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If you wanted to get rich, how would you do it? I think your best bet would be to start or join a startup. That's been a reliable way to get rich for hundreds of years. The word "startup" dates from the 1960s, but what happens in one is very similar to the venture-backed trading voyages of the Middle Ages [...]
You need three things to create a successful startup: to start with good people, to make something customers actually want, and to spend as little money as possible. Most startups that fail do it because they fail at one of these. A startup that does all three will probably succeed [...]
The three big powers on the Internet now are Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft. Average age of their founders: 24. So it is pretty well established now that grad students can start successful companies. And if grad students can do it, why not undergrads? [...]
The startups we've funded so far are pretty quick, but they seem quicker to learn some lessons than others. I think it's because some things about startups are kind of counterintuitive [...]
In the Q & A period after a recent talk, someone asked what made startups fail. After standing there gaping for a few seconds I realized this was kind of a trick question. It's equivalent to asking how to make a startup succeed—if you avoid every cause of failure, you succeed—and that's too big a question to answer on the fly.
We've now been doing Y Combinator long enough to have some data about success rates. Our first batch, in the summer of 2005, had eight startups in it. Of those eight, it now looks as if at least four succeeded. Three have been acquired: Reddit was a merger of two, Reddit and Infogami, and a third was acquired that we can't talk about yet. Another from that batch was Loopt, which is doing so well they could probably be acquired in about ten minutes if they wanted to [...]
A good programmer working intensively on his own code can hold it in his mind the way a mathematician holds a problem he's working on. Mathematicians don't answer questions by working them out on paper the way schoolchildren are taught to [...]
Great cities attract ambitious people. You can sense it when you walk around one. In a hundred subtle ways, the city sends you a message: you could do more; you should try harder [...]
A couple days ago I finally got being a good startup founder down to two words: relentlessly resourceful [...]
I wasn't sure what to talk about at Startup School, so I decided to ask the founders of the startups we'd funded. What hadn't I written about yet?I'm in the unusual position of being able to test the essays I write about startups. I hope the ones on other topics are right, but I have no way to test them. The ones on startups get tested by about 70 people every 6 months [...]
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(This essay is derived from a talk at the Harvard Computer Society.)
You need three things to create a successful startup: to start with good people, to make something customers actually want, and to spend as little money as possible. Most startups that fail do it because they fail at one of these. A startup that does all three will probably succeed.
And that's kind of exciting, when you think about it, because all three are doable. Hard, but doable. And since a startup that succeeds ordinarily makes its founders rich, that implies getting rich is doable too. Hard, but doable.
If there is one message I'd like to get across about startups, that's it. There is no magically difficult step that requires brilliance to solve.
In particular, you don't need a brilliant idea to start a startup around. The way a startup makes money is to offer people better technology than they have now. But what people have now is often so bad that it doesn't take brilliance to do better.
Google's plan, for example, was simply to create a search site that didn't suck. They had three new ideas: index more of the Web, use links to rank search results, and have clean, simple web pages with unintrusive keyword-based ads. Above all, they were determined to make a site that was good to use. No doubt there are great technical tricks within Google, but the overall plan was straightforward. And while they probably have bigger ambitions now, this alone brings them a billion dollars a year. 
There are plenty of other areas that are just as backward as search was before Google. I can think of several heuristics for generating ideas for startups, but most reduce to this: look at something people are trying to do, and figure out how to do it in a way that doesn't suck.
For example, dating sites currently suck far worse than search did before Google. They all use the same simple-minded model. They seem to have approached the problem by thinking about how to do database matches instead of how dating works in the real world. An undergrad could build something better as a class project. And yet there's a lot of money at stake. Online dating is a valuable business now, and it might be worth a hundred times as much if it worked.
An idea for a startup, however, is only a beginning. A lot of would-be startup founders think the key to the whole process is the initial idea, and from that point all you have to do is execute. Venture capitalists know better. If you go to VC firms with a brilliant idea that you'll tell them about if they sign a nondisclosure agreement, most will tell you to get lost. That shows how much a mere idea is worth. The market price is less than the inconvenience of signing an NDA.
Another sign of how little the initial idea is worth is the number of startups that change their plan en route. Microsoft's original plan was to make money selling programming languages, of all things. Their current business model didn't occur to them until IBM dropped it in their lap five years later.
Ideas for startups are worth something, certainly, but the trouble is, they're not transferrable. They're not something you could hand to someone else to execute. Their value is mainly as starting points: as questions for the people who had them to continue thinking about.
What matters is not ideas, but the people who have them. Good people can fix bad ideas, but good ideas can't save bad people.
What do I mean by good people? One of the best tricks I learned during our startup was a rule for deciding who to hire. Could you describe the person as an animal? It might be hard to translate that into another language, but I think everyone in the US knows what it means. It means someone who takes their work a little too seriously; someone who does what they do so well that they pass right through professional and cross over into obsessive.
What it means specifically depends on the job: a salesperson who just won't take no for an answer; a hacker who will stay up till 4:00 AM rather than go to bed leaving code with a bug in it; a PR person who will cold-call New York Times reporters on their cell phones; a graphic designer who feels physical pain when something is two millimeters out of place.
Almost everyone who worked for us was an animal at what they did. The woman in charge of sales was so tenacious that I used to feel sorry for potential customers on the phone with her. You could sense them squirming on the hook, but you knew there would be no rest for them till they'd signed up.
If you think about people you know, you'll find the animal test is easy to apply. Call the person's image to mind and imagine the sentence "so-and-so is an animal." If you laugh, they're not. You don't need or perhaps even want this quality in big companies, but you need it in a startup.
For programmers we had three additional tests. Was the person genuinely smart? If so, could they actually get things done? And finally, since a few good hackers have unbearable personalities, could we stand to have them around?
That last test filters out surprisingly few people. We could bear any amount of nerdiness if someone was truly smart. What we couldn't stand were people with a lot of attitude. But most of those weren't truly smart, so our third test was largely a restatement of the first.
When nerds are unbearable it's usually because they're trying too hard to seem smart. But the smarter they are, the less pressure they feel to act smart. So as a rule you can recognize genuinely smart people by their ability to say things like "I don't know," "Maybe you're right," and "I don't understand x well enough."
This technique doesn't always work, because people can be influenced by their environment. In the MIT CS department, there seems to be a tradition of acting like a brusque know-it-all. I'm told it derives ultimately from Marvin Minsky, in the same way the classic airline pilot manner is said to derive from Chuck Yeager. Even genuinely smart people start to act this way there, so you have to make allowances.
It helped us to have Robert Morris, who is one of the readiest to say "I don't know" of anyone I've met. (At least, he was before he became a professor at MIT.) No one dared put on attitude around Robert, because he was obviously smarter than they were and yet had zero attitude himself.
Like most startups, ours began with a group of friends, and it was through personal contacts that we got most of the people we hired. This is a crucial difference between startups and big companies. Being friends with someone for even a couple days will tell you more than companies could ever learn in interviews. 
It's no coincidence that startups start around universities, because that's where smart people meet. It's not what people learn in classes at MIT and Stanford that has made technology companies spring up around them. They could sing campfire songs in the classes so long as admissions worked the same.
If you start a startup, there's a good chance it will be with people you know from college or grad school. So in theory you ought to try to make friends with as many smart people as you can in school, right? Well, no. Don't make a conscious effort to schmooze; that doesn't work well with hackers.
What you should do in college is work on your own projects. Hackers should do this even if they don't plan to start startups, because it's the only real way to learn how to program. In some cases you may collaborate with other students, and this is the best way to get to know good hackers. The project may even grow into a startup. But once again, I wouldn't aim too directly at either target. Don't force things; just work on stuff you like with people you like.
Ideally you want between two and four founders. It would be hard to start with just one. One person would find the moral weight of starting a company hard to bear. Even Bill Gates, who seems to be able to bear a good deal of moral weight, had to have a co-founder. But you don't want so many founders that the company starts to look like a group photo. Partly because you don't need a lot of people at first, but mainly because the more founders you have, the worse disagreements you'll have. When there are just two or three founders, you know you have to resolve disputes immediately or perish. If there are seven or eight, disagreements can linger and harden into factions. You don't want mere voting; you need unanimity.
In a technology startup, which most startups are, the founders should include technical people. During the Internet Bubble there were a number of startups founded by business people who then went looking for hackers to create their product for them. This doesn't work well. Business people are bad at deciding what to do with technology, because they don't know what the options are, or which kinds of problems are hard and which are easy. And when business people try to hire hackers, they can't tell which ones are good. Even other hackers have a hard time doing that. For business people it's roulette.
Do the founders of a startup have to include business people? That depends. We thought so when we started ours, and we asked several people who were said to know about this mysterious thing called "business" if they would be the president. But they all said no, so I had to do it myself. And what I discovered was that business was no great mystery. It's not something like physics or medicine that requires extensive study. You just try to get people to pay you for stuff.
I think the reason I made such a mystery of business was that I was disgusted by the idea of doing it. I wanted to work in the pure, intellectual world of software, not deal with customers' mundane problems. People who don't want to get dragged into some kind of work often develop a protective incompetence at it. Paul Erdos was particularly good at this. By seeming unable even to cut a grapefruit in half (let alone go to the store and buy one), he forced other people to do such things for him, leaving all his time free for math. Erdos was an extreme case, but most husbands use the same trick to some degree.
Once I was forced to discard my protective incompetence, I found that business was neither so hard nor so boring as I feared. There are esoteric areas of business that are quite hard, like tax law or the pricing of derivatives, but you don't need to know about those in a startup. All you need to know about business to run a startup are commonsense things people knew before there were business schools, or even universities.
If you work your way down the Forbes 400 making an x next to the name of each person with an MBA, you'll learn something important about business school. After Warren Buffett, you don't hit another MBA till number 22, Phil Knight, the CEO of Nike. There are only 5 MBAs in the top 50. What you notice in the Forbes 400 are a lot of people with technical backgrounds. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, Michael Dell, Jeff Bezos, Gordon Moore. The rulers of the technology business tend to come from technology, not business. So if you want to invest two years in something that will help you succeed in business, the evidence suggests you'd do better to learn how to hack than get an MBA. 
There is one reason you might want to include business people in a startup, though: because you have to have at least one person willing and able to focus on what customers want. Some believe only business people can do this-- that hackers can implement software, but not design it. That's nonsense. There's nothing about knowing how to program that prevents hackers from understanding users, or about not knowing how to program that magically enables business people to understand them.
If you can't understand users, however, you should either learn how or find a co-founder who can. That is the single most important issue for technology startups, and the rock that sinks more of them than anything else.
What Customers Want
It's not just startups that have to worry about this. I think most businesses that fail do it because they don't give customers what they want. Look at restaurants. A large percentage fail, about a quarter in the first year. But can you think of one restaurant that had really good food and went out of business?
Restaurants with great food seem to prosper no matter what. A restaurant with great food can be expensive, crowded, noisy, dingy, out of the way, and even have bad service, and people will keep coming. It's true that a restaurant with mediocre food can sometimes attract customers through gimmicks. But that approach is very risky. It's more straightforward just to make the food good.
It's the same with technology. You hear all kinds of reasons why startups fail. But can you think of one that had a massively popular product and still failed?
In nearly every failed startup, the real problem was that customers didn't want the product. For most, the cause of death is listed as "ran out of funding," but that's only the immediate cause. Why couldn't they get more funding? Probably because the product was a dog, or never seemed likely to be done, or both.
When I was trying to think of the things every startup needed to do, I almost included a fourth: get a version 1 out as soon as you can. But I decided not to, because that's implicit in making something customers want. The only way to make something customers want is to get a prototype in front of them and refine it based on their reactions.
The other approach is what I call the "Hail Mary" strategy. You make elaborate plans for a product, hire a team of engineers to develop it (people who do this tend to use the term "engineer" for hackers), and then find after a year that you've spent two million dollars to develop something no one wants. This was not uncommon during the Bubble, especially in companies run by business types, who thought of software development as something terrifying that therefore had to be carefully planned.
We never even considered that approach. As a Lisp hacker, I come from the tradition of rapid prototyping. I would not claim (at least, not here) that this is the right way to write every program, but it's certainly the right way to write software for a startup. In a startup, your initial plans are almost certain to be wrong in some way, and your first priority should be to figure out where. The only way to do that is to try implementing them.
Like most startups, we changed our plan on the fly. At first we expected our customers to be Web consultants. But it turned out they didn't like us, because our software was easy to use and we hosted the site. It would be too easy for clients to fire them. We also thought we'd be able to sign up a lot of catalog companies, because selling online was a natural extension of their existing business. But in 1996 that was a hard sell. The middle managers we talked to at catalog companies saw the Web not as an opportunity, but as something that meant more work for them.
We did get a few of the more adventurous catalog companies. Among them was Frederick's of Hollywood, which gave us valuable experience dealing with heavy loads on our servers. But most of our users were small, individual merchants who saw the Web as an opportunity to build a business. Some had retail stores, but many only existed online. And so we changed direction to focus on these users. Instead of concentrating on the features Web consultants and catalog companies would want, we worked to make the software easy to use.
I learned something valuable from that. It's worth trying very, very hard to make technology easy to use. Hackers are so used to computers that they have no idea how horrifying software seems to normal people. Stephen Hawking's editor told him that every equation he included in his book would cut sales in half. When you work on making technology easier to use, you're riding that curve up instead of down. A 10% improvement in ease of use doesn't just increase your sales 10%. It's more likely to double your sales.
How do you figure out what customers want? Watch them. One of the best places to do this was at trade shows. Trade shows didn't pay as a way of getting new customers, but they were worth it as market research. We didn't just give canned presentations at trade shows. We used to show people how to build real, working stores. Which meant we got to watch as they used our software, and talk to them about what they needed.
No matter what kind of startup you start, it will probably be a stretch for you, the founders, to understand what users want. The only kind of software you can build without studying users is the sort for which you are the typical user. But this is just the kind that tends to be open source: operating systems, programming languages, editors, and so on. So if you're developing technology for money, you're probably not going to be developing it for people like you. Indeed, you can use this as a way to generate ideas for startups: what do people who are not like you want from technology?
When most people think of startups, they think of companies like Apple or Google. Everyone knows these, because they're big consumer brands. But for every startup like that, there are twenty more that operate in niche markets or live quietly down in the infrastructure. So if you start a successful startup, odds are you'll start one of those.
Another way to say that is, if you try to start the kind of startup that has to be a big consumer brand, the odds against succeeding are steeper. The best odds are in niche markets. Since startups make money by offering people something better than they had before, the best opportunities are where things suck most. And it would be hard to find a place where things suck more than in corporate IT departments. You would not believe the amount of money companies spend on software, and the crap they get in return. This imbalance equals opportunity.
If you want ideas for startups, one of the most valuable things you could do is find a middle-sized non-technology company and spend a couple weeks just watching what they do with computers. Most good hackers have no more idea of the horrors perpetrated in these places than rich Americans do of what goes on in Brazilian slums.
Start by writing software for smaller companies, because it's easier to sell to them. It's worth so much to sell stuff to big companies that the people selling them the crap they currently use spend a lot of time and money to do it. And while you can outhack Oracle with one frontal lobe tied behind your back, you can't outsell an Oracle salesman. So if you want to win through better technology, aim at smaller customers. 
They're the more strategically valuable part of the market anyway. In technology, the low end always eats the high end. It's easier to make an inexpensive product more powerful than to make a powerful product cheaper. So the products that start as cheap, simple options tend to gradually grow more powerful till, like water rising in a room, they squash the "high-end" products against the ceiling. Sun did this to mainframes, and Intel is doing it to Sun. Microsoft Word did it to desktop publishing software like Interleaf and Framemaker. Mass-market digital cameras are doing it to the expensive models made for professionals. Avid did it to the manufacturers of specialized video editing systems, and now Apple is doing it to Avid. Henry Ford did it to the car makers that preceded him. If you build the simple, inexpensive option, you'll not only find it easier to sell at first, but you'll also be in the best position to conquer the rest of the market.
It's very dangerous to let anyone fly under you. If you have the cheapest, easiest product, you'll own the low end. And if you don't, you're in the crosshairs of whoever does.
To make all this happen, you're going to need money. Some startups have been self-funding-- Microsoft for example-- but most aren't. I think it's wise to take money from investors. To be self-funding, you have to start as a consulting company, and it's hard to switch from that to a product company.
Financially, a startup is like a pass/fail course. The way to get rich from a startup is to maximize the company's chances of succeeding, not to maximize the amount of stock you retain. So if you can trade stock for something that improves your odds, it's probably a smart move.
To most hackers, getting investors seems like a terrifying and mysterious process. Actually it's merely tedious. I'll try to give an outline of how it works.
The first thing you'll need is a few tens of thousands of dollars to pay your expenses while you develop a prototype. This is called seed capital. Because so little money is involved, raising seed capital is comparatively easy-- at least in the sense of getting a quick yes or no.
Usually you get seed money from individual rich people called "angels." Often they're people who themselves got rich from technology. At the seed stage, investors don't expect you to have an elaborate business plan. Most know that they're supposed to decide quickly. It's not unusual to get a check within a week based on a half-page agreement.
We started Viaweb with $10,000 of seed money from our friend Julian. But he gave us a lot more than money. He's a former CEO and also a corporate lawyer, so he gave us a lot of valuable advice about business, and also did all the legal work of getting us set up as a company. Plus he introduced us to one of the two angel investors who supplied our next round of funding.
Some angels, especially those with technology backgrounds, may be satisfied with a demo and a verbal description of what you plan to do. But many will want a copy of your business plan, if only to remind themselves what they invested in.
Our angels asked for one, and looking back, I'm amazed how much worry it caused me. "Business plan" has that word "business" in it, so I figured it had to be something I'd have to read a book about business plans to write. Well, it doesn't. At this stage, all most investors expect is a brief description of what you plan to do and how you're going to make money from it, and the resumes of the founders. If you just sit down and write out what you've been saying to one another, that should be fine. It shouldn't take more than a couple hours, and you'll probably find that writing it all down gives you more ideas about what to do.
For the angel to have someone to make the check out to, you're going to have to have some kind of company. Merely incorporating yourselves isn't hard. The problem is, for the company to exist, you have to decide who the founders are, and how much stock they each have. If there are two founders with the same qualifications who are both equally committed to the business, that's easy. But if you have a number of people who are expected to contribute in varying degrees, arranging the proportions of stock can be hard. And once you've done it, it tends to be set in stone.
I have no tricks for dealing with this problem. All I can say is, try hard to do it right. I do have a rule of thumb for recognizing when you have, though. When everyone feels they're getting a slightly bad deal, that they're doing more than they should for the amount of stock they have, the stock is optimally apportioned.
There is more to setting up a company than incorporating it, of course: insurance, business license, unemployment compensation, various things with the IRS. I'm not even sure what the list is, because we, ah, skipped all that. When we got real funding near the end of 1996, we hired a great CFO, who fixed everything retroactively. It turns out that no one comes and arrests you if you don't do everything you're supposed to when starting a company. And a good thing too, or a lot of startups would never get started. 
It can be dangerous to delay turning yourself into a company, because one or more of the founders might decide to split off and start another company doing the same thing. This does happen. So when you set up the company, as well as as apportioning the stock, you should get all the founders to sign something agreeing that everyone's ideas belong to this company, and that this company is going to be everyone's only job.
[If this were a movie, ominous music would begin here.]
While you're at it, you should ask what else they've signed. One of the worst things that can happen to a startup is to run into intellectual property problems. We did, and it came closer to killing us than any competitor ever did.
As we were in the middle of getting bought, we discovered that one of our people had, early on, been bound by an agreement that said all his ideas belonged to the giant company that was paying for him to go to grad school. In theory, that could have meant someone else owned big chunks of our software. So the acquisition came to a screeching halt while we tried to sort this out. The problem was, since we'd been about to be acquired, we'd allowed ourselves to run low on cash. Now we needed to raise more to keep going. But it's hard to raise money with an IP cloud over your head, because investors can't judge how serious it is.
Our existing investors, knowing that we needed money and had nowhere else to get it, at this point attempted certain gambits which I will not describe in detail, except to remind readers that the word "angel" is a metaphor. The founders thereupon proposed to walk away from the company, after giving the investors a brief tutorial on how to administer the servers themselves. And while this was happening, the acquirers used the delay as an excuse to welch on the deal.
Miraculously it all turned out ok. The investors backed down; we did another round of funding at a reasonable valuation; the giant company finally gave us a piece of paper saying they didn't own our software; and six months later we were bought by Yahoo for much more than the earlier acquirer had agreed to pay. So we were happy in the end, though the experience probably took several years off my life.
Don't do what we did. Before you consummate a startup, ask everyone about their previous IP history.
Once you've got a company set up, it may seem presumptuous to go knocking on the doors of rich people and asking them to invest tens of thousands of dollars in something that is really just a bunch of guys with some ideas. But when you look at it from the rich people's point of view, the picture is more encouraging. Most rich people are looking for good investments. If you really think you have a chance of succeeding, you're doing them a favor by letting them invest. Mixed with any annoyance they might feel about being approached will be the thought: are these guys the next Google?
Usually angels are financially equivalent to founders. They get the same kind of stock and get diluted the same amount in future rounds. How much stock should they get? That depends on how ambitious you feel. When you offer x percent of your company for y dollars, you're implicitly claiming a certain value for the whole company. Venture investments are usually described in terms of that number. If you give an investor new shares equal to 5% of those already outstanding in return for $100,000, then you've done the deal at a pre-money valuation of $2 million.
How do you decide what the value of the company should be? There is no rational way. At this stage the company is just a bet. I didn't realize that when we were raising money. Julian thought we ought to value the company at several million dollars. I thought it was preposterous to claim that a couple thousand lines of code, which was all we had at the time, were worth several million dollars. Eventually we settled on one millon, because Julian said no one would invest in a company with a valuation any lower. 
What I didn't grasp at the time was that the valuation wasn't just the value of the code we'd written so far. It was also the value of our ideas, which turned out to be right, and of all the future work we'd do, which turned out to be a lot.
The next round of funding is the one in which you might deal with actual venture capital firms. But don't wait till you've burned through your last round of funding to start approaching them. VCs are slow to make up their minds. They can take months. You don't want to be running out of money while you're trying to negotiate with them.
Getting money from an actual VC firm is a bigger deal than getting money from angels. The amounts of money involved are larger, millions usually. So the deals take longer, dilute you more, and impose more onerous conditions.
Sometimes the VCs want to install a new CEO of their own choosing. Usually the claim is that you need someone mature and experienced, with a business background. Maybe in some cases this is true. And yet Bill Gates was young and inexperienced and had no business background, and he seems to have done ok. Steve Jobs got booted out of his own company by someone mature and experienced, with a business background, who then proceeded to ruin the company. So I think people who are mature and experienced, with a business background, may be overrated. We used to call these guys "newscasters," because they had neat hair and spoke in deep, confident voices, and generally didn't know much more than they read on the teleprompter.
We talked to a number of VCs, but eventually we ended up financing our startup entirely with angel money. The main reason was that we feared a brand-name VC firm would stick us with a newscaster as part of the deal. That might have been ok if he was content to limit himself to talking to the press, but what if he wanted to have a say in running the company? That would have led to disaster, because our software was so complex. We were a company whose whole m.o. was to win through better technology. The strategic decisions were mostly decisions about technology, and we didn't need any help with those.
This was also one reason we didn't go public. Back in 1998 our CFO tried to talk me into it. In those days you could go public as a dogfood portal, so as a company with a real product and real revenues, we might have done well. But I feared it would have meant taking on a newscaster-- someone who, as they say, "can talk Wall Street's language."
I'm happy to see Google is bucking that trend. They didn't talk Wall Street's language when they did their IPO, and Wall Street didn't buy. And now Wall Street is collectively kicking itself. They'll pay attention next time. Wall Street learns new languages fast when money is involved.
You have more leverage negotiating with VCs than you realize. The reason is other VCs. I know a number of VCs now, and when you talk to them you realize that it's a seller's market. Even now there is too much money chasing too few good deals.
VCs form a pyramid. At the top are famous ones like Sequoia and Kleiner Perkins, but beneath those are a huge number you've never heard of. What they all have in common is that a dollar from them is worth one dollar. Most VCs will tell you that they don't just provide money, but connections and advice. If you're talking to Vinod Khosla or John Doerr or Mike Moritz, this is true. But such advice and connections can come very expensive. And as you go down the food chain the VCs get rapidly dumber. A few steps down from the top you're basically talking to bankers who've picked up a few new vocabulary words from reading Wired. (Does your product use XML?) So I'd advise you to be skeptical about claims of experience and connections. Basically, a VC is a source of money. I'd be inclined to go with whoever offered the most money the soonest with the least strings attached.
You may wonder how much to tell VCs. And you should, because some of them may one day be funding your competitors. I think the best plan is not to be overtly secretive, but not to tell them everything either. After all, as most VCs say, they're more interested in the people than the ideas. The main reason they want to talk about your idea is to judge you, not the idea. So as long as you seem like you know what you're doing, you can probably keep a few things back from them. 
Talk to as many VCs as you can, even if you don't want their money, because a) they may be on the board of someone who will buy you, and b) if you seem impressive, they'll be discouraged from investing in your competitors. The most efficient way to reach VCs, especially if you only want them to know about you and don't want their money, is at the conferences that are occasionally organized for startups to present to them.
Not Spending It
When and if you get an infusion of real money from investors, what should you do with it? Not spend it, that's what. In nearly every startup that fails, the proximate cause is running out of money. Usually there is something deeper wrong. But even a proximate cause of death is worth trying hard to avoid.
During the Bubble many startups tried to "get big fast." Ideally this meant getting a lot of customers fast. But it was easy for the meaning to slide over into hiring a lot of people fast.
Of the two versions, the one where you get a lot of customers fast is of course preferable. But even that may be overrated. The idea is to get there first and get all the users, leaving none for competitors. But I think in most businesses the advantages of being first to market are not so overwhelmingly great. Google is again a case in point. When they appeared it seemed as if search was a mature market, dominated by big players who'd spent millions to build their brands: Yahoo, Lycos, Excite, Infoseek, Altavista, Inktomi. Surely 1998 was a little late to arrive at the party.
But as the founders of Google knew, brand is worth next to nothing in the search business. You can come along at any point and make something better, and users will gradually seep over to you. As if to emphasize the point, Google never did any advertising. They're like dealers; they sell the stuff, but they know better than to use it themselves.
The competitors Google buried would have done better to spend those millions improving their software. Future startups should learn from that mistake. Unless you're in a market where products are as undifferentiated as cigarettes or vodka or laundry detergent, spending a lot on brand advertising is a sign of breakage. And few if any Web businesses are so undifferentiated. The dating sites are running big ad campaigns right now, which is all the more evidence they're ripe for the picking. (Fee, fie, fo, fum, I smell a company run by marketing guys.)
We were compelled by circumstances to grow slowly, and in retrospect it was a good thing. The founders all learned to do every job in the company. As well as writing software, I had to do sales and customer support. At sales I was not very good. I was persistent, but I didn't have the smoothness of a good salesman. My message to potential customers was: you'd be stupid not to sell online, and if you sell online you'd be stupid to use anyone else's software. Both statements were true, but that's not the way to convince people.
I was great at customer support though. Imagine talking to a customer support person who not only knew everything about the product, but would apologize abjectly if there was a bug, and then fix it immediately, while you were on the phone with them. Customers loved us. And we loved them, because when you're growing slow by word of mouth, your first batch of users are the ones who were smart enough to find you by themselves. There is nothing more valuable, in the early stages of a startup, than smart users. If you listen to them, they'll tell you exactly how to make a winning product. And not only will they give you this advice for free, they'll pay you.
We officially launched in early 1996. By the end of that year we had about 70 users. Since this was the era of "get big fast," I worried about how small and obscure we were. But in fact we were doing exactly the right thing. Once you get big (in users or employees) it gets hard to change your product. That year was effectively a laboratory for improving our software. By the end of it, we were so far ahead of our competitors that they never had a hope of catching up. And since all the hackers had spent many hours talking to users, we understood online commerce way better than anyone else.
That's the key to success as a startup. There is nothing more important than understanding your business. You might think that anyone in a business must, ex officio, understand it. Far from it. Google's secret weapon was simply that they understood search. I was working for Yahoo when Google appeared, and Yahoo didn't understand search. I know because I once tried to convince the powers that be that we had to make search better, and I got in reply what was then the party line about it: that Yahoo was no longer a mere "search engine." Search was now only a small percentage of our page views, less than one month's growth, and now that we were established as a "media company," or "portal," or whatever we were, search could safely be allowed to wither and drop off, like an umbilical cord.
Well, a small fraction of page views they may be, but they are an important fraction, because they are the page views that Web sessions start with. I think Yahoo gets that now.
Google understands a few other things most Web companies still don't. The most important is that you should put users before advertisers, even though the advertisers are paying and users aren't. One of my favorite bumper stickers reads "if the people lead, the leaders will follow." Paraphrased for the Web, this becomes "get all the users, and the advertisers will follow." More generally, design your product to please users first, and then think about how to make money from it. If you don't put users first, you leave a gap for competitors who do.
To make something users love, you have to understand them. And the bigger you are, the harder that is. So I say "get big slow." The slower you burn through your funding, the more time you have to learn.
The other reason to spend money slowly is to encourage a culture of cheapness. That's something Yahoo did understand. David Filo's title was "Chief Yahoo," but he was proud that his unofficial title was "Cheap Yahoo." Soon after we arrived at Yahoo, we got an email from Filo, who had been crawling around our directory hierarchy, asking if it was really necessary to store so much of our data on expensive RAID drives. I was impressed by that. Yahoo's market cap then was already in the billions, and they were still worrying about wasting a few gigs of disk space.
When you get a couple million dollars from a VC firm, you tend to feel rich. It's important to realize you're not. A rich company is one with large revenues. This money isn't revenue. It's money investors have given you in the hope you'll be able to generate revenues. So despite those millions in the bank, you're still poor.
For most startups the model should be grad student, not law firm. Aim for cool and cheap, not expensive and impressive. For us the test of whether a startup understood this was whether they had Aeron chairs. The Aeron came out during the Bubble and was very popular with startups. Especially the type, all too common then, that was like a bunch of kids playing house with money supplied by VCs. We had office chairs so cheap that the arms all fell off. This was slightly embarrassing at the time, but in retrospect the grad-studenty atmosphere of our office was another of those things we did right without knowing it.
Our offices were in a wooden triple-decker in Harvard Square. It had been an apartment until about the 1970s, and there was still a claw-footed bathtub in the bathroom. It must once have been inhabited by someone fairly eccentric, because a lot of the chinks in the walls were stuffed with aluminum foil, as if to protect against cosmic rays. When eminent visitors came to see us, we were a bit sheepish about the low production values. But in fact that place was the perfect space for a startup. We felt like our role was to be impudent underdogs instead of corporate stuffed shirts, and that is exactly the spirit you want.
An apartment is also the right kind of place for developing software. Cube farms suck for that, as you've probably discovered if you've tried it. Ever notice how much easier it is to hack at home than at work? So why not make work more like home?
When you're looking for space for a startup, don't feel that it has to look professional. Professional means doing good work, not elevators and glass walls. I'd advise most startups to avoid corporate space at first and just rent an apartment. You want to live at the office in a startup, so why not have a place designed to be lived in as your office?
Besides being cheaper and better to work in, apartments tend to be in better locations than office buildings. And for a startup location is very important. The key to productivity is for people to come back to work after dinner. Those hours after the phone stops ringing are by far the best for getting work done. Great things happen when a group of employees go out to dinner together, talk over ideas, and then come back to their offices to implement them. So you want to be in a place where there are a lot of restaurants around, not some dreary office park that's a wasteland after 6:00 PM. Once a company shifts over into the model where everyone drives home to the suburbs for dinner, however late, you've lost something extraordinarily valuable. God help you if you actually start in that mode.
If I were going to start a startup today, there are only three places I'd consider doing it: on the Red Line near Central, Harvard, or Davis Squares (Kendall is too sterile); in Palo Alto on University or California Aves; and in Berkeley immediately north or south of campus. These are the only places I know that have the right kind of vibe.
The most important way to not spend money is by not hiring people. I may be an extremist, but I think hiring people is the worst thing a company can do. To start with, people are a recurring expense, which is the worst kind. They also tend to cause you to grow out of your space, and perhaps even move to the sort of uncool office building that will make your software worse. But worst of all, they slow you down: instead of sticking your head in someone's office and checking out an idea with them, eight people have to have a meeting about it. So the fewer people you can hire, the better.
During the Bubble a lot of startups had the opposite policy. They wanted to get "staffed up" as soon as possible, as if you couldn't get anything done unless there was someone with the corresponding job title. That's big company thinking. Don't hire people to fill the gaps in some a priori org chart. The only reason to hire someone is to do something you'd like to do but can't.
If hiring unnecessary people is expensive and slows you down, why do nearly all companies do it? I think the main reason is that people like the idea of having a lot of people working for them. This weakness often extends right up to the CEO. If you ever end up running a company, you'll find the most common question people ask is how many employees you have. This is their way of weighing you. It's not just random people who ask this; even reporters do. And they're going to be a lot more impressed if the answer is a thousand than if it's ten.
This is ridiculous, really. If two companies have the same revenues, it's the one with fewer employees that's more impressive. When people used to ask me how many people our startup had, and I answered "twenty," I could see them thinking that we didn't count for much. I used to want to add "but our main competitor, whose ass we regularly kick, has a hundred and forty, so can we have credit for the larger of the two numbers?"
As with office space, the number of your employees is a choice between seeming impressive, and being impressive. Any of you who were nerds in high school know about this choice. Keep doing it when you start a company.
But should you start a company? Are you the right sort of person to do it? If you are, is it worth it?
More people are the right sort of person to start a startup than realize it. That's the main reason I wrote this. There could be ten times more startups than there are, and that would probably be a good thing.
I was, I now realize, exactly the right sort of person to start a startup. But the idea terrified me at first. I was forced into it because I was a Lisp hacker. The company I'd been consulting for seemed to be running into trouble, and there were not a lot of other companies using Lisp. Since I couldn't bear the thought of programming in another language (this was 1995, remember, when "another language" meant C++) the only option seemed to be to start a new company using Lisp.
I realize this sounds far-fetched, but if you're a Lisp hacker you'll know what I mean. And if the idea of starting a startup frightened me so much that I only did it out of necessity, there must be a lot of people who would be good at it but who are too intimidated to try.
So who should start a startup? Someone who is a good hacker, between about 23 and 38, and who wants to solve the money problem in one shot instead of getting paid gradually over a conventional working life.
I can't say precisely what a good hacker is. At a first rate university this might include the top half of computer science majors. Though of course you don't have to be a CS major to be a hacker; I was a philosophy major in college.
It's hard to tell whether you're a good hacker, especially when you're young. Fortunately the process of starting startups tends to select them automatically. What drives people to start startups is (or should be) looking at existing technology and thinking, don't these guys realize they should be doing x, y, and z? And that's also a sign that one is a good hacker.
I put the lower bound at 23 not because there's something that doesn't happen to your brain till then, but because you need to see what it's like in an existing business before you try running your own. The business doesn't have to be a startup. I spent a year working for a software company to pay off my college loans. It was the worst year of my adult life, but I learned, without realizing it at the time, a lot of valuable lessons about the software business. In this case they were mostly negative lessons: don't have a lot of meetings; don't have chunks of code that multiple people own; don't have a sales guy running the company; don't make a high-end product; don't let your code get too big; don't leave finding bugs to QA people; don't go too long between releases; don't isolate developers from users; don't move from Cambridge to Route 128; and so on.  But negative lessons are just as valuable as positive ones. Perhaps even more valuable: it's hard to repeat a brilliant performance, but it's straightforward to avoid errors. 
The other reason it's hard to start a company before 23 is that people won't take you seriously. VCs won't trust you, and will try to reduce you to a mascot as a condition of funding. Customers will worry you're going to flake out and leave them stranded. Even you yourself, unless you're very unusual, will feel your age to some degree; you'll find it awkward to be the boss of someone much older than you, and if you're 21, hiring only people younger rather limits your options.
Some people could probably start a company at 18 if they wanted to. Bill Gates was 19 when he and Paul Allen started Microsoft. (Paul Allen was 22, though, and that probably made a difference.) So if you're thinking, I don't care what he says, I'm going to start a company now, you may be the sort of person who could get away with it.
The other cutoff, 38, has a lot more play in it. One reason I put it there is that I don't think many people have the physical stamina much past that age. I used to work till 2:00 or 3:00 AM every night, seven days a week. I don't know if I could do that now.
Also, startups are a big risk financially. If you try something that blows up and leaves you broke at 26, big deal; a lot of 26 year olds are broke. By 38 you can't take so many risks-- especially if you have kids.
My final test may be the most restrictive. Do you actually want to start a startup? What it amounts to, economically, is compressing your working life into the smallest possible space. Instead of working at an ordinary rate for 40 years, you work like hell for four. And maybe end up with nothing-- though in that case it probably won't take four years.
During this time you'll do little but work, because when you're not working, your competitors will be. My only leisure activities were running, which I needed to do to keep working anyway, and about fifteen minutes of reading a night. I had a girlfriend for a total of two months during that three year period. Every couple weeks I would take a few hours off to visit a used bookshop or go to a friend's house for dinner. I went to visit my family twice. Otherwise I just worked.
Working was often fun, because the people I worked with were some of my best friends. Sometimes it was even technically interesting. But only about 10% of the time. The best I can say for the other 90% is that some of it is funnier in hindsight than it seemed then. Like the time the power went off in Cambridge for about six hours, and we made the mistake of trying to start a gasoline powered generator inside our offices. I won't try that again.
I don't think the amount of bullshit you have to deal with in a startup is more than you'd endure in an ordinary working life. It's probably less, in fact; it just seems like a lot because it's compressed into a short period. So mainly what a startup buys you is time. That's the way to think about it if you're trying to decide whether to start one. If you're the sort of person who would like to solve the money problem once and for all instead of working for a salary for 40 years, then a startup makes sense.
For a lot of people the conflict is between startups and graduate school. Grad students are just the age, and just the sort of people, to start software startups. You may worry that if you do you'll blow your chances of an academic career. But it's possible to be part of a startup and stay in grad school, especially at first. Two of our three original hackers were in grad school the whole time, and both got their degrees. There are few sources of energy so powerful as a procrastinating grad student.
If you do have to leave grad school, in the worst case it won't be for too long. If a startup fails, it will probably fail quickly enough that you can return to academic life. And if it succeeds, you may find you no longer have such a burning desire to be an assistant professor.
If you want to do it, do it. Starting a startup is not the great mystery it seems from outside. It's not something you have to know about "business" to do. Build something users love, and spend less than you make. How hard is that?
 Google's revenues are about two billion a year, but half comes from ads on other sites.
 One advantage startups have over established companies is that there are no discrimination laws about starting businesses. For example, I would be reluctant to start a startup with a woman who had small children, or was likely to have them soon. But you're not allowed to ask prospective employees if they plan to have kids soon. Believe it or not, under current US law, you're not even allowed to discriminate on the basis of intelligence. Whereas when you're starting a company, you can discriminate on any basis you want about who you start it with.
 Learning to hack is a lot cheaper than business school, because you can do it mostly on your own. For the price of a Linux box, a copy of K&R, and a few hours of advice from your neighbor's fifteen year old son, you'll be well on your way.
 Corollary: Avoid starting a startup to sell things to the biggest company of all, the government. Yes, there are lots of opportunities to sell them technology. But let someone else start those startups.
 A friend who started a company in Germany told me they do care about the paperwork there, and that there's more of it. Which helps explain why there are not more startups in Germany.
 At the seed stage our valuation was in principle $100,000, because Julian got 10% of the company. But this is a very misleading number, because the money was the least important of the things Julian gave us.
 The same goes for companies that seem to want to acquire you. There will be a few that are only pretending to in order to pick your brains. But you can never tell for sure which these are, so the best approach is to seem entirely open, but to fail to mention a few critical technical secrets.
 I was as bad an employee as this place was a company. I apologize to anyone who had to work with me there.
 You could probably write a book about how to succeed in business by doing everything in exactly the opposite way from the DMV.
Thanks to Trevor Blackwell, Sarah Harlin, Jessica Livingston, and Robert Morris for reading drafts of this essay, and to Steve Melendez and Gregory Price for inviting me to speak.
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I actually put more value on the guy with the failed startup. And you can quote me!So there you have it. Want to get hired by Yahoo? Start your own company.
The Man is the Customer
If even big employers think highly of young hackers who start companies, why don't more do it? Why are undergrads so conservative? I think it's because they've spent so much time in institutions.
The first twenty years of everyone's life consists of being piped from one institution to another. You probably didn't have much choice about the secondary schools you went to. And after high school it was probably understood that you were supposed to go to college. You may have had a few different colleges to choose between, but they were probably pretty similar. So by this point you've been riding on a subway line for twenty years, and the next stop seems to be a job.
Actually college is where the line ends. Superficially, going to work for a company may feel like just the next in a series of institutions, but underneath, everything is different. The end of school is the fulcrum of your life, the point where you go from net consumer to net producer.
The other big change is that now, you're steering. You can go anywhere you want. So it may be worth standing back and understanding what's going on, instead of just doing the default thing.
All through college, and probably long before that, most undergrads have been thinking about what employers want. But what really matters is what customers want, because they're the ones who give employers the money to pay you.
So instead of thinking about what employers want, you're probably better off thinking directly about what users want. To the extent there's any difference between the two, you can even use that to your advantage if you start a company of your own. For example, big companies like docile conformists. But this is merely an artifact of their bigness, not something customers need.
I didn't consciously realize all this when I was graduating from college-- partly because I went straight to grad school. Grad school can be a pretty good deal, even if you think of one day starting a startup. You can start one when you're done, or even pull the ripcord part way through, like the founders of Yahoo and Google.
Grad school makes a good launch pad for startups, because you're collected together with a lot of smart people, and you have bigger chunks of time to work on your own projects than an undergrad or corporate employee would. As long as you have a fairly tolerant advisor, you can take your time developing an idea before turning it into a company. David Filo and Jerry Yang started the Yahoo directory in February 1994 and were getting a million hits a day by the fall, but they didn't actually drop out of grad school and start a company till March 1995.
You could also try the startup first, and if it doesn't work, then go to grad school. When startups tank they usually do it fairly quickly. Within a year you'll know if you're wasting your time.
If it fails, that is. If it succeeds, you may have to delay grad school a little longer. But you'll have a much more enjoyable life once there than you would on a regular grad student stipend.
Another reason people in their early twenties don't start startups is that they feel they don't have enough experience. Most investors feel the same.
I remember hearing a lot of that word "experience" when I was in college. What do people really mean by it? Obviously it's not the experience itself that's valuable, but something it changes in your brain. What's different about your brain after you have "experience," and can you make that change happen faster?
I now have some data on this, and I can tell you what tends to be missing when people lack experience. I've said that every startup needs three things: to start with good people, to make something users want, and not to spend too much money. It's the middle one you get wrong when you're inexperienced. There are plenty of undergrads with enough technical skill to write good software, and undergrads are not especially prone to waste money. If they get something wrong, it's usually not realizing they have to make something people want.
This is not exclusively a failing of the young. It's common for startup founders of all ages to build things no one wants.
Fortunately, this flaw should be easy to fix. If undergrads were all bad programmers, the problem would be a lot harder. It can take years to learn how to program. But I don't think it takes years to learn how to make things people want. My hypothesis is that all you have to do is smack hackers on the side of the head and tell them: Wake up. Don't sit here making up a priori theories about what users need. Go find some users and see what they need.
Most successful startups not only do something very specific, but solve a problem people already know they have.
The big change that "experience" causes in your brain is learning that you need to solve people's problems. Once you grasp that, you advance quickly to the next step, which is figuring out what those problems are. And that takes some effort, because the way software actually gets used, especially by the people who pay the most for it, is not at all what you might expect. For example, the stated purpose of Powerpoint is to present ideas. Its real role is to overcome people's fear of public speaking. It allows you to give an impressive-looking talk about nothing, and it causes the audience to sit in a dark room looking at slides, instead of a bright one looking at you.
This kind of thing is out there for anyone to see. The key is to know to look for it-- to realize that having an idea for a startup is not like having an idea for a class project. The goal in a startup is not to write a cool piece of software. It's to make something people want. And to do that you have to look at users-- forget about hacking, and just look at users. This can be quite a mental adjustment, because little if any of the software you write in school even has users.
A few steps before a Rubik's Cube is solved, it still looks like a mess. I think there are a lot of undergrads whose brains are in a similar position: they're only a few steps away from being able to start successful startups, if they wanted to, but they don't realize it. They have more than enough technical skill. They just haven't realized yet that the way to create wealth is to make what users want, and that employers are just proxies for users in which risk is pooled.
If you're young and smart, you don't need either of those. You don't need someone else to tell you what users want, because you can figure it out yourself. And you don't want to pool risk, because the younger you are, the more risk you should take.
A Public Service Message
I'd like to conclude with a joint message from me and your parents. Don't drop out of college to start a startup. There's no rush. There will be plenty of time to start companies after you graduate. In fact, it may be just as well to go work for an existing company for a couple years after you graduate, to learn how companies work.
And yet, when I think about it, I can't imagine telling Bill Gates at 19 that he should wait till he graduated to start a company. He'd have told me to get lost. And could I have honestly claimed that he was harming his future-- that he was learning less by working at ground zero of the microcomputer revolution than he would have if he'd been taking classes back at Harvard? No, probably not.
And yes, while it is probably true that you'll learn some valuable things by going to work for an existing company for a couple years before starting your own, you'd learn a thing or two running your own company during that time too.
The advice about going to work for someone else would get an even colder reception from the 19 year old Bill Gates. So I'm supposed to finish college, then go work for another company for two years, and then I can start my own? I have to wait till I'm 23? That's four years. That's more than twenty percent of my life so far. Plus in four years it will be way too late to make money writing a Basic interpreter for the Altair.
And he'd be right. The Apple II was launched just two years later. In fact, if Bill had finished college and gone to work for another company as we're suggesting, he might well have gone to work for Apple. And while that would probably have been better for all of us, it wouldn't have been better for him.
So while I stand by our responsible advice to finish college and then go work for a while before starting a startup, I have to admit it's one of those things the old tell the young, but don't expect them to listen to. We say this sort of thing mainly so we can claim we warned you. So don't say I didn't warn you.
 The average B-17 pilot in World War II was in his early twenties. (Thanks to Tad Marko for pointing this out.)
 If a company tried to pay employees this way, they'd be called unfair. And yet when they buy some startups and not others, no one thinks of calling that unfair.
 The 1/10 success rate for startups is a bit of an urban legend. It's suspiciously neat. My guess is the odds are slightly worse.
Thanks to Jessica Livingston for reading drafts of this, to the friends I promised anonymity to for their opinions about hiring, and to Karen Nguyen and the Berkeley CSUA for organizing this talk.
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(This essay is derived from talks at the 2007 Startup School and the Berkeley CSUA.)
We've now been doing Y Combinator long enough to have some data about success rates. Our first batch, in the summer of 2005, had eight startups in it. Of those eight, it now looks as if at least four succeeded. Three have been acquired: Reddit was a merger of two, Reddit and Infogami, and a third was acquired that we can't talk about yet. Another from that batch was Loopt, which is doing so well they could probably be acquired in about ten minutes if they wanted to.
So about half the founders from that first summer, less than two years ago, are now rich, at least by their standards. (One thing you learn when you get rich is that there are many degrees of it.)
I'm not ready to predict our success rate will stay as high as 50%. That first batch could have been an anomaly. But we should be able to do better than the oft-quoted (and probably made up) standard figure of 10%. I'd feel safe aiming at 25%.
Even the founders who fail don't seem to have such a bad time. Of those first eight startups, three are now probably dead. In two cases the founders just went on to do other things at the end of the summer. I don't think they were traumatized by the experience. The closest to a traumatic failure was Kiko, whose founders kept working on their startup for a whole year before being squashed by Google Calendar. But they ended up happy. They sold their software on eBay for a quarter of a million dollars. After they paid back their angel investors, they had about a year's salary each.  Then they immediately went on to start a new and much more exciting startup, Justin.TV.
So here is an even more striking statistic: 0% of that first batch had a terrible experience. They had ups and downs, like every startup, but I don't think any would have traded it for a job in a cubicle. And that statistic is probably not an anomaly. Whatever our long-term success rate ends up being, I think the rate of people who wish they'd gotten a regular job will stay close to 0%.
The big mystery to me is: why don't more people start startups? If nearly everyone who does it prefers it to a regular job, and a significant percentage get rich, why doesn't everyone want to do this? A lot of people think we get thousands of applications for each funding cycle. In fact we usually only get several hundred. Why don't more people apply? And while it must seem to anyone watching this world that startups are popping up like crazy, the number is small compared to the number of people with the necessary skills. The great majority of programmers still go straight from college to cubicle, and stay there.
It seems like people are not acting in their own interest. What's going on? Well, I can answer that. Because of Y Combinator's position at the very start of the venture funding process, we're probably the world's leading experts on the psychology of people who aren't sure if they want to start a company.
There's nothing wrong with being unsure. If you're a hacker thinking about starting a startup and hesitating before taking the leap, you're part of a grand tradition. Larry and Sergey seem to have felt the same before they started Google, and so did Jerry and Filo before they started Yahoo. In fact, I'd guess the most successful startups are the ones started by uncertain hackers rather than gung-ho business guys.
We have some evidence to support this. Several of the most successful startups we've funded told us later that they only decided to apply at the last moment. Some decided only hours before the deadline.
The way to deal with uncertainty is to analyze it into components. Most people who are reluctant to do something have about eight different reasons mixed together in their heads, and don't know themselves which are biggest. Some will be justified and some bogus, but unless you know the relative proportion of each, you don't know whether your overall uncertainty is mostly justified or mostly bogus.
So I'm going to list all the components of people's reluctance to start startups, and explain which are real. Then would-be founders can use this as a checklist to examine their own feelings.
I admit my goal is to increase your self-confidence. But there are two things different here from the usual confidence-building exercise. One is that I'm motivated to be honest. Most people in the confidence-building business have already achieved their goal when you buy the book or pay to attend the seminar where they tell you how great you are. Whereas if I encourage people to start startups who shouldn't, I make my own life worse. If I encourage too many people to apply to Y Combinator, it just means more work for me, because I have to read all the applications.
The other thing that's going to be different is my approach. Instead of being positive, I'm going to be negative. Instead of telling you "come on, you can do it" I'm going to consider all the reasons you aren't doing it, and show why most (but not all) should be ignored. We'll start with the one everyone's born with.
1. Too young
A lot of people think they're too young to start a startup. Many are right. The median age worldwide is about 27, so probably a third of the population can truthfully say they're too young.
What's too young? One of our goals with Y Combinator was to discover the lower bound on the age of startup founders. It always seemed to us that investors were too conservative here—that they wanted to fund professors, when really they should be funding grad students or even undergrads.
The main thing we've discovered from pushing the edge of this envelope is not where the edge is, but how fuzzy it is. The outer limit may be as low as 16. We don't look beyond 18 because people younger than that can't legally enter into contracts. But the most successful founder we've funded so far, Sam Altman, was 19 at the time.
Sam Altman, however, is an outlying data point. When he was 19, he seemed like he had a 40 year old inside him. There are other 19 year olds who are 12 inside.
There's a reason we have a distinct word "adult" for people over a certain age. There is a threshold you cross. It's conventionally fixed at 21, but different people cross it at greatly varying ages. You're old enough to start a startup if you've crossed this threshold, whatever your age.
How do you tell? There are a couple tests adults use. I realized these tests existed after meeting Sam Altman, actually. I noticed that I felt like I was talking to someone much older. Afterward I wondered, what am I even measuring? What made him seem older?
One test adults use is whether you still have the kid flake reflex. When you're a little kid and you're asked to do something hard, you can cry and say "I can't do it" and the adults will probably let you off. As a kid there's a magic button you can press by saying "I'm just a kid" that will get you out of most difficult situations. Whereas adults, by definition, are not allowed to flake. They still do, of course, but when they do they're ruthlessly pruned.
The other way to tell an adult is by how they react to a challenge. Someone who's not yet an adult will tend to respond to a challenge from an adult in a way that acknowledges their dominance. If an adult says "that's a stupid idea," a kid will either crawl away with his tail between his legs, or rebel. But rebelling presumes inferiority as much as submission. The adult response to "that's a stupid idea," is simply to look the other person in the eye and say "Really? Why do you think so?"
There are a lot of adults who still react childishly to challenges, of course. What you don't often find are kids who react to challenges like adults. When you do, you've found an adult, whatever their age.
2. Too inexperienced
I once wrote that startup founders should be at least 23, and that people should work for another company for a few years before starting their own. I no longer believe that, and what changed my mind is the example of the startups we've funded.
I still think 23 is a better age than 21. But the best way to get experience if you're 21 is to start a startup. So, paradoxically, if you're too inexperienced to start a startup, what you should do is start one. That's a way more efficient cure for inexperience than a normal job. In fact, getting a normal job may actually make you less able to start a startup, by turning you into a tame animal who thinks he needs an office to work in and a product manager to tell him what software to write.
What really convinced me of this was the Kikos. They started a startup right out of college. Their inexperience caused them to make a lot of mistakes. But by the time we funded their second startup, a year later, they had become extremely formidable. They were certainly not tame animals. And there is no way they'd have grown so much if they'd spent that year working at Microsoft, or even Google. They'd still have been diffident junior programmers.
So now I'd advise people to go ahead and start startups right out of college. There's no better time to take risks than when you're young. Sure, you'll probably fail. But even failure will get you to the ultimate goal faster than getting a job.
It worries me a bit to be saying this, because in effect we're advising people to educate themselves by failing at our expense, but it's the truth.
3. Not determined enough
You need a lot of determination to succeed as a startup founder. It's probably the single best predictor of success.
Some people may not be determined enough to make it. It's hard for me to say for sure, because I'm so determined that I can't imagine what's going on in the heads of people who aren't. But I know they exist.
Most hackers probably underestimate their determination. I've seen a lot become visibly more determined as they get used to running a startup. I can think of several we've funded who would have been delighted at first to be bought for $2 million, but are now set on world domination.
How can you tell if you're determined enough, when Larry and Sergey themselves were unsure at first about starting a company? I'm guessing here, but I'd say the test is whether you're sufficiently driven to work on your own projects. Though they may have been unsure whether they wanted to start a company, it doesn't seem as if Larry and Sergey were meek little research assistants, obediently doing their advisors' bidding. They started projects of their own.
4. Not smart enough
You may need to be moderately smart to succeed as a startup founder. But if you're worried about this, you're probably mistaken. If you're smart enough to worry that you might not be smart enough to start a startup, you probably are.
And in any case, starting a startup just doesn't require that much intelligence. Some startups do. You have to be good at math to write Mathematica. But most companies do more mundane stuff where the decisive factor is effort, not brains. Silicon Valley can warp your perspective on this, because there's a cult of smartness here. People who aren't smart at least try to act that way. But if you think it takes a lot of intelligence to get rich, try spending a couple days in some of the fancier bits of New York or LA.
If you don't think you're smart enough to start a startup doing something technically difficult, just write enterprise software. Enterprise software companies aren't technology companies, they're sales companies, and sales depends mostly on effort.
5. Know nothing about business
This is another variable whose coefficient should be zero. You don't need to know anything about business to start a startup. The initial focus should be the product. All you need to know in this phase is how to build things people want. If you succeed, you'll have to think about how to make money from it. But this is so easy you can pick it up on the fly.
I get a fair amount of flak for telling founders just to make something great and not worry too much about making money. And yet all the empirical evidence points that way: pretty much 100% of startups that make something popular manage to make money from it. And acquirers tell me privately that revenue is not what they buy startups for, but their strategic value. Which means, because they made something people want. Acquirers know the rule holds for them too: if users love you, you can always make money from that somehow, and if they don't, the cleverest business model in the world won't save you.
So why do so many people argue with me? I think one reason is that they hate the idea that a bunch of twenty year olds could get rich from building something cool that doesn't make any money. They just don't want that to be possible. But how possible it is doesn't depend on how much they want it to be.
For a while it annoyed me to hear myself described as some kind of irresponsible pied piper, leading impressionable young hackers down the road to ruin. But now I realize this kind of controversy is a sign of a good idea.
The most valuable truths are the ones most people don't believe. They're like undervalued stocks. If you start with them, you'll have the whole field to yourself. So when you find an idea you know is good but most people disagree with, you should not merely ignore their objections, but push aggressively in that direction. In this case, that means you should seek out ideas that would be popular but seem hard to make money from.
We'll bet a seed round you can't make something popular that we can't figure out how to make money from.
6. No cofounder
Not having a cofounder is a real problem. A startup is too much for one person to bear. And though we differ from other investors on a lot of questions, we all agree on this. All investors, without exception, are more likely to fund you with a cofounder than without.
We've funded two single founders, but in both cases we suggested their first priority should be to find a cofounder. Both did. But we'd have preferred them to have cofounders before they applied. It's not super hard to get a cofounder for a project that's just been funded, and we'd rather have cofounders committed enough to sign up for something super hard.
If you don't have a cofounder, what should you do? Get one. It's more important than anything else. If there's no one where you live who wants to start a startup with you, move where there are people who do. If no one wants to work with you on your current idea, switch to an idea people want to work on.
If you're still in school, you're surrounded by potential cofounders. A few years out it gets harder to find them. Not only do you have a smaller pool to draw from, but most already have jobs, and perhaps even families to support. So if you had friends in college you used to scheme about startups with, stay in touch with them as well as you can. That may help keep the dream alive.
It's possible you could meet a cofounder through something like a user's group or a conference. But I wouldn't be too optimistic. You need to work with someone to know whether you want them as a cofounder. 
The real lesson to draw from this is not how to find a cofounder, but that you should start startups when you're young and there are lots of them around.
7. No idea
In a sense, it's not a problem if you don't have a good idea, because most startups change their idea anyway. In the average Y Combinator startup, I'd guess 70% of the idea is new at the end of the first three months. Sometimes it's 100%.
In fact, we're so sure the founders are more important than the initial idea that we're going to try something new this funding cycle. We're going to let people apply with no idea at all. If you want, you can answer the question on the application form that asks what you're going to do with "We have no idea." If you seem really good we'll accept you anyway. We're confident we can sit down with you and cook up some promising project.
Really this just codifies what we do already. We put little weight on the idea. We ask mainly out of politeness. The kind of question on the application form that we really care about is the one where we ask what cool things you've made. If what you've made is version one of a promising startup, so much the better, but the main thing we care about is whether you're good at making things. Being lead developer of a popular open source project counts almost as much.
That solves the problem if you get funded by Y Combinator. What about in the general case? Because in another sense, it is a problem if you don't have an idea. If you start a startup with no idea, what do you do next?
So here's the brief recipe for getting startup ideas. Find something that's missing in your own life, and supply that need—no matter how specific to you it seems. Steve Wozniak built himself a computer; who knew so many other people would want them? A need that's narrow but genuine is a better starting point than one that's broad but hypothetical. So even if the problem is simply that you don't have a date on Saturday night, if you can think of a way to fix that by writing software, you're onto something, because a lot of other people have the same problem.
8. No room for more startups
A lot of people look at the ever-increasing number of startups and think "this can't continue." Implicit in their thinking is a fallacy: that there is some limit on the number of startups there could be. But this is false. No one claims there's any limit on the number of people who can work for salary at 1000-person companies. Why should there be any limit on the number who can work for equity at 5-person companies? 
Nearly everyone who works is satisfying some kind of need. Breaking up companies into smaller units doesn't make those needs go away. Existing needs would probably get satisfied more efficiently by a network of startups than by a few giant, hierarchical organizations, but I don't think that would mean less opportunity, because satisfying current needs would lead to more. Certainly this tends to be the case in individuals. Nor is there anything wrong with that. We take for granted things that medieval kings would have considered effeminate luxuries, like whole buildings heated to spring temperatures year round. And if things go well, our descendants will take for granted things we would consider shockingly luxurious. There is no absolute standard for material wealth. Health care is a component of it, and that alone is a black hole. For the foreseeable future, people will want ever more material wealth, so there is no limit to the amount of work available for companies, and for startups in particular.
Usually the limited-room fallacy is not expressed directly. Usually it's implicit in statements like "there are only so many startups Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo can buy." Maybe, though the list of acquirers is a lot longer than that. And whatever you think of other acquirers, Google is not stupid. The reason big companies buy startups is that they've created something valuable. And why should there be any limit to the number of valuable startups companies can acquire, any more than there is a limit to the amount of wealth individual people want? Maybe there would be practical limits on the number of startups any one acquirer could assimilate, but if there is value to be had, in the form of upside that founders are willing to forgo in return for an immediate payment, acquirers will evolve to consume it. Markets are pretty smart that way.
9. Family to support
This one is real. I wouldn't advise anyone with a family to start a startup. I'm not saying it's a bad idea, just that I don't want to take responsibility for advising it. I'm willing to take responsibility for telling 22 year olds to start startups. So what if they fail? They'll learn a lot, and that job at Microsoft will still be waiting for them if they need it. But I'm not prepared to cross moms.
What you can do, if you have a family and want to start a startup, is start a consulting business you can then gradually turn into a product business. Empirically the chances of pulling that off seem very small. You're never going to produce Google this way. But at least you'll never be without an income.
Another way to decrease the risk is to join an existing startup instead of starting your own. Being one of the first employees of a startup is a lot like being a founder, in both the good ways and the bad. You'll be roughly 1/n^2 founder, where n is your employee number.
As with the question of cofounders, the real lesson here is to start startups when you're young.
10. Independently wealthy
This is my excuse for not starting a startup. Startups are stressful. Why do it if you don't need the money? For every "serial entrepreneur," there are probably twenty sane ones who think "Start another company? Are you crazy?"
I've come close to starting new startups a couple times, but I always pull back because I don't want four years of my life to be consumed by random schleps. I know this business well enough to know you can't do it half-heartedly. What makes a good startup founder so dangerous is his willingness to endure infinite schleps.
There is a bit of a problem with retirement, though. Like a lot of people, I like to work. And one of the many weird little problems you discover when you get rich is that a lot of the interesting people you'd like to work with are not rich. They need to work at something that pays the bills. Which means if you want to have them as colleagues, you have to work at something that pays the bills too, even though you don't need to. I think this is what drives a lot of serial entrepreneurs, actually.
That's why I love working on Y Combinator so much. It's an excuse to work on something interesting with people I like.
11. Not ready for commitment
This was my reason for not starting a startup for most of my twenties. Like a lot of people that age, I valued freedom most of all. I was reluctant to do anything that required a commitment of more than a few months. Nor would I have wanted to do anything that completely took over my life the way a startup does. And that's fine. If you want to spend your time travelling around, or playing in a band, or whatever, that's a perfectly legitimate reason not to start a company.
If you start a startup that succeeds, it's going to consume at least three or four years. (If it fails, you'll be done a lot quicker.) So you shouldn't do it if you're not ready for commitments on that scale. Be aware, though, that if you get a regular job, you'll probably end up working there for as long as a startup would take, and you'll find you have much less spare time than you might expect. So if you're ready to clip on that ID badge and go to that orientation session, you may also be ready to start that startup.
12. Need for structure
I'm told there are people who need structure in their lives. This seems to be a nice way of saying they need someone to tell them what to do. I believe such people exist. There's plenty of empirical evidence: armies, religious cults, and so on. They may even be the majority.
If you're one of these people, you probably shouldn't start a startup. In fact, you probably shouldn't even go to work for one. In a good startup, you don't get told what to do very much. There may be one person whose job title is CEO, but till the company has about twelve people no one should be telling anyone what to do. That's too inefficient. Each person should just do what they need to without anyone telling them.
If that sounds like a recipe for chaos, think about a soccer team. Eleven people manage to work together in quite complicated ways, and yet only in occasional emergencies does anyone tell anyone else what to do. A reporter once asked David Beckham if there were any language problems at Real Madrid, since the players were from about eight different countries. He said it was never an issue, because everyone was so good they never had to talk. They all just did the right thing.
How do you tell if you're independent-minded enough to start a startup? If you'd bristle at the suggestion that you aren't, then you probably are.
13. Fear of uncertainty
Perhaps some people are deterred from starting startups because they don't like the uncertainty. If you go to work for Microsoft, you can predict fairly accurately what the next few years will be like—all too accurately, in fact. If you start a startup, anything might happen.
Well, if you're troubled by uncertainty, I can solve that problem for you: if you start a startup, it will probably fail. Seriously, though, this is not a bad way to think about the whole experience. Hope for the best, but expect the worst. In the worst case, it will at least be interesting. In the best case you might get rich.
No one will blame you if the startup tanks, so long as you made a serious effort. There may once have been a time when employers would regard that as a mark against you, but they wouldn't now. I asked managers at big companies, and they all said they'd prefer to hire someone who'd tried to start a startup and failed over someone who'd spent the same time working at a big company.
Nor will investors hold it against you, as long as you didn't fail out of laziness or incurable stupidity. I'm told there's a lot of stigma attached to failing in other places—in Europe, for example. Not here. In America, companies, like practically everything else, are disposable.
14. Don't realize what you're avoiding
One reason people who've been out in the world for a year or two make better founders than people straight from college is that they know what they're avoiding. If their startup fails, they'll have to get a job, and they know how much jobs suck.
If you've had summer jobs in college, you may think you know what jobs are like, but you probably don't. Summer jobs at technology companies are not real jobs. If you get a summer job as a waiter, that's a real job. Then you have to carry your weight. But software companies don't hire students for the summer as a source of cheap labor. They do it in the hope of recruiting them when they graduate. So while they're happy if you produce, they don't expect you to.
That will change if you get a real job after you graduate. Then you'll have to earn your keep. And since most of what big companies do is boring, you're going to have to work on boring stuff. Easy, compared to college, but boring. At first it may seem cool to get paid for doing easy stuff, after paying to do hard stuff in college. But that wears off after a few months. Eventually it gets demoralizing to work on dumb stuff, even if it's easy and you get paid a lot.
And that's not the worst of it. The thing that really sucks about having a regular job is the expectation that you're supposed to be there at certain times. Even Google is afflicted with this, apparently. And what this means, as everyone who's had a regular job can tell you, is that there are going to be times when you have absolutely no desire to work on anything, and you're going to have to go to work anyway and sit in front of your screen and pretend to. To someone who likes work, as most good hackers do, this is torture.
In a startup, you skip all that. There's no concept of office hours in most startups. Work and life just get mixed together. But the good thing about that is that no one minds if you have a life at work. In a startup you can do whatever you want most of the time. If you're a founder, what you want to do most of the time is work. But you never have to pretend to.
If you took a nap in your office in a big company, it would seem unprofessional. But if you're starting a startup and you fall asleep in the middle of the day, your cofounders will just assume you were tired.
15. Parents want you to be a doctor
A significant number of would-be startup founders are probably dissuaded from doing it by their parents. I'm not going to say you shouldn't listen to them. Families are entitled to their own traditions, and who am I to argue with them? But I will give you a couple reasons why a safe career might not be what your parents really want for you.
One is that parents tend to be more conservative for their kids than they would be for themselves. This is actually a rational response to their situation. Parents end up sharing more of their kids' ill fortune than good fortune. Most parents don't mind this; it's part of the job; but it does tend to make them excessively conservative. And erring on the side of conservatism is still erring. In almost everything, reward is proportionate to risk. So by protecting their kids from risk, parents are, without realizing it, also protecting them from rewards. If they saw that, they'd want you to take more risks.
The other reason parents may be mistaken is that, like generals, they're always fighting the last war. If they want you to be a doctor, odds are it's not just because they want you to help the sick, but also because it's a prestigious and lucrative career.  But not so lucrative or prestigious as it was when their opinions were formed. When I was a kid in the seventies, a doctor was the thing to be. There was a sort of golden triangle involving doctors, Mercedes 450SLs, and tennis. All three vertices now seem pretty dated.
The parents who want you to be a doctor may simply not realize how much things have changed. Would they be that unhappy if you were Steve Jobs instead? So I think the way to deal with your parents' opinions about what you should do is to treat them like feature requests. Even if your only goal is to please them, the way to do that is not simply to give them what they ask for. Instead think about why they're asking for something, and see if there's a better way to give them what they need.
16. A job is the default
This leads us to the last and probably most powerful reason people get regular jobs: it's the default thing to do. Defaults are enormously powerful, precisely because they operate without any conscious choice.
To almost everyone except criminals, it seems an axiom that if you need money, you should get a job. Actually this tradition is not much more than a hundred years old. Before that, the default way to make a living was by farming. It's a bad plan to treat something only a hundred years old as an axiom. By historical standards, that's something that's changing pretty rapidly.
We may be seeing another such change right now. I've read a lot of economic history, and I understand the startup world pretty well, and it now seems to me fairly likely that we're seeing the beginning of a change like the one from farming to manufacturing.
And you know what? If you'd been around when that change began (around 1000 in Europe) it would have seemed to nearly everyone that running off to the city to make your fortune was a crazy thing to do. Though serfs were in principle forbidden to leave their manors, it can't have been that hard to run away to a city. There were no guards patrolling the perimeter of the village. What prevented most serfs from leaving was that it seemed insanely risky. Leave one's plot of land? Leave the people you'd spent your whole life with, to live in a giant city of three or four thousand complete strangers? How would you live? How would you get food, if you didn't grow it?
Frightening as it seemed to them, it's now the default with us to live by our wits. So if it seems risky to you to start a startup, think how risky it once seemed to your ancestors to live as we do now. Oddly enough, the people who know this best are the very ones trying to get you to stick to the old model. How can Larry and Sergey say you should come work as their employee, when they didn't get jobs themselves?
Now we look back on medieval peasants and wonder how they stood it. How grim it must have been to till the same fields your whole life with no hope of anything better, under the thumb of lords and priests you had to give all your surplus to and acknowledge as your masters. I wouldn't be surprised if one day people look back on what we consider a normal job in the same way. How grim it would be to commute every day to a cubicle in some soulless office complex, and be told what to do by someone you had to acknowledge as a boss—someone who could call you into their office and say "take a seat," and you'd sit! Imagine having to ask permission to release software to users. Imagine being sad on Sunday afternoons because the weekend was almost over, and tomorrow you'd have to get up and go to work. How did they stand it?
It's exciting to think we may be on the cusp of another shift like the one from farming to manufacturing. That's why I care about startups. Startups aren't interesting just because they're a way to make a lot of money. I couldn't care less about other ways to do that, like speculating in securities. At most those are interesting the way puzzles are. There's more going on with startups. They may represent one of those rare, historic shifts in the way wealth is created.
That's ultimately what drives us to work on Y Combinator. We want to make money, if only so we don't have to stop doing it, but that's not the main goal. There have only been a handful of these great economic shifts in human history. It would be an amazing hack to make one happen faster.
 The only people who lost were us. The angels had convertible debt, so they had first claim on the proceeds of the auction. Y Combinator only got 38 cents on the dollar.
 The best kind of organization for that might be an open source project, but those don't involve a lot of face to face meetings. Maybe it would be worth starting one that did.
 There need to be some number of big companies to acquire the startups, so the number of big companies couldn't decrease to zero.
 Thought experiment: If doctors did the same work, but as impoverished outcasts, which parents would still want their kids to be doctors?
Thanks to Trevor Blackwell, Jessica Livingston, and Robert Morris for reading drafts of this, to the founders of Zenter for letting me use their web-based PowerPoint killer even though it isn't launched yet, and to Ming-Hay Luk of the Berkeley CSUA for inviting me to speak.
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A good programmer working intensively on his own code can hold it in his mind the way a mathematician holds a problem he's working on. Mathematicians don't answer questions by working them out on paper the way schoolchildren are taught to. They do more in their heads: they try to understand a problem space well enough that they can walk around it the way you can walk around the memory of the house you grew up in. At its best programming is the same. You hold the whole program in your head, and you can manipulate it at will.
That's particularly valuable at the start of a project, because initially the most important thing is to be able to change what you're doing. Not just to solve the problem in a different way, but to change the problem you're solving.
Your code is your understanding of the problem you're exploring. So it's only when you have your code in your head that you really understand the problem.
It's not easy to get a program into your head. If you leave a project for a few months, it can take days to really understand it again when you return to it. Even when you're actively working on a program it can take half an hour to load into your head when you start work each day. And that's in the best case. Ordinary programmers working in typical office conditions never enter this mode. Or to put it more dramatically, ordinary programmers working in typical office conditions never really understand the problems they're solving.
Even the best programmers don't always have the whole program they're working on loaded into their heads. But there are things you can do to help:
Even more striking are the number of officially sanctioned projects that manage to do all eight things wrong. In fact, if you look at the way software gets written in most organizations, it's almost as if they were deliberately trying to do things wrong. In a sense, they are. One of the defining qualities of organizations since there have been such a thing is to treat individuals as interchangeable parts. This works well for more parallelizable tasks, like fighting wars. For most of history a well-drilled army of professional soldiers could be counted on to beat an army of individual warriors, no matter how valorous. But having ideas is not very parallelizable. And that's what programs are: ideas.
It's not merely true that organizations dislike the idea of depending on individual genius, it's a tautology. It's part of the definition of an organization not to. Of our current concept of an organization, at least.
Maybe we could define a new kind of organization that combined the efforts of individuals without requiring them to be interchangeable. Arguably a market is such a form of organization, though it may be more accurate to describe a market as a degenerate case—as what you get by default when organization isn't possible.
Probably the best we'll do is some kind of hack, like making the programming parts of an organization work differently from the rest. Perhaps the optimal solution is for big companies not even to try to develop ideas in house, but simply to buy them. But regardless of what the solution turns out to be, the first step is to realize there's a problem. There is a contradiction in the very phrase "software company." The two words are pulling in opposite directions. Any good programmer in a large organization is going to be at odds with it, because organizations are designed to prevent what programmers strive for.
Good programmers manage to get a lot done anyway. But often it requires practically an act of rebellion against the organizations that employ them. Perhaps it will help if more people understand that the way programmers behave is driven by the demands of the work they do. It's not because they're irresponsible that they work in long binges during which they blow off all other obligations, plunge straight into programming instead of writing specs first, and rewrite code that already works. It's not because they're unfriendly that they prefer to work alone, or growl at people who pop their head in the door to say hello. This apparently random collection of annoying habits has a single explanation: the power of holding a program in one's head.
Whether or not understanding this can help large organizations, it can certainly help their competitors. The weakest point in big companies is that they don't let individual programmers do great work. So if you're a little startup, this is the place to attack them. Take on the kind of problems that have to be solved in one big brain.
Thanks to Sam Altman, David Greenspan, Aaron Iba, Jessica Livingston, Robert Morris, Peter Norvig, Lisa Randall, Emmett Shear, Sergei Tsarev, and Stephen Wolfram for reading drafts of this.
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