Friday, March 16, 2007

My startup path

For some reason, I've always liked the idea of starting an important new company or building something really cool that everyone will use. In college, I became interested in founding or joining a software startup, but had no idea how to do that. I had read a few random books, such as Startup: A Silicon Valley Adventure and Steve Jobs & the Next Big Thing, but I still had no idea how to go about starting a company or even how to find a good one to join. Really, all I knew was that the cool startups seemed to be located in Silicon Valley, and so the only plan I could think of was to find out where this "Silicon Valley" was located and move there (I went to school in Ohio). Luckily, my friend Chad had recently taken a job with Intel in Santa Clara, and he reported that Santa Clara was in fact a part of "Silicon Valley", so I joined Intel too.

That was in 1998 -- I kind of assumed that the streets of Silicon Valley would be "paved with startups", and that I would probably run into them all over the place. As it turns out, that wasn't exactly true. After almost a year spent in the cubicles of Intel, I was ready for something new. I still didn't know much about startups, and the ones that I read about in "Red Herring" magazine all sounded really boring. Fortunately, working at Intel meant that I had plenty of time to read Slashdot, and so rather than do some kind of intelligent research, I simply sent my resume to the handful of local startups I had read about that seemed technically interesting.

I never heard back from most of those startups, but one actually offered me a job: Google. At the time, they were just a small team of people in a little office on University Ave in Palo Alto. Their "business model" seemed pretty unlikely to me, but I liked the product, the people seemed smart, the work sounded very interesting, and the office had a bright and high energy feel, a nice change from the two shades of gray at Intel. I didn't understand how they could possibly beat Altavista, which had more users, more money, more engineers, and more everything. If Google did start to take off, wouldn't Altavista simply match their product and kill them? So I pretty much assumed that Google wouldn't make it, but it seemed like a fun job and a great opportunity to meet new people and learn more about startups. Maybe I could find a better startup the next time around. As it turns out, I was only half-right: Google was a great opportunity to meet people and learn about startups (and technology, and products, and more), but of course the whole "Altavista crushes Google" thing didn't happen.

What's my point? You don't need to have it all figured out right now. The important thing is to keep moving forward. Seek opportunities to learn or try something new, something with uncertain outcomes. If you're interested in startups, don't sit around waiting for the perfect opportunity, just go find one that sounds interesting and get a job there. The startup will probably fail, but you will succeed because you have learned a lot more than you otherwise would have. (This isn't to say that you can't learn things in a big company -- you can. For example, you can learn how to be a worker bee.)

Where does my path lead now? Last year I decided that life at Google had become too predictable, and too typical. I quit. It was time to move forward to something new, something uncertain.


Douglas H. said...

Found you through YC startup news.
Added you to my Bloglines.
I'll be interested to hear more.


Theodor Tonca said...

Right on Paul. You're one of the few people that realize your learning most when you're uncomfortable. Congrats on stretching your comfort zone and nice blog by the way ;)

Wil C said...

A big fan of gmail, and all the things that have come out of it. Thanks for all the hard work, and also found you through YC startup.

Would like to hear more of what you've got too.

KaranJude said...

you mention about joining startups to learn about startups . Do you have any advice for people who want to persue a startup on a part time basis , initially what should their path be .... ?

Unknown said...

That resonates loud and clear with me. I've been spending the past 6 months trying to start a software company as the business guy. I realized it probably wasn't going to happen as an undergrad, so now I'm going to go work for a startup and hopefully learn a lot so that when the time comes I'm prepared to start my own. Fortune favors the prepared.

Nivi said...

Paul, I like your thoughts – I'm looking forward to reading more on your new blog.

I don't agree with the "just go find one that sounds interesting" approach. I think this is exactly what is wrong with how many people look at the companies they join and the companies they invest in. (Some invest money, others invest time.)

I don't suggest waiting around all your life for the perfect opportunity but one should really focus on the effectiveness of decisions. To paraphrase Peter Drucker. there are orders of magnitude more value in doing the 'right things' than doing 'things right'.

Alan Kay puts it another way: "Organizations are mostly organized around their current goals. Some organizations have a part that tries to improve the process for attaining current goals. But very few organizations improve the process of figuring out what the goals should be." Substitute 'people' for 'organizations' in that quote.

When you join a company, consider the effectiveness of the decision. There is too much talent in the Valley focused on doing the wrong things right.

Paul Buchheit said...


In 1999 a lot of people thought that the world didn't need yet another search engine and that Google was the "wrong thing". The future is very difficult to predict. If there is a business that you really believe in, then by all means join that. Otherwise, look at it more as a learning experience, a part of your education, and find someplace where you can learn a lot.

Me said...

Now that I'm getting close to graduation, I'm looking into a new job which would hopefully allow me to make use of this new knowledge. I'm willing to take another shot with a startup, hopefully this time earlier on in the life of the company and with a greater role. Where would I go to look for promising young startups in the Boston area? I've done a few searches, but most of the info I'm finding is pretty old.