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You Want to Be a Founder? Don't Do It

Every ambitious self-respecting 20-something suddenly wants to 'do a start-up.' That's the road to ruin, says this venture capitalist.
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Some tweets really make me think. Check out this one, from @yonfook:

If u want to “do a startup” but don’t have an idea you’re passionate about, you’re just in love w idea of being a founder

Here in Silicon Valley, once again, every self-respecting ambitious twenty-something wants to “do a start-up.”  They’re in luck: accelerators, incubators, and start-up programs are all making it easier than ever to start a company. The downside looks limited, especially if you, as the founder, are still early in your career. Success means Instragram riches. Failure means going back to the job you just left. Why not have a go?

Why not indeed? If this is the primary calculus you are using, my advice is simple: Don’t do it. Just because you can do something does not mean you should, as moms have been saying since the dawn of time. Starting a company might be easy now, but building a company is always hard. It usually takes many years and much sacrifice, and it will require persuading others to go along with your vision.  Success is statistically unlikely and failure will involve disappointment--not just for you, but for anyone else you persuade to go along for the journey, including employees, investors and creditors.  

My advice comes from the Book of Common Prayer, written in 1559. Just substitute the word “start-up” for “marriage.”

marriage is not to be enterprised, nor taken in hande unadvisedly, lightly or wantonly, but reverently, discretely, advisedly, soberly, and in the feare of God, duely consideryng the causes for the which it was ordeined.

Here are the factors you must consider – reverently, discretely, advisedly, and soberly. “Feare of God” won’t hurt, either.

What is the cause for which your start-up was ordained?

You have to have a reason for “doing a start-up” that transcends yourself and any desire you have to be a founder. No one else will want to work sixty hours a week just to fulfill your need to be founder, and after a year or two, neither will you.

At the core of a great start-up there is always a cause, a purpose, a reason for the company to exist. It has to come from the founder. The best founders are not driven to “be a founder.” They just get so certain that the future should be a certain way, and that they are going to be able to make it happen, that founding the company becomes a means to that end. Their vision can be a technical vision around a product, a business vision around how a market can be changed, or even a social vision of how the world should be. The vision can evolve. It can even pivot. But if you want to be a real founder, you have to own the vision and it has to be something you care about.

I am not naïve: There is also the sheer joy of running your own company, and the possibility that you might get rich. But a founder without a founding vision is an empty vessel.

Don’t fake it.

I just spent six months working with a very successful enterprise software CEO/founder looking at new opportunities. He looked at a series of consumer internet  opportunities.  These companies are fun, people can understand what you do, and you can strike it rich quick. He ultimately started another enterprise software company.

Smart call. The consumer deals may have been great opportunities, of course, but they did not speak to him and what he cared about. What he knew, from having built a company before, over more than ten years, is that hell would be taking people’s money, and committing to throwing his life into something, that deep inside he just didn’t care about. You can’t fake passion, at least not for years on end. Remember the marriage analogy? There are lots of wonderful, attractive, smart, witty people out there that you would simply hate to be married to for the rest of your life.

Do you pass the 10th hire test?

Peter Thiel of the Founders Fund spoke recently of the 10th hire test. It’s easy to get founders to sign on to a start-up. After all, they get to be founders and share the founders’ equity. If you are successful, it’s easy to hire people because you are a winner. The hard part is getting the tenth hire to be excited. At this point, there are no more founder titles, but there is still a lot of hard work ahead. Is the opportunity big enough, and is the cause big enough, to attract that tenth employee? A company that was founded simply so that you can be a founder has, by definition, nothing to offer someone who is not a founder. A company that has a vision and a cause does.

The Y Combinator experiment will prove me right -- or wrong.

The best founders start with an idea and found a company to realize it. The idea might evolve, but by starting with an idea, rather than a simple desire to start a company, you end up with better companies.

Y Combinator, the most successful proving ground for start-ups in Silicon Valley, is about to run a test that will prove me either right or wrong. For the first time, they are accepting founding teams that do not have an idea. Their argument is that ideas change so often during the first few months that it is just as easy to start with an empty slate as with an idea that is going to change. In three years or so, we’ll know if they’re right. I am sure some of these teams will be successful, because they have smart people and are broadly focused on the Web market. But will they be as successful as the teams that go in knowing what they want to be? My guess is not.

If you have a vision to change one small part of the world, go for it. My business needs people like you. If all you want to do is “be a founder,” pause and think some more. Life is about doing, not being.

Last updated: May 31, 2012

RORY O'DRISCOLL | Columnist | Managing Director, Scale Venture Partners

Rory O'Driscoll is a managing director with Scale Venture Partners where he invests in mobile, Internet, and enterprise software companies. Rory holds a BSc from the London School of Economics. You can find more from Rory via his blog. @rodriscoll.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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