The third option

In the recent months I’ve realized I am very much in a bubble. Everyone I know is building a company. Amongst my circle of friends, that is the norm. This, however, is mostly out of choice: I believe, in agreement with Seth Godin, that to be an outlier is an inefficient way to make progress:

The easiest way to thrive as an outlier is to avoid being one. At least among your most treasured peers. Surround yourself with people in at least as much of a hurry, at least as inquisitive, at least as focused as you are.

With that said, there was a time when I felt out of place. I was studying Computer Science, and all of my friends were making their choices about what to do after graduation. All events and advice were centered around either getting a job, or continuing onto further education. Those were the two options. The only options you’d find. I had other things in my mind. I was considering building my own business, creating a startup. A third option.

I fundamentally believe that this elusive third option should be talked about much more. I think there needs to be higher awareness that creating a startup is a real, tangible option for increasing numbers of students. It’s one of the reasons I speak at college and university events as often as I speak at some of the bigger scale events with more marketing potential. I hope to inspire a few people to take the third option.

My story

During my time studying, I was always doing side projects and freelance work. By the time I was approaching graduation, I had worked as a freelancer on the side for several years. As a result of my side projects and practical assignments, I had decided that I’d like to create a product: (something much more scalable and with my income not tied to time) instead of continuing freelance work or getting a regular job.

So, after graduation, I took the plunge and tried to create my own startup. The third option. It’s certainly not a smooth path, it’s not the easy option. For some, it may never work out. For the next year and a half, I struggled to build a startup, and still worked as a freelancer to make ends meet. From the outside it may have seemed that I was not going anywhere. I made little progress with my startup, and I intentionally limited time I spent working as a freelancer. Yet, that’s how it works with startups: it’s the bamboo effect. You’re accumulating learning. Suddenly it all comes together and you have an impact.

After a year and a half of struggles with the first startup, I launched a little experiment called Buffer. Two years later, it’s an eleven person company generating over a million dollars a year. I would like to say I would always have got here, but I know in my mind I was close to being influenced by the fact there were only two obvious choices for me. I luckily found a way to choose that third option no one talks about.

The upside of doing a startup

Building a startup is not for everyone. If, however, you think this path might be for you, I want to share some of the amazing benefits to my life that I’ve found as a result of choosing the third option.

One of the things I like the most about building a startup is the immense freedom and responsibility which results. This is also true if you work for an early stage startup, and that could be a good first step too. The other side of the coin of this freedom and responsibility is that the choice of whether to get out of bed and keep going is only up to you. For me, this triggered a spiritual journey, where I have learned more about myself and what motivates me. It’s also why I’m always changing my routine and habits.

The more direct upside is through learning and the potential to have your income not be tied to your time, and build wealth in a very short period of time. Paul Graham explained this in the best way I’ve come across:

"Economically, you can think of a startup as a way to compress your whole working life into a few years."

What Paul Graham is talking about takes hard work, but is achievable. A regular job doesn’t require too many hard conversations, or making decisions without complete information. This is what makes a startup harder. Paul Graham once again has a great way to put this:

"if you want to make a million dollars, you have to endure a million dollars’ worth of pain"

It’s a fun way to live. I’ve never learned as much in a couple of years as I have building Buffer. I can definitely recommend it.

The opportunity cost of working a normal job

I have come to believe that not only is there a massive upside to building a startup, there is also an opportunity cost of working a regular job. That is to say - if you have the goal to eventually build a startup, then every moment you spend working a regular job is making you less experienced as a startup founder.

Why would this be the case? Well, firstly, let’s look at the lifestyle implications of a regular job. A lot of smart folks will graduate and have good prospects of working at in investment banking or at a consultancy, and the salary potential is very high. So you get started and you have a nice apartment. Once you get a raise, you naturally upgrade your lifestyle. You soon reach a point where you have a lot to lose by cutting your salary in half or to nothing.

Not only is it very easy to get used to the lifestyle promoted by the salary and the people you are around, you also learn to speak in a way which helps you as an investment banker, but not necessarily when you’re building a product or service for the masses. Most importantly, you are becoming an expert of something, and thereby losing the beginner’s mind which is vital to have as a startup founder.

Let’s encourage the third option

As a result of my own experience and the interaction I’ve had with students who could have been great founders, I believe the most useful thing we can all do is to provide encouragement for anyone who shows the smallest sign of considering the path of being a startup founder. Sure, there are risks and there will be failure, but there is immense learning and satisfaction ahead for those who choose the third option. Anyone can point out the dangers, that’s the easy thing to do. Let us be positive about the good things that could happen. Will you join me?

Did you consider the third option when you graduated, or are you nearing that point in your life and considering your options? I’d love to hear from you.

Photo credit: jeco