Many people hate the fact that working on a startup is now sexy. They gripe that everybody and their mother is building an app, while writing-off budding entrepreneurs as Social Network wannabes looking to make a quick, easy buck. I find this disdain to be disgusting, and I would like to try to explain why.
My former roommate – we’ll call him “John” – spent the summer doing exactly what most Princeton students do. He worked a mind-numbingly boring internship. But after spending his days dragging himself through excel spreadsheet after excel spreadsheet, John would do something remarkable. He would return to his airport hotel room and, instead of unwinding, John would wireframe.
Yes, John was “scratching his own itch.” But, more importantly, he was blazing his own trail. John recognised that in exactly one year he would need to find a job that he knew he did not want. And instead of accepting this traditional prescription as an inevitability, John decided he was going to make his own job. As a captain of Princeton’s Squash team, John recognised the inefficiency of logging match statistics with pen and paper. His teammates were collecting all of these valuable data points from their performance but deriving little learning from them. Thus, John’s epiphany: a mobile application would enable his peers to better understand and improve their performance on the squash court. Now he’s on a mission to bring Moneyball to squash, while simultaneously creating a meaningful career for himself. And the quality and scalability of John’s idea is completely irrelevant to its intrinsic value.
John is just another example of complacency giving way to creativity. Of perpetuating problems coming to blows with inspired and driven entrepreneurs trying to solve them. Yes, you could write-off inefficient athletics as a silly problem. Or, you can applaud John for attempting to solve problems for himself and for others. For relinquishing certainty – in the form of a well-paying job – in the name of progress and pride in craft. I opt for the latter. And, given the state of our country today, you should too.
As Scott Heiferman explained to Meetup employees the other day, people are beginning to “just walk away” from traditional institutions – and they are turning to each other. They are walking away from banks and turning to each other on Kickstarter. They are walking away from for-profit education and turning to each other on Skillshare. They are walking away from archaic organisations and turning to each other on Meetup. Yes, this is more of a trickle than a mass exodus. But one day we will reach the tipping point, and I want to be a member of the creative class that pushes us over the edge.
This was supposed to be my senior year at Princeton University. But three weeks ago I decided that I was not going to go back. I now have a new home – crashing at Dogpatch Labs by day and a friend’s apartment by night – and a new diet (eggs for breakfast and tunafish for lunch), and I could not be happier. I am building an Internet company that I hope will also empower people to turn to each other. And I am doing so alongside wonderfully inspiring people, who are teaching me more than I learned in any lecture hall. So you may call me reckless but do not call me complacent.
Scott Heiferman walked away from an ad agency to work at McDonalds and build a company whose mission it is to connect strangers. John is walking away from a nine-to-five to solve a problem that him and his peers have faced for most of their lives. I am walking away from an Ivy League education in order to empower meaningful conversations online. What are you walking away from? What are you walking away for?
It is OK if you do not have an answer. Not everyone is presented with the circumstances to walk away, and not everyone should. But, please, don’t be a critic. We’re not walking away because startups are sexy. We’re walking away because the alternative is not.