I’ll start with one of my favorite thoughts, by Alex Haley in his essay “The Shadowland of Dreams”:
Many a young person tells me he wants to be a writer. I always encourage such people, but I also explain that there’s a big difference between “being a writer” and writing. In most cases these individuals are dreaming of wealth and fame, not the long hours alone at the typewriter. “You’ve got to want to write,” I say to them, “not want to be a writer.”
The reality is that writing is a lonely, private and poor-paying affair. For every writer kissed by fortune, there are thousands more whose longing is never requited. Even those who succeed often know long periods of neglect and poverty. I did.
The verb you want to be using with respect to startup ideas is not “think up” but “notice.” At YC we call ideas that grow naturally out of the founders’ own experiences “organic” startup ideas. The most successful startups almost all begin this way.”
Now, many of these “organic” founders also want to get rich, as do their investors and the employees who join them, but they also expect to spend years toiling away with lots of setbacks and trial and error. They know that if they get rich it will be because they are working on an idea where they have an edge in terms of knowledge and enthusiasm, not because they have joined a lucrative profession called “being an entrepreneur.”
All that being said, I would never discourage someone who truly is interested in startups from pursuing one — I’d certainly rather have them here in Silicon Valley rather than send them back to Wall Street. Startup life can provide a career full of accelerated learning, great camaraderie and teamwork, and it will at least leave you with some great stories. If you really want to enter the startup world, and not only for a quick acquisition, you could try:
- Get awesome at something. Become a great engineer. Designer. Product manager. Marketer. Sales rep. Growth hacker. It is hard to start or join a great company if you aren’t great at a job that most startups need done.
- Go deep in an industry. Many of the best companies are started by founds with proprietary knowledge in a specific field, like ad technology, insurance, supply chain management, information security, or many others.
- Join a great startup. If you don’t have an idea where you have proprietary knowledge or passion, follow founders who do. Join the team early, contribute however you can, learn as much as you can, and it may lead to your founding your own company in the future as you get exposed to more people and ideas.