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.

  • nonoy

    this post reminds me of Guthrie Govan. A brilliant English musician. By mid 90’s his abilities had been turning heads with his demo material and had been asked to record a solo album which was the norm at that time). But he waited and took his time to mature and released his first solo record in 2006. And that record is a thing of exquisite beauty :-)

    • http://sachachua.com Sacha Chua

      Nonoy: Thanks for the encouragement!

  • Priya.D

    Hi Sacha,

    Brilliant examples….I can also do a virtual sketch of what you have said…Hats off Sacha,I became a great follower of you…

    People are most often think that they want to ride a bike at the scratch itself..But truth is that you should and have to learn a tricycle first to build your basement strong..Fantastic approach towards a professional life cycle

  • Jay

    Lol, most people at meetups are a waste of time. I find serial entrepreneurs or VCs give the best advice, not some poser with a business card.

    I partly agree with you, it’s important to get the right business mindset (or various business skills), so one needs to read about areas they are weak in, get experience working for start ups and get a good mentor.

    However, I think most small businesses* and start ups inherently carry the same risk (and have a similar work-life balance), the only difference between them is that start ups look to create scalable business models and small businesses don’t. If you said, that franchises are less risky than start ups then I would agree with you. For both small businesses and start ups, it’s essential that you validate your ideas, to reduce the risk of failure. Also, start ups (like small businesses) don’t need to create something new but they need to create value for their customers, to keep them coming back for more.

    * Exceptions i.e. being profitable sellers on ebay or Craiglist and successful ebook sellers.

    • http://sachachua.com Sacha Chua

      Jay: <grin> That’s probably true. I think I learn a lot even from fellow newbies, though. It’s interesting to see other people’s anxieties (“I’m not going to tell you my idea! It’s super secret!”), the challenges they face (“We’re running ragged, we can’t hire the kinds of people we’re looking for”), the skills they’ve developed (“I do our bookkeeping too”), the things they’ve learned along the way… (“Our first hire was an admin, and she was a godsend.”) I’ve read a ton of books and blog posts and talked to a lot of people. Action is worth more than advice at this point. I’m happy to avoid obvious mistakes (“Make sure that you have contracts for any work you do”), but I don’t mind that I’m going to have to make a few of my own to learn, especially when balancing conflicting perspectives or pieces of advice.

      There are many small businesses that focus on scalable business models, although there are many businesspeople who don’t move beyond the first step of creating a job for themselves (and if that’s their plan, that’s totally all right). Even the ones based on services can scale in a way with hiring and training, although different businesses have different economies of scale. I think it’s more about innovation. Some companies don’t mind carving out a tiny niche in a well-understood, maybe even crowded space. Some companies have to disrupt a marketplace in order to succeed. Great risk, great rewards, and all that, but I’m also coming across conservative-looking businesses that do well too.

      So I guess the distinction I’m really looking at is “tech startup likely to be featured on blogs and news sites and likely to attract investors” and “less glamorous, more solid businesses”, or something like that. ;)