You hear it at companies, universities, government agencies, and nonprofits — everyone, it seems, is working for a “startup” these days. Walk by a mom-and-pop vendor offering free cheese samples in a supermarket and they will tell you their dairy is a startup. At a recent healthcare talk, even noted surgeon and writer Atul Gawande labeled his new cross-disciplinary research center, Ariadne Labs, a startup.
Perhaps the most smitten group is young people. Startups are far sexier than standard career paths like finance, law, or medicine. According to a recent Gallup poll, an astonishing 43 percent of 5th to 12th graders want to be entrepreneurs.
According to a recent Gallup poll, an astonishing 43 percent of 5th to 12th graders want to be entrepreneurs.
It seems easy to explain from an economic perspective. With examples like Mark Zuckerberg dropping out of school and becoming billionaires at age 20-something, what other pursuit promises so much reward, so quickly? It also takes a lot less capital to start a technology company than it did 15 years ago during the dot-com boom — you can develop a consumer website or mobile app with a developer friend, a few laptops with open-source software and an account with Amazon Web Services. If you attract a significant following, venture capitalists might back you with millions to scale up for acquisition or an IPO.
Why slave away in a bank or a law firm for years to make managing director or partner when you can make 10 times the salary or more in a few years tinkering in your parents’ garage? Plus, those traditional careers are no longer as secure as they used to be as a result of the recession.
But there is more to the unprecedented appeal of startups than quick money and low entry costs. Startups offer young people a unique combination of career virtues: potential to have rapid and large-scale impact on society, partnership in a venture that is self-organized and egalitarian, and a set of challenges unlike any other they could encounter in an entry-level job.
Startups — with their organizational blank slates and disruptive business models — can bring about radical change. Companies like Facebook and Twitter have had far more impact on the economy and social behavior than any corporate deal or medical breakthrough a 20 or 30-something could have contributed to in the last 10 years.
Many start-ups also promise, at least in their early stages, to be governed by principles of equality. Founders tend to be a small group of friends or like-minded people who respect each other’s talents and ideas. If you go to many startup websites’ “About” section, such as Etsy or Zappos, you’ll commonly see mission statements reflecting these ideals.
Startups offer potential to have rapid and large-scale impact on society, partnership in a venture that is self-organized and egalitarian, and a set of challenges unlike any other…
Though it may look easy, building a viable business amid fierce competition is relentlessly challenging. In an entry-level job, hierarchy and a division of labor can help prevent an inexperienced 20-something’s actions from hurting an organization. There are no such guarantees in budding startups with 90 percent failure rates. Founders rarely have job descriptions. They often need to juggle everything from sales and marketing to operations, technology and finance for years with little compensation, sporadic feedback, and long hours. Yet young entrepreneurs thrive on this pressure: It lets them engage with a myriad of social and intellectual obstacles and triumph based on a mix of talent, grit, and luck.
That prompts the question: Are young people drawn more to startups than the rest of us or are they simply more capable of enduring the heavy personal and financial costs associated with sustained entrepreneurship? Experienced technology investors like Peter Thiel and Paul Graham tend to take the latter, more pragmatic view. In advising hundreds of startups through his seed accelerator Y Combinator, Graham has observed the cutoff for generating investor excitement to be age 32.
But it’s likely that both views apply: Young people are more willing and able to pursue the startup path. And for those of us above the tender age of 32, the career model of young founders also suggests qualities that we should strive for in our professions, no matter how big or old our organizations are: Find a project at work that is impactful, collaborative, and challenging and you might feel some of the same passion that comes with a team building something new for others.