April 15, 2012

Bulk view

On why I don’t want to work on a tech startup (yet)

A friend of mine asked me if I’d considered creating a tech startup or advising one. The subject came up again when I was talking to another entrepreneur. With more and more tech startups hitting the news, it seems like the idea’s on everyone’s minds.

After reflecting on it during a few bike rides to and from work, I have a clearer understanding of what I want from these business experiments. A tech startup isn’t for me, at least not for the next few years.

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I think of it as minimizing risk by learning only small chunks at the time. Working as an employee was like learning how to ride a tricycle. The company gave me a stable platform so that I could build skills, confidence, experience, and capital. I experimented with intrapreneurship and found that it worked well for me.

When I had reached my savings goals and picked a good time to leave, I started my own business. Two months in, I’m discovering that the path I took is just like graduating from a tricycle to a bicycle with training wheels. By taking advantage of well-established business models, markets, and concepts, I can focus on learning how to run my own business without simultaneously trying to create something new and tremendously risky.

Going from the employee world to the startup world would have been much more of a stretch. I think of startups like riding on a mountain bike down a rocky hill where you’re not quite certain the trail will get you all the way down or whether that promising fork up ahead actually ends up going over a cliff. Actually, it’s like riding a in a pack of mountain bikes where other people might make it easier to spot cool opportunities (ooh! look! waterfall over there!) but they could also crash into you and send you all tumbling down the hill. Too many things to learn at the same time, I think.

Startups might be something I eventually grow into. I want to be more confident in my ability to handle paperwork, manage cashflow, hire and manage other people (or coordinate with contractors, or delegate in some other way), and negotiate with clients and suppliers before I take on trickier challenges. For example, it’s easier to practise negotiating with clients than with partners. You can fire a client, but there are much bigger consequences if you have problems with your business partners. By learning all these business skills with the training wheels of well-tested business, I can get ready for riskier projects and ventures.

Sure, it would’ve been pretty cool to hang out at all these meetups and tell people about my new venture (making sure to use phrases like “minimum viable product” and “pivot”), but it’s okay to learn about business in this somewhat less glamorous but more step-by-step way.

Besides, most tech startups brag about their horrible work-life balance lifestyles. I think that’s partly the self-fulfilling image we have of what it’s like to be in a startup, and partly because people have to scramble so much to learn all these different things at the same time. I don’t mind growing a little more slowly if it means still being happily married. =)

So that’s why even if I’ve got web development skills, contacts, and business/design interests, I’m not working on a tech startup. Small steps first, and that’s all right.