I spoke on a tech careers panel last night in Oxford and one of the questions was whether students should start startups when they graduate. More and more people wonder this. For most of them, the quick (and true) answer is no. But I think there are some people who should try and that for those people deciding to start something is one of the most valuable decisions they can make.
It’s a very bad idea to try to convince people to start startups. They’re treacherously seductive enough in their own right and anyone who needs convincing is probably not going to have a great experience. This seems particularly true if you grew up in any sort of physical or cultural proximity to Silicon Valley: if that’s the case, you certainly know that startups are an option, perhaps even an attractive one; by the time you reach the point of deciding what you want to do with your life, it’s quite unlikely that you’ve not at least implicitly considered whether you might want to start one.
Europe is not like that. One of the most important ways in which Europe is not like Silicon Valley is that for smart, ambitious young people in Europe, starting or even working in a tech company is not close to being the most desired option, let alone the default. In fact, it’s quite possible that you could be an exceptional engineer or computer scientist in Europe, reaching the end of your degree or your first job, and never have considered that you could start a company.
I wrote this – and, indeed, we started EF – for those people. I’m assuming that if you’re reading this, you have a lot of options – perhaps you’re considering (or already are) working in a bank or hedge fund, in a big technology company or in professional services. These are very much the European “default” options for ambitious people – and for most people they may be good options. My goal is not to try to convince you to start a startup, but to walk through what kind of person starting a startup might be a good idea for. To keep it as simple as possible, it boils down to two questions:
- Do you have a good reason to want to do it?
- Is it worth trying (for you)?
There are lots of bad reasons to start a startup, particularly any that remotely conceive as startups as a get-rich-quick scheme. Startups are hugely difficult, stressful and time-consuming. They are harder than you expect, even when you take that into account. Worse, the median financial outcome is zero, even though lots of the people who start companies are smart and hard working.
The best reason to try to start a startup is because there is something you want to exist and you think you can build that thing. The startup-as-a-company is almost incidental; it’s something that emerges out of having built a product that you wanted to exist.
Our experience at EF over the last three years suggests that it’s not actually very important to have a particularly clear or refined idea about what that thing might be. You certainly don’t need a blueprint or a “perfect idea”. The best thing to have is an obsession – either with a particular (often quite niche, often quite unbusiness-like) area or with a particular technology. It’s amazing how effectively smart and determined people can turn obsessions into startups.
Perhaps that’s too abstract. A good, concrete test is to ask yourself, “What would I do with (say) six months of time and space which I could use to build anything I wanted?” If you can’t think of anything at all, you shouldn’t start a startup. But if there’s something that comes to mind – particularly if the thought fills you with excitement – then even if it’s more an area you’d want to explore than a product you’d want to build, you probably pass this test. We have many very promising startups at EF that started exactly this way and have gone on attract lots of customers [1b] and lots of investment.