Before a startup - part two

Original author: Paul Graham
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This is the second part of a lecture given by Paul Graham in a Harvard class. The essay focuses on what you need to know before you become a startup founder .



All of the above leads us to the fourth counter-intuitive point - startups are all-consuming. If you start your own, it will take such a high place in your life that initially you cannot even imagine it. And if you succeed with your project, it will come into your life for a very long time: for many years, at least, rather a decade, and possibly the rest of your life. Therefore, you have to pay a certain price for the prospect: its presence, or absence.

It may seem that the life of Larry Page is worthy of envy, but it also has aspects that no one would envy. By and large, at the age of 25 he began to run as fast as he could, and since then he has not had the opportunity to stop for a break. Every day in the empire of Google there are problems that only the CEO can cope with, and he has to solve them. If he goes on vacation, suppose for a week, there will be a whole stack of problems requiring urgent solutions. And he will have to cope with it, not having the opportunity to complain to someone, partly because he is a “dad” who does not have the ability to show weakness or fear, and partly because everyone does not care about the possible problems and difficulties of billionaires. This phenomenon has a strange side effect in the form that the whole complexity of building and living a successful startup, and its founder, hidden from prying eyes. No one knows in detail "how this is done", except for those who did it.

Y Combinator has currently funded several companies that can be called “successful,” and in each case, the founders say the same thing: “ It doesn't get any easier .” And will not. The nature of the problems changes over time and the volume of tasks: you will think about delays in building a building for a new office in London instead of thinking about a broken air conditioner in the hot summer. The total amount of experience will never decrease, it will be good if it does not increase.

And here again, you can compare the foundation of a startup with a conscious decision to have children - this is how to press a button that will change your life beyond recognition. And initially you do not know how exactly this will happen. And although having children is wonderful, you can do a lot of things “before” this in order to help your future self. And much of this is easier to do before your children appear than after. Much of this will make you a better parent. And as you might think, it will stop before “pushing a button” associated with children and getting ready, most people in rich countries and cities do just that.

But when it comes to startups, a lot of people think that the younger you are, the more chances you have for success, and you need to start at a college or university. Are you crazy? What is the teaching staff thinking about? They are concerned that students have contraceptives in order to prevent shame on campuses, and at the same time they organize entrepreneurial programs and start-up incubators left and right.

But, in truth, universities have their hands tied. A huge number of incoming students are interested in startups, and from universities, de facto, students are expected to prepare for this career. Therefore, those students who want to start their own startups hope that the institution can do this. And regardless of whether the university can actually cope with this task, it is forced to say that it can, otherwise students will go to another institution - which clearly states that it can.

Can universities really teach students how to do startups? Yes and no. They can teach students knowledge about startups, but, as I explained earlier, this is not what you need to know. What you need to know is the needs of users, but you can’t find out in any way until you organize your company or project. Therefore, the foundation and management of a startup, a start-up business is such a fun thing that you can learn only by doing this. But in college or university it is almost impossible to do this, for the reason that I also mentioned - it will take your whole life. You cannot start a company as a student, because if you do this, you will cease to be a student. Nominally, you can be counted as such, but in fact it will change immediately.

Given this contradiction, which of these two paths should you go? Be a student and not start a startup, or start doing a startup and stop being a student? I can answer that. Do not start a startup at a college or university. “How to make your business and product successful” is just a small part of a larger question that sounds like: “ How do I live a better life?” ". And although the foundation of a startup can indeed be the way to a better life for many ambitious people, the age of “about 20” is not the best period for this. After all, the foundation of your own startup is a search “in depth”, and in 20 with something you should search first of all “in breadth”.

At age 20, you can do things that you cannot do before and cannot do after, such as diving into spontaneous projects at any whim or traveling without a sense of “boundaries”. For unambitious people, such things are doomed to “fear of not being successful,” but for ambitious people this is the only way to get valuable experience. If at 20 you make a startup that becomes successful, you can never do it again.

Mark Zuckerberg will never be able to roam the cities of a country in search of impressions. Yes, he can do something that is not available to many - for example, to buy a charter that will take him anywhere. But “success” took a huge amount of diversity from his life, and Facebook sets the tone for his existence in the same way that he set the tone for Facebook’s development. And although it is very cool to feel like an integral part of the project that you consider to be a matter of your own life, there are also advantages in diversity, especially at the dawn of life. Among other things, it is diversity that brings to your life an understanding of what exactly you would like to do the rest of the time, what to work on in life.

There is no "exchange" or "barter". You don’t sacrifice anything when you start a startup at 20, but you are most likely to succeed if you wait a bit. In the unlikely event of a development of events, one of your side projects can take off, as was the case with Facebook, and you have to decide whether to give this project all its time or not, and in such a situation, it is really reasonable to do this. But in a normal situation, the founders have to work very hard and work fantastically in order to achieve this, and it would be foolish to spend the brightest years of their lives on this.


Is it worth it to start doing this at any age? Now I realized that from the current description it turns out that starting a startup is a very difficult and almost impossible task. If you haven’t understood this yet, I’ll repeat: starting a startup is hard work. What if it's too heavy? How to determine if you can handle it?

The answer to this question is the fifth counter-intuitive point: it is impossible to say or guess. Your life by the current moment should already have hinted to you the whole array of information related to what and how would happen if you decide to become a mathematician. Or a professional soccer player. But, only if you had an extremely strange and atypical life, you will never know how it is to be the founder of a successful startup. If you start, it will change everything, and all of you. Therefore, what needs to be evaluated is where and to whom you could grow, and who is capable of it at all.

For the past 9 years, my job has been to predict whether the person whom I see in front of me can become the founder of a successful business. It was always easy to tell people how smart they are, and most of those who read this text have probably heard this repeatedly. It was almost impossible, is and will be to say how much a person will become ambitious and demanding of himself. There will probably be few people with the same experience as mine, and I tell you: you will not guess. For myself, I have long learned to keep my mind open as to which project from each set will turn out to be a real star.

Sometimes it seems to the founders that "they know." Many come to Y Combinator with the impression that they will be able to “beat” our system as a test, which they have already dealt with in a similar (artificial) way several times in the past. Others come, sincerely surprised at how they managed to choose them and trying to hide mistakes that can make a bad impression. But in practice, almost no correlation arises between these two diametrically opposite, initial moods and the final result.

I read that in the military world this also has a place to be: it is impossible to say who will become the best officer - a quiet soldier or a brave guy. This happens for the same reason - the trials that separate them from the officers and high ranks are not comparable with what each of them faced in the past.

If you are completely scared of starting your own company, you probably shouldn't do that. But if you're a little unsure, the only way to check is to try it. But do not forget about time and age.


So, if you want to do a startup one day, then what should you do now? Initially, you only need two things: an idea and a team. And your modus operandi should consist in the correct time synchronization of these two parts. Which brings us to the sixth, and last, counter-intuitive point: the way to get good ideas for startups is to not think about ideas for startups.

I wrote an entire essay on this subject, so I will not repeat it in full and give only a brief version of the above. The fact is that trying to consciously think about startup ideas, you can come up with something that looks good at first glance, but bad. What will happen next? You will spend a lot of time before you realize that the idea is still bad.

The right way to “realize” good startup ideas is to take a step back. Instead of making a conscious effort to generate a startup idea, make an effort and concentrate on what does not require consciousness in order to become a startup. Most of today's super-projects initially began, as, precisely, unconsciously selected action fields that at the start did not even look like projects.

It’s not just “possible” - this is how Apple, Yahoo, Google and Facebook started their business. None of these companies even tried to be a company - these were amateur projects. The best startups, in fact, have to start as amateur projects, because the best ideas always seem outsiders in the minds of any normal person and are not perceived as an idea for founding a company.

How, then, do you set up your own consciousness for this type of work so that startup ideas are formed unconsciously? 1. You need to know a lot about things that matter, and 2. work on problems that interest you with 3. those people that you like and respect. It is no coincidence that the third fact just forms successful teams of co-founders working on one idea.

The first time I wrote this paragraph, instead of “knowing a lot about things that matter”, I wrote “to become a specialist in some technology.” But this description, albeit correct, is too narrow. What was special about Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia was that they did not own the technology at all. They were good at design, and, more importantly, they were good at organizing groups and implementing projects. Therefore, you do not need to be able to work on or with technology, as such, as long as you are busy with tasks that require the flexibility of your mind and actions.

What are these tasks? It is really difficult to answer this question in a general tone. The story is full of examples of young enthusiasts working on ideas that no one else knew or considered critical about, at the same time in different parts of the world. How do you know if you are working on something worthwhile?

I know what I know. The real problems are interesting, and I encourage myself to work on an interesting thing, even if nobody else cares about it (especially if nobody cares about it). I find it difficult to work with boring tasks, even if they seem important.

My life is full of examples of how I worked on something just out of my personal and subjective interest, and afterwards it turned out that someone else liked my decision, sometimes many people liked it. Y Combinator itself was something that seemed interesting. I call it the “internal compass”, which helps me navigate in space. But I don’t know what is inside other people and how they imagine it. Perhaps if I think about it a little longer, I can come up with some kind of algorithm for recognizing truly interesting problems, but so far the only thing I can offer is the following. If you have a goal and a desire to deal with interesting tasks, encouraging this interest is the best way to prepare yourself for the foundation of a startup. Perhaps to life too.

And although I cannot describe in general terms what is an interesting problem, I can describe a large number of sub-problems. If you perceive technology as something growing like a fractal, each moving point on the edge is an interesting task. Therefore, one of the guaranteed ways to turn your mind toward getting ideas for startups is to force yourself, as Paul Buchheit says, to "live in the future." When you reach this point, ideas that seem unobvious to other people will seem banal to you. You may even see the idea for a startup in one of them, or not see, but you will be aware that you are thinking about something that exists or should exist.

For example, in the 90s at Harvard, one of the common acquaintances of my classmates Robert and Alarm wrote his own VoIP-software package. He did not want to create a startup, he never tried to turn it into a startup. He just wanted to chat with his girlfriend from Taiwan without fantastic phone bills, and since he was an expert in networking, it seemed obvious to him that his voice could be turned into packets and sent over the Internet. He did nothing in the program except to allow him to communicate with his girlfriend, and that is how the best startups are born.

Therefore, oddly enough, the best thing you can do in college if you want to establish your own IT company sometime is not to think about how to establish it. This is a classic wording. If you want to do something of your own after college, then in college you should be busy with all-consuming matters, no matter what. And learn to execute them as efficiently as possible. And if you have intellectual curiosity in you, you will create a startup doing something interesting, or useful, for yourself.

The part of entrepreneurship that really plays a role is expertise in a certain area: skills + experience. The only way to become Larry Page is to be an expert in the search. And in order to become an expert in the search, all you need to do is self-actualize and go “on your own”, in a good way. Being curious is true, not "for a reason."

Startups are not made out of self-interest, but because of secrecy in their own curiosity. When you want to know something from the “beginning to the end”, the end will be just a successful startup. Best case scenario.

Therefore, here is my last and comprehensive advice to those who want to become the founder of a successful IT company in one day: just study .

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