ones do. If startup failure were a disease, the CDC would be issuing bulletins warning people to avoid day jobs.
Does that mean you should quit your day job? Not necessarily. I'm guessing here, but I'd guess that many of these would-be founders may not have the kind of determination it takes to start a company, and that in the back of their minds, they know it. The reason they don't invest more time in their startup is that they know it's a bad investment. [ 12 ]
I'd also guess there's some band of people who could have succeeded if they'd taken the leap and done it full-time, but didn't. I have no idea how wide this band is, but if the winner/borderline/hopeless progression has the sort of distribution you'd expect, the number of people who could have made it, if they'd quit their day job, is probably an order of magnitude larger than the number who do make it. [ 13 ]
If that's true, most startups that could succeed fail because the founders don't devote their whole efforts to them. That certainly accords with what I see out in the world. Most startups fail because they don't make something people want, and the reason most don't is that they don't try hard enough.
In other words, starting startups is just like everything else. The biggest mistake you can make is not to try hard enough. To the extent there's a secret to success, it's not to be in denial about that.
[ 1 ] This is not a complete list of the causes of failure, just those you can control. There are also several you can't, notably ineptitude and bad luck.
[ 2 ] Ironically, one variant of the Facebook that might work is a facebook exclusively for college students.
[ 3 ] Steve Jobs tried to motivate people by saying "Real artists ship." This is a fine sentence, but unfortunately not true. Many famous works of art are unfinished. It's true in fields that have hard deadlines, like architecture and filmmaking, but even there people tend to be tweaking stuff till it's yanked out of their hands.
[ 4 ] There's probably also a second factor: startup founders tend to be at the leading edge of technology, so problems they face are probably especially valuable.
[ 5 ] You should take more than you think you'll need, maybe 50% to 100% more, because software takes longer to write and deals longer to close than you expect.
[ 6 ] Since people sometimes call us VCs, I should add that we're not. VCs invest large amounts of other people's money. We invest small amounts of our own, like angel investors.
[ 7 ] Not linearly of course, or it would take forever to raise five million dollars. In practice it just feels like it takes forever.
Though if you include the cases where VCs don't invest, it would literally take forever in the median case. And maybe we should, because the danger of chasing large investments is not just that they take a long time. That's the best case. The real danger is that you'll expend a lot of time and get nothing.
[ 8 ] Some VCs will offer you an artificially low valuation to see if you have the balls to ask for more. It's lame that VCs play such games, but some do. If you're dealing with one of those you should push back on the valuation a bit.
[ 9 ] Suppose YouTube's founders had gone to Google in 2005 and told them "Google Video is badly designed. Give us $10 million and we'll tell you all the mistakes you made." They would have gotten the royal raspberry. Eighteen months later Google paid $1.6 billion for the same lesson, partly because they could then tell themselves that they were buying a phenomenon, or a community, or some vague thing like that.
I don't mean to be hard on Google. They did better than their competitors, who may have now missed the video boat entirely.
[ 10 ] Yes, actually: dealing with the government. But phone companies are up there.
[ 11 ] Many more than most people realize, because companies don't advertise this. Did you know Apple originally had three founders?
[ 12 ] I'm not dissing these people. I don't have the determination myself. I've twice come close to starting startups since Viaweb, and both times I bailed because I realized that without the spur of poverty I just wasn't willing to endure the stress of a startup.
[ 13 ] So how do you know whether you're in the category of people who should quit their day job, or the presumably larger one who shouldn't? I got to the point of saying that this was hard to judge for yourself and that you should seek outside advice, before realizing that that's what we do. We think of ourselves as investors, but viewed from the other direction Y Combinator is a service for advising people whether or not to quit their day job. We could be mistaken, and no doubt often are, but we do at least bet money on our conclusions.
Thanks to Sam Altman, Jessica Livingston, Greg McAdoo, and Robert Morris for reading drafts of this.
(This essay is derived from talks at the 2007 Startup School and the Berkeley CSUA.)
We've now been doing Y Combinator long enough to have some data about success rates. Our first batch, in the summer of 2005, had eight startups in it. Of those eight, it now looks as if at least four succeeded. Three have been acquired: Reddit was a merger of two, Reddit and Infogami, and a third was acquired that we can't talk about yet. Another from that batch was Loopt , which is doing so well they could probably be acquired in about ten minutes if they wanted to.
So about half the founders from that first summer, less than two years ago, are now rich, at least by their standards. (One thing you learn when you get rich is that there are many degrees of it.)
I'm not ready to predict our success rate will stay as high as 50%. That first batch could have been an anomaly. But we should be able to do better than the oft-quoted (and probably made up) standard figure of 10%. I'd feel safe aiming at 25%.
Even the founders who fail don't seem to have such a bad time. Of those first eight startups, three are now probably dead. In two cases the founders just went on to do other things at the end of the summer. I don't think they were traumatized by the experience. The closest to a traumatic failure was Kiko, whose founders kept working on their startup for a whole year before being squashed by Google Calendar. But they ended up happy. They sold their software on eBay for a quarter of a million dollars. After they paid back their angel investors, they had about a year's salary each. [ 1 ] Then they immediately went on to start a new and much more exciting startup, Justin.TV .
So here is an even more striking statistic: 0% of that first batch had a terrible experience. They had ups and downs, like every startup, but I don't think any would have traded it for a job in a cubicle. And that statistic is probably not an anomaly. Whatever our long-term success rate ends up being, I think the rate of people who wish they'd gotten a regular job will stay close to 0%.
The big mystery to me is: why don't more people start startups? If nearly everyone who does it prefers it to a regular job, and a significant percentage get rich, why doesn't everyone want to do this? A lot of people think we get thousands of applications for each funding cycle. In fact we usually only get several hundred. Why don't more people apply? And while it must seem to anyone watching this world that startups are popping up like crazy, the number is small compared to the number of people with the necessary skills. The great majority of programmers still go straight from college to cubicle, and stay there.
It seems like people are not acting in their own interest. What's going on? Well, I can answer that. Because of Y Combinator's position at the very start of the venture funding process, we're probably the world's leading experts on the psychology of people who aren't sure if they want to start a company.
There's nothing wrong with being unsure. If you're a hacker thinking about starting a startup and hesitating before taking the leap, you're part of a grand tradition. Larry and Sergey seem to have felt the same before they started Google, and so did Jerry and Filo before they started Yahoo. In fact, I'd guess the most successful startups are the ones started by uncertain hackers rather than gung-ho business guys.
We have some evidence to support this. Several of the most successful startups we've funded told us later that they only decided to apply at the last moment. Some decided only hours before the deadline.
The way to deal with uncertainty is to analyze it into components. Most people who are reluctant to do something have about eight different reasons mixed together in their heads, and don't know themselves which are biggest. Some will be justified and some bogus, but unless you know the relative proportion of each, you don't know whether your overall uncertainty is mostly justified or mostly bogus.
So I'm going to list all the components of people's reluctance to start startups, and explain which are real. Then would-be founders can use this as a checklist to examine their own feelings.
I admit my goal is to increase your self-confidence. But there are two things different here from the usual confidence-building exercise. One is that I'm motivated to be honest. Most people in the confidence-building business have already achieved their goal when you buy the book or pay to attend the seminar where they tell you how great you are. Whereas if I encourage people to start startups who shouldn't, I make my own life worse. If I encourage too many people to apply to Y Combinator, it just means more work for me, because I have to read all the applications.
The other thing that's going to be different is my approach. Instead of being positive, I'm going to be negative. Instead of telling you "come on, you can do it" I'm going to consider all the reasons you aren't doing it, and show why most (but not all) should be ignored. We'll start with the one everyone's born with.
1. Too young
A lot of people think they're too young to start a startup. Many are right. The median age worldwide is about 27, so probably a third of the population can truthfully say they're too young.
What's too young? One of our goals with Y Combinator was to discover the lower bound on the age of startup founders. It always seemed to us that investors were too conservative here—that they wanted to fund professors, when really they should be funding grad students or even undergrads.
The main thing we've discovered from pushing the edge of this envelope is not where the edge is, but how fuzzy it is. The outer limit may be as low as 16. We don't look beyond 18 because people younger than that can't legally enter into contracts. But the most successful founder we've funded so far, Sam Altman, was 19 at the time.
Sam Altman, however, is an outlying data point. When he was 19, he seemed like he had a 40 year old inside him. There are other 19 year olds who are 12 inside.
There's a reason we have a distinct word "adult" for people over a certain age. There is a threshold you cross. It's conventionally fixed at 21, but different people cross it at greatly varying ages. You're old enough to start a startup if you've crossed this threshold, whatever your age.
How do you tell? There are a couple tests adults use. I realized these tests existed after meeting Sam Altman, actually. I noticed that I felt like I was talking to someone much older. Afterward I wondered, what am I even measuring? What made him seem older?
One test adults use is whether you still have the kid flake reflex. When you're a little kid and you're asked to do something hard, you can cry and say "I can't do it" and the adults will probably let you off. As a kid there's a magic button you can press by saying "I'm just a kid" that will get you out of most difficult situations. Whereas adults, by definition, are not allowed to flake. They still do, of course, but when they do they're ruthlessly pruned.
The other way to tell an adult is by how they react to a challenge. Someone who's not yet an adult will tend to respond to a challenge from an adult in a way that acknowledges their dominance. If an adult says "that's a stupid idea," a kid will either crawl away with his tail between his legs, or rebel. But rebelling presumes inferiority as much as submission. The adult response to "that's a stupid idea," is simply to look the other person in the eye and say "Really? Why do you think so?"
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. Too inexperienced
I once wrote that startup founders should be at least 23, and that people should work for another company for a few years before starting their own. I no longer believe that, and what changed my mind is the example of the startups we've funded.
I still think 23 is a better age than 21. But the best way to get experience if you're 21 is to start a startup. So, paradoxically, if you're too inexperienced to start a startup, what you should do is start one. That's a way more efficient cure for inexperience than a normal job. In fact, getting a normal job may actually make you less able to start a startup, by turning you into a tame animal who thinks he needs an office to work in and a product manager to tell him what software to write.
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.
So now I'd advise people to go ahead and start startups right out of college. There's no better time to take risks than when you're young. Sure, you'll probably fail. But even failure will get you to the ultimate goal faster than getting a job.
It worries me a bit to be saying this, because in effect we're advising people to educate themselves by failing at our expense, but it's the truth.
3. Not determined enough
You need a lot of determination to succeed as a startup founder. It's probably the single best predictor of success.
Some people may not be determined enough to make it. It's hard for me to say for sure, because I'm so determined that I can't imagine what's going on in the heads of people who aren't. But I know they exist.
Most hackers probably underestimate their determination. I've seen a lot become visibly more determined as they get used to running a startup. I can think of several we've funded who would have been delighted at first to be bought for $2 million, but are now set on world domination.
How can you tell if you're determined enough, when Larry and Sergey themselves were unsure at first about starting a company? I'm guessing here, but I'd say the test is whether you're sufficiently driven to work on your own projects. Though they may have been unsure whether they wanted to start a company, it doesn't seem as if Larry and Sergey were meek little research assistants, obediently doing their advisors' bidding. They started projects of their own.
4. 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.
And in any case, starting a startup just doesn't require that much intelligence. Some startups do. You have to be good at math to write Mathematica. But most companies do more mundane stuff where the decisive factor is effort, not brains. Silicon Valley can warp your perspective on this, because there's a cult of smartness here. People who aren't smart at least try to act that way. But if you think it takes a lot of intelligence to get rich, try spending a couple days in some of the fancier bits of New York or LA.
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. Know nothing about business
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.
I get a fair amount of flak for telling founders just to make something great and not worry too much about making money. And yet all the empirical evidence points that way: pretty much 100% of startups that make something popular manage to make money from it. And acquirers tell me privately that revenue is not what they buy startups for, but their strategic value. Which means, because they made something people want. Acquirers know the rule holds for them too: if users love you, you can always make money from that somehow, and if they don't, the cleverest business model in the world won't save you.
So why do so many people argue with me? I think one reason is that they hate the idea that a bunch of twenty year olds could get rich from building something cool that doesn't make any money. They just don't want that to be possible. But how possible it is doesn't depend on how much they want it to be.
For a while it annoyed me to hear myself described as some kind of irresponsible pied piper, leading impressionable young hackers down the road to ruin. But now I realize this kind of controversy is a sign of a good idea.
The most valuable truths are the ones most people don't believe. They're like undervalued stocks. If you start with them, you'll have the whole field to yourself. So when you find an idea you know is good but most people disagree with, you should not merely ignore their objections, but push aggressively in that direction. In this case, that means you should seek out ideas that would be popular but seem hard to make money from.
We'll bet a seed round you can't make something popular that we can't figure out how to make money from.
6. No 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.
We've funded two single founders, but in both cases we suggested their first priority should be to find a cofounder. Both did. But we'd have preferred them to have cofounders before they applied. It's not super hard to get a cofounder for a project that's just been funded, and we'd rather have cofounders committed enough to sign up for something super hard.
If you don't have a cofounder, what should you do? Get one. It's more important than anything else. If there's no one where you live who wants to start a startup with you, move where there are people who do. If no one wants to work with you on your current idea, switch to an idea people want to work on.
If you're still in school, you're surrounded by potential cofounders. A few years out it gets harder to find them. Not only do you have a smaller pool to draw from, but most already have jobs, and perhaps even families to support. So if you had friends in college you used to scheme about startups with, stay in touch with them as well as you can. That may help keep the dream alive.
It's possible you could meet a cofounder through something like a user's group or a conference. But I wouldn't be too optimistic. You need to work with someone to know whether you want them as a cofounder. [ 2 ]
The real lesson to draw from this is not how to find a cofounder, but that you should start startups when you're young and there are lots of them around.
In a sense, it's not a problem if you don't have a good idea, because most startups change their idea anyway. In the average Y Combinator startup, I'd guess 70% of the idea is new at the end of the first three months. Sometimes it's 100%.
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. If you want, you can answer the question on the application form that asks what you're going to do with "We have no idea." If you seem really good we'll accept you anyway. We're confident we can sit down with you and cook up some promising project.
Really this just codifies what we do already. We put little weight on the idea. We ask mainly out of politeness. The kind of question on the application form that we really care about is the one where we ask what cool things you've made. If what you've made is version one of a promising startup, so much the better, but the main thing we care about is whether you're good at making things. Being lead developer of a popular open source project counts almost as much.
That solves the problem if you get funded by Y Combinator. What about in the general case? Because in another sense, it is a problem if you don't have an idea. If you start a startup with no idea, what do you do next?
So here's the brief recipe for getting startup ideas. Find something that's missing in your own life, and supply that need—no matter how specific to you it seems. Steve Wozniak built himself a computer; who knew so many other people would want them? A need that's narrow but genuine is a better starting point than one that's broad but hypothetical. So even if the problem is simply that you don't have a date on Saturday night, if you can think of a way to fix that by writing software, you're onto something, because a lot of other people have the same problem.
8. No 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? [ 3 ]
Nearly everyone who works is satisfying some kind of need. Breaking up companies into smaller units doesn't make those needs go away. Existing needs would probably get satisfied more efficiently by a network of startups than by a few giant, hierarchical organizations, but I don't think that would mean less opportunity, because satisfying current needs would lead to more. Certainly this tends to be the case in individuals. Nor is there anything wrong with that. We take for granted things that medieval kings would have considered effeminate luxuries, like whole buildings heated to spring temperatures year round. And if things go well, our descendants will take for granted things we would consider shockingly luxurious. There is no absolute standard for material wealth. Health care is a component of it, and that alone is a black hole. For the foreseeable future, people will want ever more material wealth, so there is no limit to the amount of work available for companies, and for startups in particular.
Usually the limited-room fallacy is not expressed directly. Usually it's implicit in statements like "there are only so many startups Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo can buy." Maybe, though the list of acquirers is a lot longer than that. And whatever you think of other acquirers, Google is not stupid. The reason big companies buy startups is that they've created something valuable. And why should there be any limit to the number of valuable startups companies can acquire, any more than there is a limit to the amount of wealth individual people want? Maybe there would be practical limits on the number of startups any one acquirer could assimilate, but if there is value to be had, in the form of upside that founders are willing to forgo in return for an immediate payment, acquirers will evolve to consume it. Markets are pretty smart that way.
9. Family 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. I'm willing to take responsibility for telling 22 year olds to start startups. So what if they fail? They'll learn a lot, and that job at Microsoft will still be waiting for them if they need it. But I'm not prepared to cross moms.
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. Empirically the chances of pulling that off seem very small. You're never going to produce Google this way. But at least you'll never be without an income.
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. You'll be roughly 1/n^2 founder, where n is your employee number.
As with the question of cofounders, the real lesson here is to start startups when you're young.
10. Independently wealthy
This is my excuse for not starting a startup. 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?"
I've come close to starting new startups a couple times, but I always pull back because I don't want four years of my life to be consumed by random schleps. I know this business well enough to know you can't do it half-heartedly. What makes a good startup founder so dangerous is his willingness to endure infinite schleps.
There is a bit of a problem with retirement, though. Like a lot of people, I like to work. And one of the many weird little problems you discover when you get rich is that a lot of the interesting people you'd like to work with are not rich. They need to work at something that pays the bills. Which means if you want to have them as colleagues, you have to work at something that pays the bills too, even though you don't need to. I think this is what drives a lot of serial entrepreneurs, actually.
That's why I love working on Y Combinator so much. It's an excuse to work on something interesting with people I like.
11. Not ready for commitment
This was my reason for not starting a startup for most of my twenties. Like a lot of people that age, I valued freedom most of all. I was reluctant to do anything that required a commitment of more than a few months. Nor would I have wanted to do anything that completely took over my life the way a startup does. And that's fine. If you want to spend your time travelling around, or playing in a band, or whatever, that's a perfectly legitimate reason not to start a company.
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. Need for 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. In a good startup, you don't get told what to do very much. There may be one person whose job title is CEO, but till the company has about twelve people no one should be telling anyone what to do. That's too inefficient. Each person should just do what they need to without anyone telling them.
If that sounds like a recipe for chaos, think about a soccer team. Eleven people manage to work together in quite complicated ways, and yet only in occasional emergencies does anyone tell anyone else what to do. A reporter once asked David Beckham if there were any language problems at Real Madrid, since the players were from about eight different countries. He said it was never an issue, because everyone was so good they never had to talk. They all just did the right thing.
How do you tell if you're independent-minded enough to start a startup? If you'd bristle at the suggestion that you aren't, then you probably are.
13. Fear of 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.
Well, if you're troubled by uncertainty, I can solve that problem for you: if you start a startup, it will probably fail. Seriously, though, this is not a bad way to think about the whole experience. Hope for the best, but expect the worst. In the worst case, it will at least be interesting. In the best case you might get rich.
No one will blame you if the startup tanks, so long as you made a serious effort. There may once have been a time when employers would regard that as a mark against you, but they wouldn't now. I asked managers at big companies, and they all said they'd prefer to hire someone who'd tried to start a startup and failed over someone who'd spent the same time working at a big company.
Nor will investors hold it against you, as long as you didn't fail out of laziness or incurable stupidity. I'm told there's a lot of stigma attached to failing in other places—in Europe, for example. Not here. In America, companies, like practically everything else, are disposable.
14. 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.
If you've had summer jobs in college, you may think you know what jobs are like, but you probably don't. Summer jobs at technology companies are not real jobs. If you get a summer job as a waiter, that's a real job. Then you have to carry your weight. But software companies don't hire students for the summer as a source of cheap labor. They do it in the hope of recruiting them when they graduate. So while they're happy if you produce, they don't expect you to.
That will change if you get a real job after you graduate. Then you'll have to earn your keep. And since most of what big companies do is boring, you're going to have to work on boring stuff. Easy, compared to college, but boring. At first it may seem cool to get paid for doing easy stuff, after paying to do hard stuff in college. But that wears off after a few months. Eventually it gets demoralizing to work on dumb stuff, even if it's easy and you get paid a lot.
And that's not the worst of it. The thing that really sucks about having a regular job is the expectation that you're supposed to be there at certain times. Even Google is afflicted with this, apparently. And what this means, as everyone who's had a regular job can tell you, is that there are going to be times when you have absolutely no desire to work on anything, and you're going to have to go to work anyway and sit in front of your screen and pretend to. To someone who likes work, as most good hackers do, this is torture.
In a startup, you skip all that. There's no concept of office hours in most startups. Work and life just get mixed together. But the good thing about that is that no one minds if you have a life at work. In a startup you can do whatever you want most of the time. If you're a founder, what you want to do most of the time is work. But you never have to pretend to.
If you took a nap in your office in a big company, it would seem unprofessional. But if you're starting a startup and you fall asleep in the middle of the day, your cofounders will just assume you were tired.
15. Parents want you to be a doctor
A significant number of would-be startup founders are probably dissuaded from doing it by their parents. I'm not going to say you shouldn't listen to them. Families are entitled to their own traditions, and who am I to argue with them? But I will give you a couple reasons why a safe career might not be what your parents really want for you.
One is that parents tend to be more conservative for their kids than they would be for themselves. This is actually a rational response to their situation. Parents end up sharing more of their kids' ill fortune than good fortune. Most parents don't mind this; it's part of the job; but it does tend to make them excessively conservative. And erring on the side of conservatism is still erring. In almost everything, reward is proportionate to risk. So by protecting their kids from risk, parents are, without realizing it, also protecting them from rewards. If they saw that, they'd want you to take more risks.
The other reason parents may be mistaken is that, like generals, they're always fighting the last war. If they want you to be a doctor, odds are it's not just because they want you to help the sick, but also because it's a prestigious and lucrative career. [ 4 ] But not so lucrative or prestigious as it was when their opinions were formed. 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. 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.
We may be seeing another such change right now. I've read a lot of economic history, and I understand the startup world pretty well, and it now seems to me fairly likely that we're seeing the beginning of a change like the one from farming to manufacturing.
And you know what? If you'd been around when that change began (around 1000 in Europe) it would have seemed to nearly everyone that running off to the city to make your fortune was a crazy thing to do. Though serfs were in principle forbidden to leave their manors, it can't have been that hard to run away to a city. There were no guards patrolling the perimeter of the village. What prevented most serfs from leaving was that it seemed insanely risky. Leave one's plot of land? Leave the people you'd spent your whole life with, to live in a giant city of three or four thousand complete strangers? How would you live? How would you get food, if you didn't grow it?
Frightening as it seemed to them, it's now the default with us to live by our wits. So if it seems risky to you to start a startup, think how risky it once seemed to your ancestors to live as we do now. Oddly enough, the people who know this best are the very ones trying to get you to stick to the old model. How can Larry and Sergey say you should come work as their employee, when they didn't get jobs themselves?
Now we look back on medieval peasants and wonder how they stood it. How grim it must have been to till the same fields your whole life with no hope of anything better, under the thumb of lords and priests you had to give all your surplus to and acknowledge as your masters. I wouldn't be surprised if one day people look back on what we consider a normal job in the same way. How grim it would be to commute every day to a cubicle in some soulless office complex, and be told what to do by someone you had to acknowledge as a boss—someone who could call you into their office and say "take a seat," and you'd sit! Imagine having to ask permission to release software to users. Imagine being sad on Sunday afternoons because the weekend was almost over, and tomorrow you'd have to get up and go to work. How did they stand it?
It's exciting to think we may be on the cusp of another shift like the one from farming to manufacturing. That's why I care about startups. Startups aren't interesting just because they're a way to make a lot of money. I couldn't care less about other ways to do that, like speculating in securities. At most those are interesting the way puzzles are. There's more going on with startups. They may represent one of those rare, historic shifts in the way wealth is created.
That's ultimately what drives us to work on Y Combinator. We want to make money, if only so we don't have to stop doing it, but that's not the main goal. There have only been a handful of these great economic shifts in human history. It would be an amazing hack to make one happen faster.
[ 1 ] The only people who lost were us. The angels had convertible debt, so they had first claim on the proceeds of the auction. Y Combinator only got 38 cents on the dollar.
[ 2 ] The best kind of organization for that might be an open source project, but those don't involve a lot of face to face meetings. Maybe it would be worth starting one that did.
[ 3 ] There need to be some number of big companies to acquire the startups, so the number of big companies couldn't decrease to zero.
[ 4 ] Thought experiment: If doctors did the same work, but as impoverished outcasts, which parents would still want their kids to be doctors?
Thanks to Trevor Blackwell, Jessica Livingston, and Robert Morris for reading drafts of this, to the founders of Zenter for letting me use their web-based PowerPoint killer even though it isn't launched yet, and to Ming-Hay Luk of the Berkeley CSUA for inviting me to speak.
A couple days ago I finally got being a good startup founder down to two words: relentlessly resourceful.
Till then the best I'd managed was to get the opposite quality down to one: hapless. Most dictionaries say hapless means unlucky. But the dictionaries are not doing a very good job. A team that outplays its opponents but loses because of a bad decision by the referee could be called unlucky, but not hapless. Hapless implies passivity. To be hapless is to be battered by circumstances—to let the world have its way with you, instead of having your way with the world. [ 1 ]
Unfortunately there's no antonym of hapless, which makes it difficult to tell founders what to aim for. "Don't be hapless" is not much of rallying cry.
It's not hard to express the quality we're looking for in metaphors. The best is probably a running back. A good running back is not merely determined, but flexible as well. They want to get downfield, but they adapt their plans on the fly.
Unfortunately this is just a metaphor, and not a useful one to most people outside the US. "Be like a running back" is no better than "Don't be hapless."
But finally I've figured out how to express this quality directly. I was writing a talk for investors , and I had to explain what to look for in founders. What would someone who was the opposite of hapless be like? They'd be relentlessly resourceful. Not merely relentless. That's not enough to make things go your way except in a few mostly uninteresting domains. In any interesting domain, the difficulties will be novel. Which means you can't simply plow through them, because you don't know initially how hard they are; you don't know whether you're about to plow through a block of foam or granite. So you have to be resourceful. You have to keep trying new things.
Be relentlessly resourceful.
That sounds right, but is it simply a description of how to be successful in general? I don't think so. This isn't the recipe for success in writing or painting, for example. In that kind of work the recipe is more to be actively curious. Resourceful implies the obstacles are external, which they generally are in startups. But in writing and painting they're mostly internal; the obstacle is your own obtuseness. [ 2 ]
There probably are other fields where "relentlessly resourceful" is the recipe for success. But though other fields may share it, I think this is the best short description we'll find of what makes a good startup founder. I doubt it could be made more precise.
Now that we know what we're looking for, that leads to other questions. For example, can this quality be taught? After four years of trying to teach it to people, I'd say that yes, surprisingly often it can. Not to everyone, but to many people. [ 3 ] Some people are just constitutionally passive, but others have a latent ability to be relentlessly resourceful that only needs to be brought out.
This is particularly true of young people who have till now always been under the thumb of some kind of authority. Being relentlessly resourceful is definitely not the recipe for success in big companies, or in most schools. I don't even want to think what the recipe is in big companies, but it is certainly longer and messier, involving some combination of resourcefulness, obedience, and building alliances.
Identifying this quality also brings us closer to answering a question people often wonder about: how many startups there could be. There is not, as some people seem to think, any economic upper bound on this number. There's no reason to believe there is any limit on the amount of newly created wealth consumers can absorb, any more than there is a limit on the number of theorems that can be proven. So probably the limiting factor on the number of startups is the pool of potential founders. Some people would make good founders, and others wouldn't. And now that we can say what makes a good founder, we know how to put an upper bound on the size of the pool.
This test is also useful to individuals. If you want to know whether you're the right sort of person to start a startup, ask yourself whether you're relentlessly resourceful. And if you want to know whether to recruit someone as a cofounder, ask if they are.
You can even use it tactically. If I were running a startup, this would be the phrase I'd tape to the mirror. "Make something people want" is the destination, but "Be relentlessly resourceful" is how you get there.
[ 1 ] I think the reason the dictionaries are wrong is that the meaning of the word has shifted. No one writing a dictionary from scratch today would say that hapless meant unlucky. But a couple hundred years ago they might have. People were more at the mercy of circumstances in the past, and as a result a lot of the words we use for good and bad outcomes have origins in words about luck.
When I was living in Italy, I was once trying to tell someone that I hadn't had much success in doing something, but I couldn't think of the Italian word for success. I spent some time trying to describe the word I meant. Finally she said "Ah! Fortuna!"
[ 2 ] There are aspects of startups where the recipe is to be actively curious. There can be times when what you're doing is almost pure discovery. Unfortunately these times are a small proportion of the whole. On the other hand, they are in research too.
[ 3 ] I'd almost say to most people, but I realize (a) I have no idea what most people are like, and (b) I'm pathologically optimistic about people's ability to change.
Thanks to Trevor Blackwell and Jessica Livingston for reading drafts of this.
Besides Paul Graham, who's writing/essays do you read?
Paul Graham is notorious for his essays and writings on Startups. If you haven't read his stuff, I encourage you to give them a read. Some of the insights are timeless.
Who else do you look to for quality writing, thoughts, or insights in the industry?
Masters Of Scale podcast with Reid Hoffman. Entertaining with some solid nuggets of advice.
I’ve read his book. Some very interesting insights.
Jason Lemkin /Saastr
Thanks for this. Will check it out.
Naval Ravikant has some solid nuggets of wisdom to share as well. You might find the venture hacks compilation useful
1300 + pages. Wow
I’ll have to check this out. Thank you!
Thanks! I’ll check these out.
I find Naval Ravikant very helpful for startups. "The Knowledge Project" is also a great podcast to listen to, they have a lot of great guests on that have succeeded in the start up world.
Thanks will put both on my list to check out.
Originally Answered: Readers who like Paul Graham's essays, would also like [Insert author/essayist name(s)]?. I recently ran into the blog of Gabriel
I gain a lot of insight on the technology world reading from the writings (essays, blog posts) of Paul Graham and Sam Altman.
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Wealth is whatever people want, and not dying is certainly something we want. Hackers often donate their work by writing open source software that anyone can
Paul Graham is notorious for his essays and writings on Startups. If you haven't read his stuff, I encourage you to give them a read.