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Paul Graham: "Hiring Is Obsolete"
Writer on creativity and digital culture claims that undergraduates are a great untapped resource for new companies.
By Jon Ippolito
Paul Graham, author of Hackers and Painters, has some surprising advice for undergrads in the essay excerpted below, Hiring Is Obsolete. His argument seems tailor-made for the U-Me New Media program--is he off his rocker or on the mark?
The three big powers on the Internet now are Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft. Average age of their founders: 24. So it is pretty well established now that grad students can start successful companies. And if grad students can do it, why not undergrads?
Like everything else in technology, the cost of starting a startup has decreased dramatically. Now it's so low that it has disappeared into the noise. The main cost of starting a Web-based startup is food and rent. Which means it doesn't cost much more to start a company than to be a total slacker. You can probably start a startup on ten thousand dollars of seed funding, if you're prepared to live on ramen.
The less it costs to start a company, the less you need the permission of investors to do it. So a lot of people will be able to start companies now who never could have before.
The most interesting subset may be those in their early twenties. I'm not so excited about founders who have everything investors want except intelligence, or everything except energy. The most promising group to be liberated by the new, lower threshold are those who have everything investors want except experience....
Buying startups also solves another problem afflicting big companies: they can't do product development. Big companies are good at extracting the value from existing products, but bad at creating new ones....
Another reason big companies are bad at developing new products is that the kind of people who do that tend not to have much power in big companies (unless they happen to be the CEO). Disruptive technologies are developed by disruptive people. And they either don't work for the big company, or have been outmaneuvered by yes-men and have comparatively little influence....
The Open Cage
With both employers and investors, the balance of power is slowly shifting towards the young. And yet they seem the last to realize it. Only the most ambitious undergrads even consider starting their own company when they graduate. Most just want to get a job.
Maybe this is as it should be. Maybe if the idea of starting a startup is intimidating, you filter out the uncommitted. But I suspect the filter is set a little too high. I think there are people who could, if they tried, start successful startups, and who instead let themselves be swept into the intake ducts of big companies.
Have you ever noticed that when animals are let out of cages, they don't always realize at first that the door's open? Often they have to be poked with a stick to get them out. Something similar happened with blogs. People could have been publishing online in 1995, and yet blogging has only really taken off in the last couple years. In 1995 we thought only professional writers were entitled to publish their ideas, and that anyone else who did was a crank. Now publishing online is becoming so popular that everyone wants to do it, even print journalists. But blogging has not taken off recently because of any technical innovation; it just took eight years for everyone to realize the cage was open.
I think most undergrads don't realize yet that the economic cage is open. A lot have been told by their parents that the route to success is to get a good job. This was true when their parents were in college, but it's less true now. The route to success is to build something valuable, and you don't have to be working for an existing company to do that. Indeed, you can often do it better if you're not.
When I talk to undergrads, what surprises me most about them is how conservative they are. Not politically, of course. I mean they don't seem to want to take risks. This is a mistake, because the younger you are, the more risk you can take.
Risk and reward are always proportionate. For example, stocks are riskier than bonds, and over time always have greater returns. So why does anyone invest in bonds? The catch is that phrase "over time." Stocks will generate greater returns over thirty years, but they might lose value from year to year. So what you should invest in depends on how soon you need the money. If you're young, you should take the riskiest investments you can find.
All this talk about investing may seem very theoretical. Most undergrads probably have more debts than assets. They may feel they have nothing to invest. But that's not true: they have their time to invest, and the same rule about risk applies there. Your early twenties are exactly the time to take insane career risks.
The reason risk is always proportionate to reward is that market forces make it so. People will pay extra for stability. So if you choose stability-- by buying bonds, or by going to work for a big company-- it's going to cost you.
Riskier career moves pay better on average, because there is less demand for them. Extreme choices like starting a startup are so frightening that most people won't even try. So you don't end up having as much competition as you might expect, considering the prizes at stake.
The math is brutal. While perhaps 9 out of 10 startups fail, the one that succeeds will pay the founders more than 10 times what they would have made in an ordinary job.  That's the sense in which startups pay better "on average."
Remember that. If you start a startup, you'll probably fail. Most startups fail. It's the nature of the business. But it's not necessarily a mistake to try something that has a 90% chance of failing, if you can afford the risk. Failing at 40, when you have a family to support, could be serious. But if you fail at 22, so what? If you try to start a startup right out of college and it tanks, you'll end up at 23 broke and a lot smarter. Which, if you think about it, is roughly what you hope to get from a graduate program.
Even if your startup does tank, you won't harm your prospects with employers. To make sure I asked some friends who work for big companies. I asked managers at Yahoo, Google, Amazon, Cisco and Microsoft how they'd feel about two candidates, both 24, with equal ability, one who'd tried to start a startup that tanked, and another who'd spent the two years since college working as a developer at a big company. Every one responded that they'd prefer the guy who'd tried to start his own company. Zod Nazem, who's in charge of engineering at Yahoo, said:
I actually put more value on the guy with the failed startup. And you can quote me!
So there you have it. Want to get hired by Yahoo? Start your own company....
The Man is the Customer
If even big employers think highly of young hackers who start companies, why don't more do it? Why are undergrads so conservative? I think it's because they've spent so much time in institutions.
The first twenty years of everyone's life consists of being piped from one institution to another. You probably didn't have much choice about the secondary schools you went to. And after high school it was probably understood that you were supposed to go to college. You may have had a few different colleges to choose between, but they were probably pretty similar. So by this point you've been riding on a subway line for twenty years, and the next stop seems to be a job.
Actually college is where the line ends. Superficially, going to work for a company may feel like just the next in a series of institutions, but underneath, everything is different. The end of school is the fulcrum of your life, the point where you go from net consumer to net producer.
The other big change is that now, you're steering. You can go anywhere you want. So it may be worth standing back and understanding what's going on, instead of just doing the default thing.
All through college, and probably long before that, most undergrads have been thinking about what employers want. But what really matters is what customers want, because they're the ones who give employers the money to pay you.
So instead of thinking about what employers want, you're probably better off thinking directly about what users want. To the extent there's any difference between the two, you can even use that to your advantage if you start a company of your own. For example, big companies like docile conformists. But this is merely an artifact of their bigness, not something customers need.
I didn't consciously realize all this when I was graduating from college-- partly because I went straight to grad school. Grad school can be a pretty good deal, even if you think of one day starting a startup. You can start one when you're done, or even pull the ripcord part way through, like the founders of Yahoo and Google.
Grad school makes a good launch pad for startups, because you're collected together with a lot of smart people, and you have bigger chunks of time to work on your own projects than an undergrad or corporate employee would. As long as you have a fairly tolerant advisor, you can take your time developing an idea before turning it into a company. David Filo and Jerry Yang started the Yahoo directory in February 1994 and were getting a million hits a day by the fall, but they didn't actually drop out of grad school and start a company till March 1995.
You could also try the startup first, and if it doesn't work, then go to grad school. When startups tank they usually do it fairly quickly. Within a year you'll know if you're wasting your time.
If it fails, that is. If it succeeds, you may have to delay grad school a little longer. But you'll have a much more enjoyable life once there than you would on a regular grad student stipend....
A Public Service Message
I'd like to conclude with a joint message from me and your parents. Don't drop out of college to start a startup. There's no rush. There will be plenty of time to start companies after you graduate. In fact, it may be just as well to go work for an existing company for a couple years after you graduate, to learn how companies work.
And yet, when I think about it, I can't imagine telling Bill Gates at 19 that he should wait till he graduated to start a company. He'd have told me to get lost. And could I have honestly claimed that he was harming his future-- that he was learning less by working at ground zero of the microcomputer revolution than he would have if he'd been taking classes back at Harvard? No, probably not....
So while I stand by our responsible advice to finish college and then go work for a while before starting a startup, I have to admit it's one of those things the old tell the young, but don't expect them to listen to. We say this sort of thing mainly so we can claim we warned you. So don't say I didn't warn you.
Posted 2005-11-16 12:38:44 by Jon Ippolito
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