What’s the right time to start up?


A few weeks ago, I gave a talk at the Indian Institute of Management, Trichy, on entrepreneurship. (You can find my presentation here, and my reflections from the talk here). I also had a chance to speak one-on-one with many students at the institute, as well as those at NIT Trichy, the engineering college they share a campus with.

One question I got from many students was this: "I have a great business idea. Should I start up now, or wait and gain some work experience first?"

Let's assume, for the moment, that their business ideas were indeed great. Then, what's the right answer to the question? It's clearly an important one for the students who lack worldly experience, making it possibly a risky choice.

But hidden inside this nuanced question is a far more basic one: why should you start up at all?

Why start up at all?

Granted, there's a lot of hype surrounding startups. If you are someone who hears only reports of Flipkart raising billions or SnapDeal buying Freecharge, your glasses will be rose-tinted. But 92 per cent of startups fail, and most of the survivours meander without decisive success. So, don't start a company in expectation of a massive exit alone. Or even a small exit.

The journey of building a business is long and arduous. Even uber-successful Elon Musk compares it to 'eating glass'! It doesn't make sense, if all you have at the end of it is a minuscule probability of making some money. Especially when well-paying jobs are available.

So, why start up at all if the expected monetary return isn't high? Here's my opinion, based on the last two years I've spent trying to build a sustainable business.

  1. Starting a company from scratch teaches patience and long-term thinking. Few other experiences can match it. You often have to persevere in the face of repeated 'No', making the joy of finally hearing a 'Yes' that much sweeter.
  2. There's an unmatched joy in building something yourself. Even more than the first time you wrote a 'Hello World' programme.
  3. It's a great learning experience. Nothing teaches you as much about starting up as… starting up (a point I'll come back to later).
  4. And there's a tiny, tiny chance that you'll luck out and won't have to work for money again. But again, the probability is so low that on average, it won't be higher than a full-time job (which has much less stress).

So, despite the lack of income, there's definitely value in trying to start a company. But should you start one now? Or, as the prevailing wisdom in college campuses/steady jobs seems to be, should you wait and take the plunge later?

Should you wait?

Some of the main reasons you hear from people waiting their turn at the startup lottery are:

  1. "Let me gain some experience first. I don't want to make any rookie mistakes."
  2. "Let me collect a decent pool of money first."
  3. "I need a brilliant idea. I come up with three ideas a day, but a little research shows that someone's already doing it/it doesn't work."

All good reasons. But incorrect ones. Here's why:

  1. Experience: Hate to break it to you, but no experience can teach you how to build a business. Apart from trying to build one, that is. Recursive logic, but true just the same. Even if you work at a startup, it's not the same as founding one.Trust me, I know. I started a company after several years of experience helping companies enter new markets, launch new products, or develop business models. I knew how to build a new business from scratch. Except that I didn't.
  2. To be a good startup founder, you need to have already been a startup founder.
  3. Resources: You don't need a ton of money to start up. As I mention in this Slideshare (slide 30), it’s inexpensive to start a company today. Once you see consumer traction for your first product, you can begin investing more (or raise funding).Moreover, today, tools like Kickstarter make it even easier to test your product concept for free, before investing your time and (other people's) money in building it
  4. Idea: This is the hardest roadblock: without a decent plan of action, your business will be stillborn. But it's also an easy one. Good ideas are a dime a dozen. Just look for problems you or your friends have, and try to solve them. Sooner or later, you'll stumble upon a goldmine. Like Twitter or Hotmail

Thus, you don’t gain any specific advantage by starting up later. You're much better off diving into it now, when you're young and less risk-averse. So, what are you waiting for?

I'd end the article now, but this answer leaves me a little unsatisfied. You see, a wise man once said: 'There are good reasons, and there's a real reason'. Experience, resources, lack of an idea - all these are great (but wrong) reasons. So what's the 'real' reason? What if you really need the money? What if the above reasons are just excuses?

Specifically, what if you want to start up eventually, but would be really comfortable if you took a job and earned some money first?

Well, you're in luck, pal as this is a false question. You don't need to choose between a job and starting up; you can do both!

Validate the idea (or the MVP if you will) in your free time, while working at your day job. Flesh it out gradually, observing user behaviour and feedback on each iteration. If it catches fire, you'll quit on your own.