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

Thoughts on dropping out to do a startup

In the past couple of years, I’ve been through a number of interesting experiences through building Buffer. One of the things I’ve ended up thinking about a lot is the subject of whether you should drop out of college to work on your startup.

I personally didn’t drop out, but my co-founder Leo has as a result of the success we’ve had with Buffer and I’ve talked to him a lot about the topic. I also talk to many startup founders regularly who are still at college and are thinking about whether they should drop out. As a result, it’s been necessary for me to have an answer to this question.

College is powerful

"One of the amazing things about being in college is you can work on all these hobbies and code a lot of stuff and try a lot of different things. It’s this amazing flexibility that I think most people take for granted." - Mark Zuckerberg

One of the things I’ve realised only looking backwards is just how powerful college can be if you want to build a startup. In my own time at Warwick University, I had many many side projects and even two courses in which I did projects which looking back felt a lot like startups.

No pressure

When you’re studying, there is absolutely no pressure on you in terms of building a startup. As a result, you can experiment and try lots of different things. You can learn new languages, you can try different startup concepts such as customer development and lean startup. You can get out of the building and try talking to people about the problems they have, and then try to solve them. You can easily try charging for something you build, with no pressure to make enough money to be able to eat. Everything is taken care of, so you can relax and experiment.

Like minds

It’s relatively easy to find like-minded people at college. There is such a vast number of students at any university that as long as you have the desire to seek these like-minded people, you will find them and you can work with them. I know that countless great co-founder relationships started at college. That’s the case for Buffer, Leo and I met whilst we were both at Warwick University, and we met at an entrepreneurship event we were both helping out with. So go out there and take advantage of the environment.

Start an experiment

When you’re in college, you can have many ideas and try them all out in your free time. Each of these ideas can potentially be a great startup, but since there’s no pressure you can use the concept of an experiment and this can help you in many ways. I think Vinicius Vacanti, the co-founder and CEO of Yipit put it best:

"The beautiful thing about experiments is that disproving your hypothesis isn’t thought of as a failure. It’s thought of as progress."

You can really take this “experiment” approach at college, and learn a massive amount about startups in a short space of time.

Blocks of free time

Every college student has something in common: that they have various blocks of time throughout the year where there is less workload. It’s in these times that you have a great opportunity to create something that could become big. There’s no better example for this than when Facebook started:

"I wrote the first version of Facebook in January of 2004 and released it in February. The reason why I did it in January is that Harvard had intersession."

My best advice for students is to use these lighter blocks of time wisely. Start a new project each time, take the learnings and keep building stuff.

Dropping out is not usually so dramatic

My belief and experience with going through Leo dropping out is that when it is good to drop out for your startup, you will know it. That said, I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that you have to abruptly cut everything off and burn all your bridges with university.

How I’ve seen it play out more often than not, is that someone does many different side-projects during college and then when something begins to work, they go through a massive amount of learning and progress in an incredibly short space of time. This is very much related to Paul Graham’s notion of compressing your life:

"You can think of a startup as a way to compress your whole working life into a few years. Instead of working at a low intensity for forty years, you work as hard as you possibly can for four."

This is exactly what happens and how it feels when one of your startup ideas begins to “work”. Another great way to describe it is how Marc Andreessen describes reaching product/market fit:

"You can always feel product/market fit when it’s happening. The customers are buying the product just as fast as you can make it — or usage is growing just as fast as you can add more servers."

I think when you reach this point, you’ll feel that it may be worth dropping out of college. The interesting part is, even at this point you don’t need to dramatically “drop out”. You can just take a term off, or take a year off. In fact, we’ve now reached almost a $1M annual revenue run rate with Buffer, there are 7 people in the team and we’ve hit 370,000 users, but Leo is technically still in college. He hasn’t officially dropped out yet, and you don’t need to hastily do that. I was fascinated to hear Zuckerberg describe his experience in a very similar way:

"Harvard has this policy where you can take as much time as you want off from school. So why don’t we just take one term off and then just try to get it under control and build the toolings so we can go back for Spring semester and grow it more autonomously. Spring term came along and we hadn’t quite built the tooling and automation so let’s take another term off. Then finally at some point we decided we were out, but by then we had millions of users."

Keep studying. Keep building.

Unfortunately, startups are pretty hard. I know that for myself, it’s been a tough few years since I realised I wanted to build my own startup, for it to actually work in reality. I had a few failures during college which were much more learning than failure, and the fact I was still studying meant it didn’t matter at all.

After I graduated, I worked on another startup whilst working as a contract web developer on the side. I can assure you, it’s a lot harder to stay committed to making a startup work once you’ve left. I think many don’t make that leap because it’s so hard. It’s much easier to get a normal job and have a definite salary each month.

As a result, my advice to anyone thinking of dropping out is to keep studying, and use every opportunity to build projects and startups on the side. When something starts to work, you’ll have that same feeling that many others have, and you’ll know that it’s your duty to keep building it and bring it to the world. Until that happens, keep studying and keep building. When it happens, drop out slowly.

Have you had to think about whether you should drop out to pursue your startup? Did you drop out? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Photo credit: Steve Garfield