At the start of this year I left my gig at Yahoo! (before the meltdown) to go off on my own. Most people who have taken “the plunge” (I’ve taken it once before) are met with a series of doubts and feelings of disbelief from family and close friends. “But what will you do for money!? What about healthcare?!” Yada, Yada, Yada.
The point of this rant(ish) piece is to highlight some very backwards ways of thinking about Startups, Risk, and College in the traditional middle class sense.
Coming from blue-collar past, I’ve realized that a lot of my friends and family come from union-type vocations and upbringings that essentially rely on an employer to provide for them. Sell your labor during the day, take home a paycheck at the end of the week, and hope you don’t get laid off or go on strike.
Who wants that? Well, I guess a lot of us. But it’s boring ride where your earnings are capped, and the only excitement comes from the occasional fear of whether you’ll need to look for a job other then the one you’ve held for 20 years. But other than that, it’s safe. Work for the postal service, utility company, or take up some other trade, and you’ll get by.
So that “money” question you might get asked when you think about joining a startup? It’s rooted in fear and the general idea of not having some sort of safety net. I think those safety-concerned folks hedge their bets to such a degree that they ultimately hurt themselves. And do you know what is generally viewed as the safest bet of all? Education. One or many degrees will become safety nets for life.
So that blue-collar crew I was just profiling — an education for them, specifically a college education, is the ticket out of the paycheck-to-paycheck, debt-ridden hell that defines the class. Work hard, get a degree, get a good job somewhere, and you’ll be alright.
Those same people who advocated that you keep your job and play it safe also suggest that you take what is actually a massive gamble at the age of 18: taking out student loans to get a college education. But this is pitched as an “investment.”
Whenever I talk to some high school student about college, I wish I could impress on them the insanity of big student loans. You might be taking out 6-digit unforgivable chunk of cash, hoping you can pay it back alongside your regular living expenses post-college. That’s not easy (watch that clip).
So let’s compare that to joining a startup. Let’s say you make $100k / year at your current job, and you leave to join a startup where you need to go half salary, either funded by the startup, or by freelance work to keep you afloat. You aren’t saving any cash, but you can afford living expenses at 0% margin.
At the startup, you are getting a real-world education that no business school can provide, and the only cost is opportunity cost. For the sake of argument, your startup didn’t do so well, and after 4 years your loss in opportunity cost is $200-250k, but you owe $0 to anyone for your time.
Bachelor’s degrees, Master’s degrees, etc: They don’t entitle you to anything, and you generally acquire them at the cost of tens of thousands in debt. You gave up 2-6 years of your life learning at a fantastically slow rate, only to find an exit where you:
- Owe some loan shark of a company like Sallie Mae $20-250k (depending on the degree(s))
- Potentially have the same loss in opportunity cost
- Need to go find a job, because it turns out degrees aren’t tickets for jobs
- Have no practical experience anyway, so people will hire you at a minimal salary if and when you do find a job
The point is: College is one of the biggest gambles you’ll ever take, and the risk involved in joining a startup is laughable compared to it. Next time you think about quitting your job and going back to school, join a startup instead. And if you didn’t go to school yet — put some serious thought into how much of a financial setbeck you really want when your 4 years are up.