“John, I just want to do a startup. Not become a wage slave. When I graduate I need to find some people with a good idea or invent one of my own and then do a startup. How can I do that?” said Tom on the phone.
We talked about an hour, going over his alternatives as a bright student about to graduate from one of the finest universities in the world. Consulting for McKinsey. Wall Street work as an investment banker grunt to greatness. Fortune 500 climbing the ladder. Hot emerging growth company. Young gorillas like Google. And other alternatives.
But each time Tom rejected the idea and said “But I just want to do startup.” Finally he blurted, “John, give me a couple of names, people in good startups. I’ll call them and see if they will hire me.” That was my opportunity for one more attempt to clarify the real world to Tom.
“So Tom, why would you hire yourself if you were the founder of a good startup? What could you do to earn your keep in a new enterprise? What could you claim to be an expert at, doing it better than anyone else competing for the job?” There was a pregnant pause. About a minute later, Tom said “Do you mean I have to be good at marketing, or operations or something like that?” I replied “Well, why else would you hire yourself? There are millions of smart people out there who can learn to do something on the job as fast as you can, or faster. And why would you hire people to learn their jobs at the expense of your new enterprise?” Another pause ensued.
"What about the Internet guys like Goolge and Yahoo people?" asked Tom. "They were in the Mania phase of a bubble, Tom. Lucky, just plain lucky. Do you want to bet your next half a decade on luck?" I returned.
So I continued on. “Tom, it is easy to start a startup. Getting moving is not hard. What is hard is finishing alive and in great condition. That is hard. Finishing a startup is what a startup is all about. Building a world-class enterprise starting with an original idea is the name of the game. It is not about ‘doing a startup’.”
“You mean to tell me that I can’t just be a startup person?” Tom quietly said. I thought he was beginning to see the point I was trying to make. “Tom, competition is ruthless on new enterprises. The battles are for life or death. It is not about just having fun and walking away happy if it goes bankrupt. It is very serious. So whom do you want to go into battle with? A young, untrained rookie? Or a battle-proven veteran who can do a job with world-class excellence?”
“I think I get it” replied Tom. “Guess I’ll rethink my plans. Thanks.”
“Call me later if you want to talk further, Tom”
LESSON OF THE DAY: If you want to do a startup, start by becoming an expert at leading and managing one of the classical functions: marketing, engineering, finance, and so on. The mark of arrival is becoming a vice president of such a function in a brand name, world-class corporation. The crop of such graduates have made the most outstanding CEOs and core teams that went all the way to IPO. And they have gone on to become successful venture capitalists.