When I started Year One Labs (with Ray, Alistair and Ian), we spent a lot of time looking for founders. It took us six months to make five investments. During that time we spoke with, interviewed, and hung out with lots of people, looking for teams, but also looking for individuals that we thought had what it takes to be startup founders.
I want to share the story of one conversation I had with a guy that I was talking to about joining Year One Labs. He didn’t have a specific idea or a co-founder, but he was working at a startup and was “on the fence” about making the leap. I had a gut feeling that he had the talent, brains, work ethic and guts for it. So I was pushing him off the ledge, bit by bit.
As we were talking, I said:
“Don’t think of starting a company as a risk. There’s no risk. You’re a talented developer, you’re insanely employable, you can find work any time you’d like. Even if your startup fails miserably, you’ll learn a ton, it’ll be a great experience and you’ll be better for it. Think of it as an investment in you, not a risk.”
Up to this point, I was doing a good job of convincing him. After all, I believe that starting a company is really not risky at all, contrary to what most people will say. The likelihood of success is very low, but the likelihood that you’ll be worse off for it? Almost none.
As we continued the conversation, I reiterated the fact that I didn’t see any real risk. But then I said:
“The only question is whether you want to invest in yourself or not. The truth is, you’ll lose money at the outset. You can’t pay yourself as much as you make in a regular job and you’ll have to be comfortable watching your savings dwindle.”
Watching your savings dwindle isn’t a risk, it’s a fact. As cheap as it is to start a company, people rarely take salaries or lost income into account when they say that. Startups do have an opportunity cost. Depending on how quickly you gain traction, how much you raise or make from customers while bootstrapping, and what you can pay yourself, the opportunity cost can be quite high.
But that’s not a risk.
Unfortunately, I lost this guy as I was describing the reality of watching his savings disappear. I made it worse by using an exaggerated hand gesture (I get animated when I speak), where I extended my arm to the side and moved it down slowly as I was describing his savings going from something nice and comfy up top, to something very close to nothing at the bottom.
Suffice it to say, he didn’t join Year One Labs. And that’s fine. He wasn’t ready. He’s since gone on to join some interesting startups and continue to work in the early stage tech space. He hasn’t started a company yet … as far as I know.
The bottom line is this: I don’t see startups as risky, not on a personal level anyway.
You learn more than you ever could, you can build an incredible network, and you’ll have radically new experiences that are otherwise not available to you, even as an early stage startup employee. You will lose money. The opportunity cost can be very high, especially if your startup fails and you look back at the dollars that went into your pocket versus what you could have made somewhere else. But I don’t consider that a risk. At most, a calculated risk. Where it can go awry is if you over invest or over extend yourself beyond reason. There are always stories of founders that re-mortgaged their homes, sold everything and finally made it big. That’s risky. And you may decide to take those risks. But they’re rare. Most founders don’t go to those lengths; they don’t have to.
Others will say there’s risk when it comes to your personal life, health and stress. I get that. I’ve been there. When your company is on life-support, everyone has walked away and you’re standing there by yourself wondering what the hell to do, it’s stressful. Compared to phoning it in at some dead end job, you do run some risks when it comes to taking care of yourself. But go in eyes open, accept the realities of failure, and take care of yourself. I’d rather that than the risk of dying from boredom doing something else.
I look back on my startup “career” and think about all the “crazy” things I’ve done. I started a company with no experience whatsoever while in school. I started an accelerator. I’m moving from Montreal where I have a strong network and have lived for 15+ years. All risky moves? Nah. Career choices. Opportunistic career choices that pay off in all sorts of ways, both in the short and long term. I’m not some lunatic risk taker, I just love startups.
There is no risk. Just try and ignore the visual of your bank account emptying and you’ll be just fine…