Student Startup Contradiction

Stitching together an array of thoughts on startups, existentialism, life as a student founder and a backlog of half complete essays.

Before diving into the depth of this essay let's define the term startup. One which I particularly prefer is by Neil Blumenthal who defined it as:

A startup is a company working to solve a problem where the solution is not obvious and success is not guaranteed.

It takes a special type of person to live up to this definition of a startup. Whether it's pure coincidence, stupidity or humble ingenuity is a factor of time. But a special person nevertheless. We call them startup founders.

Anyone who's been around a startup will be familiar with the intense, high-growth, act fast, fail quick environment. And, we all know even the best ideas have the potential to crash and burn without proper execution or simply as a reason of bad timing. Every great company isn't a home run, most in fact ultimately fail.

According to one Harvard Business School professor, an estimated 30% to 40%1 of high potential start-ups end up liquidating all assets. That's a risky number by any standard, especially with regards to the valuable time and money invested in these companies.

Couple that with venture capitalists and you've got a flaming ball that'd either erupt into a glorious show of fireworks or burn the city to the ground.

I'm not sure where I was going with that last paragraph, but I hope I can relate it back to something.

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So. Startups and startup founders.

More specifically, student startup founders.

In a guest lecture at Stanford, Paul Graham made an excellent argument for why students shouldn't be founding startups in college.

If you're serious, a startup can quickly start consuming your whole life and it becomes almost impossible to manage alongside something like school. Edge cases exist, but in general – pretty f*king hard.

If you're not willing to put in the effort that gets you to the point where your startup becomes your life, you better have had a very good reason for starting in the first place. It's somewhat of a dilemma student founders (myself included) will eventually face.

Paul's advice for students was to use their time in university to learn as much as possible. Building things you care about ... and that's something I could get behind.

In the bigger timeline of things (I mean life), the few years you spend dedicated to learning is a once in a lifetime opportunity and it's crucial that you spend as much of it as possible stockpiling all the ammunition you need for the rest of life.

Personally, from a very young age I've warped my definition of how I spend my time into a – "If I'm not doing something that's creating value, then I'm just wasting the precious little time I have left" – type of argument. While some might be proud of that fact, at the end of the day it's a tough life to live and justify.

If I were to change the colour of my shades I could be spending my time trekking nature's terrains. In fact, if we weren't so human we'd all be living life as nature intended. But that's getting into the existential realm of things. Too many questions, too little time.

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Getting back to topic.

Why do some people choose the startup path?

A lot of people are attracted to the allure of being an entrepreneur. While still being a relatively new and niche path only a small number of people choose to chase after, they're often pushing the boundaries of the status quo that people will always tend to notice as something special.

But from a higher order perspective looking at startup founders; I don't see why we can't draw parallels to most other things people do – whether it's the researcher in a lab sequencing endless genomes, a detective working a case or an artist painting a scene... chasing after something they're passionate about.

It's 2:03am – I'm going to abruptly end my train of thought now.


[Part 2 added at 4:32pm]

So where's the contradiction?

Should you start a startup as a student? Do you need to be doing something super productive every waking second of your life? Is that balance even possible? Is it a real startup? or should you simply skip it all and follow the traditional routes of life (*boring*). There's no wrong or right answer here.

It's a tough question because the very startups we're talking about are part of the ecosystem that's changing the world so fast. Software in particular has the potential to affect every industry. Traditional jobs are changed forever and some will be vanquished by technology.

To clarify - I'm not saying you shouldn't be starting a startup in school (I did). That's beside the point. I'm saying don't confuse the definition of the title 'startup founder'. It doesn't mean entrepreneur, it doesn't mean success and it definitely doesn't mean hoodie-clad tech guys & gals who aren't afraid to fail.

I'm not saying that to discredit real startup founders. I have immense respect for the people who go out on a limb to build something out of nothing and change the world in their own unique way.

But the word itself is a shell. It's a term given to anyone who's started something that has the potential to turn into a business. So when people come up to those labelled as 'startup founders' (particularly student founders) and ask them how they do it – I often feel very guilty about answering that question because there's only one thing I can honestly say – JUST DO IT!

But people always want to know more, and sound almost like you're hiding some secret recipe when you tell them otherwise. It often isn't that startup founders are smarter than anyone or have something special behind the curtain that helped them get there.

I tried for 6 years before I was able to pull off launching a product in a matter of hours. I've sucked as a designer and developer for years before I launched my first product. I may have started much earlier than most people usually would, but it's relentless work nevertheless. It's doing it over and over again until you get where you want to be.

If you want to start a startup then just dive straight into it. You don't have to go around asking 'startup founders' how they did it. You don't need to quit school or quit your job. Just start – right then and there with the understanding that things may or may not work out.

That's all there is to it.

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From time to time I like to write something that puts things in perspective and share some truths in an almost rant like style of writing. This post isn't meant to discredit the work and challenges faced by hard working startup founder, it's just an essay to get a point across – maybe you'll relate to it... or maybe not. Opinions are always subject to change with education.

Featured image by: BH0TCH on DeviantART

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