"You can titrate the amount of startupness you get in your job
by the size of the company you join."
I had an MBA contact talk to me today about his interest in working for a startup. He's studied entrepreneurship in school and interned with a VC last summer. I asked him what size startup he wanted to work for. He said, "I'm up for anything--the smaller the better."
Really, I thought, up for anything? You can go a year without a salary? You're okay with the stress of a startup that is always on the verge of death and will most likely, based purely on odds, find its way there?
So I asked him a few quick questions-- Are you married? How old are you? How much debt are you bringing with you from school? For this guy, there was no way he was joining a small pre-funding startup. He has a wife and 2 kids to support, a mortgage, and load of loans to pay for. Why bother looking for a company pre-Series A when it's clear you need something less risky.
People that are interested in entrepreneurship and not already wealthy need to be realistic about their drag coefficients: the factors in their life that prevent them from accepting too much financial risk.
Start-up Drag Coefficients
1 point: Mortgage
1 point: Undergraduate loans
1 point: Graduate school loans
1 point: For every 5 years after the age of 20
1 point: Ring, fiance or spouse
1 point: Each kid
The Drag Coefficient Scoring System
For each point total, I've defined what I think is most likely the earliest possible startup entry point.
1-3 Points: Startup Founder
The vast majority of start-up founders I know fit into this category--or at least did when they first started their company. They generally don't have as much opportunity cost in terms of career yet. They're generally young and can live very, very cheaply. A lot Y Combinator companies are filled with young college drop-outs or recent grads that can survive on virtually no income. Paul Graham nailed the micro-seed funding model by realizing that $15000 could keep 2 young founders going for a long time.
You recently graduated college or dropped-out. You get to be a full founder with all the equity, upside, and pain that goes along with it. Good luck.
4-6 Points: Early Employee at a Seed-Funded Startup
The tough reality for many aspiring entrepreneurs is that once you accumulate more than 3 drag coefficient points, it becomes very difficult to start a company and last through the ups and downs. Most companies don't raise enough money for sustainable salaries or become profitable for at least 6-9 months and often longer.
You just finished a master's program. You're 29 years old with 2 sets of loans and fiance. You can join a company with some initial funding and momentum. You're a product-oriented person that can contribute directly from day one. You'll start with healthcare and a salary. Being a first employee and taking a small salary willalready be a significant amount of risk in your life. You'll probably get at the very most 5% of a startup but probably closer to 1% depending on whether you're a first employee and what specific skill set you bring to the table.
7+ Points: Later Employee at a Series A or Later Startup
Funding and/or revenue is stability. A company doing well towards the end of its Series A funding most likely already has solid revenue coming in. If you do your homework, you can get a good idea of how much money is in the bank, how likely the company is to get follow-on funding, etc.
You've been in startups for several years and founded a company when you were younger (it was a 'learning experience'). Now you're 32 with a family started. You have the skills to be a founder, but you simply can't take the financial risk anymore. You're not ready to work for BigCo because you love the startup environment. You can expect a decent salary that is some discount below your market salary, but still decent money to live on. You'll get a fraction of a point of equity, which may some day give you a nice bonus but will almost certainly never make you rich.
I first heard about drag coefficients from Steve Hafner, the founder of Kayak and Orbitz. He was at dinner at Dartmouth telling us about the time he quit his job to start Orbitz. He had realized that the older he got, the more unlikely he would be to take a huge risk. I hear a lot of people talk about how they are getting this degree or taking that job in order to prepare to someday do a startup. What they seem to underestimate is the powerful effect these drag coefficients have on their ability to endure risk. If you're still young and interested in being a startup founder, the most precious commodity you have is time. And it's perishable.
We started FlightCaster only weeks after my previous startup went under. I was only a few months away from 30, and I knew the clock was ticking. Having just failed at a startup, any reasonable person would take some time to earn money again. But I knew that I had 3 drag coefficient points and would soon have 4. All my friends were getting married and buying houses. Waiting even 6 months might take me out of the founder bucket. I quit the job I just gotten, and we started FlightCaster. Best decision I ever made.
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