The purpose of a startup is not “success”

I strongly urge you to read the entirety of Alex Payne’s “Letter to a Young Programmer Considering a Startup.”

This heartfelt, eloquent essay encapsulates much of the ambivalence I feel about the startup world.  I am, of course, a startup enthusiast.  Sometime in the next few years, I’ll reach the point where I’ve started, worked for, invested in, or advised over 100 startups, and that’s just including the ones where I had a formal relationship.  As an investor, I’ve probably seen pitches from at least 1,000 entrepreneurs.  I’ve probably read about 10,000 startups (and at least a few of them weren’t in Ron Conway or Dave McClure’s portfolios).

But while I love the startup world, I also recognize its limitations.  As humans, we love absolute goods–they allow us to turn off our brain and live by simple rules.  But nothing, not even startups, are an absolute good.  Here’s what Alex had to say:

“I recently interviewed a young man. I asked him where he wants to be in
four years. “Running my own company,” he said without hesitation. I
asked why. “Because entrepreneurship is in my blood,” he replied. There
was no mention of what his hypothetical company would do, what problem
it would solve for people. His goal was business for the sake of
business. That’s what he had gone to school for, after all.

A startup is just a means to an end. Consider the end, and don’t seek to
revel in the means. What do you care about? Who do you want to help?
Does a startup make meeting your goals easier or harder? Where will it
leave you when your goal is met? Where will it leave you if it isn’t?”

I’ve been in the startup world since 1995.  There are times when everyone loves startups (like today, 2007, and 1999) and there are times when everyone hates startups (like 2009 and 2002).

When everyone loves startups, lots of people say that entrepreneurship is “in their blood,” because it’s trendy, and because they want to make a ton of money.  But it’s not really in your blood unless you can’t bring yourself to accept any other alternative.

I’m also a writer, and I’ve always felt that the definition of a writer is simple: A writer is someone who writes.  A professional writer is someone who makes their living by writing.  End of discussion.  Many want to have written; few are truly driven to actually spend a year of their life writing a book.

Writers are very specialized entrepreneurs.  It just so happens that in the startup world, there are times when investors fling money at startup entrepreneurs (sadly, this never happens to us writers, unless we happen to be famous for some other reason, like becoming president or killing Osama bin Laden).

The purpose of a startup is not “success.”  The true purpose for a startup is to fulfill the irrational creative urge of the entrepreneur.

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