Imagine you’re a successful 10+ year veteran at HP, Micron, Oracle or some other behemoth technology company and one day John, a co-worker approaches you and says “ Hey Dave, Mary and I are meeting for a couple of beers tonight, we’ve got a great idea for a start-up, care to join us?” Would you go?
Many tech workers at big companies I know these days would jump at that opportunity. For some technology workers, after a long career at a large technology company, the lure of innovation has morphed into the drudgery of squeezing another nickel of margin from the stone and it just doesn’t make their heart beat fast anymore. They built careers in technology because of the thrill of innovation, not the grind of manufacturing.
So what should you focus on when you meet John and friends? I’d suggest you question them about the market opportunity, intellectual property, financing strategy and other things that you’ve probably already thought of. But I’d urge you to put most of your time and effort into evaluating your potential co-workers.
Why? Because good ideas and capital are commodities that are relatively easy to find. What’s really rare are exceptional people. After almost fifteen years of funding start-ups, I am quite sure that biggest challenge in starting a business is putting together an exceptional team. Even more importantly, a great team begins with a great leader because when things go badly (and they most assuredly will), who is going to lead the team through the adversity that every start-up faces, time and time again?
A great CEO is always selling. They are selling their vision to attract the best employees to work for below market wages, selling the company’s stock to potential investors, and selling the (often flawed) early versions of the company’s products to its customers.
If you can check that box, next ask yourself, “would I want to spend more time with these people than my family for the next five-plus years and how will I work with them under the worst possible conditions?” Why? Bluntly, a start-up tech company is a challenging place to work. The hours are terrible and the pay is worse. There’s no job security, your stress goes through the roof, and it’s generally an unhealthy lifestyle. Honestly, it’s a miracle that tech start-ups ever survive.
But everyday I come to work and meet utterly remarkable people who have left the cocoons of larger companies, taken out second mortgages on their homes, maxed out their credit cards, and begged every breathing soul they know to invest a few pennies in their start-up. I leave work each day in awe of the courage of these entrepreneurs who embrace these risks knowing the odds against them.
So why do people do it? Because words can’t describe the feeling of working with a small group of people towards a common goal in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Being in the office of a start-up when the product works for the first time, or when the company gets its first customer, or lands its first big partnership is probably the closest any of us will get to the feeling of being in the locker room after BSU beats TCU in the Fiesta Bowl.
So if you’re thinking of making the leap to a start-up, I encourage you to give it a try. It’s an experience every tech worker should experience. Bonds are created between employees that transcend typical work environments and once you’ve had a taste of it, it’s really hard to go back to a 9 to 5 job.