The United States is becoming a startup factory. It’s a very good trend for the U.S. and for entrepreneurs. But this post is how it must feel different than it once did, when startups were hand-crafted in a basement or a garage, and stayed there much longer than they now do.
First, a few numbers. Michael Arrington reported today that Y Combinator is accepting 60+ startups for its summer 2011 class. With two – four founders per startup, this is the equivalent to the entering class at some liberal arts colleges, with a more selective application process and a similar regimen of lectures, discussions, and graduation. The kinds of people who progress in life by applying to one increasingly elite institution after another are naturally attracted to this approach; it’s just like getting into Harvard!
And Y Combinator is just the tip of the iceberg. Despite the popular sentiment in Seattle that our main problem is “we don’t do nearly enough to connect with one another,” the local startups calendar lists 29 public events from Monday to Friday. Here among some of Redfin’s up-and-comers, we have our own little startup forum that meets twice a month, too.
The success of these programs and the energy they create is staggering. I contribute to some and benefit from many others. I feel a touch of envy when sizing up the participants, because they seem so talented, and they have so many resources. But I also want to impart a different message to the participants, to take my advice if they want but mostly to take their own.
A startup needs mentors, structure, guidance but the main thing we had at the company I co-founded was a lot of smart people and what Jay-Z would call a middle-finger-to-the-Man mentality. We were all heads-down and screw-you. What I first loved about a startup, especially in the early days, was that I could finally stop listening to people tell me what to do.
Incubators, I thought, were for babies not men. No one needed training more than I did, and no one was less interested it. Only the product mattered, and networking was baloney. In my own life, and at a shameful 11th hour, I chose starting a company over medical school only in part because I would have been a bad doctor. The emotional reason was I couldn’t bear the thought of attending Columbia’s orientation pizza party.
The first time my partners and I were alone in our own little office, it felt like finally getting the keys to the family car. We were shocked that neither the police nor anyone else ever stopped us to ask for a license. Our first thought was We should have been doing this years ago. You want to run over a garbage can for the heck of it.
The best entrepreneurs have a touch of that impetuousness. One of my co-founders at Plumtree, Kirill Sheynkman, wrote a parting message to his previous employer on the whiteboard of his vacated office: FAYMF, in huge block letters. The acronym is untranslatable, except that the A stands for All, the Y for Y’All, the M for Mother and the F’s for you-know-what. It was completely obnoxious and anti-social, but the main thing Kirill taught me was to please no one if not yourself.
We’ve come a long way from that brashness. A year ago in a post for TechCrunch, I worried that entrepreneurship was becoming a profession, when it had always felt to me like a lightning strike or a jail-break:
There were 2,500 self-help books on entrepreneurialism published last year… Business schools and conferences have institutionalized entrepreneurialism as an avocation like law or medicine when it is more often a streak of temperament, luck and inspiration. Far from a program taught by somebody else, entrepreneurialism has always been for me my only shot at being myself.
Some days entrepreneurship seems like a lifestyle. Some days it feels like the result of a carefully crafted process. But what you also need to change the world no one can teach you: brains, ambition, computer science and the occasional middle finger.