(This was threatening to turn into more work as a serious essay than I am up for right now, so I’m shipping it as is, in draft form.)
the youth thing— why I’m suspicious
I’m always suspicious of people in my industry who prefer to fund or hire younger software engineers. I’m extra-suspicious of the ones who suggest people drop out of college to found startups.1 People like that go on my “do not trust” list, because I think they’re choosing to target young people because they’re easier marks.
VCs have always treated engineers as marks. We as a group have been ripe for exploitation by them for a number of reasons; generally we learn what to expect after watching a startup or two. Inexperienced people are particularly sweet victims because they don’t have the experience, and haven’t been hanging out near experienced programmers long enough to hear the war stories.
Stay away from VCs who want them young.
Let’s step back and talk about VCs.
VCs want returns on their investments. They invest their money in a number of startups in the hopes that a few of them will pay off. They make their money back when a company goes public (rarely post-90s-boom) or gets sold. This is the “exit” they all talk about. They do not make their money back from a small company that stays small & sustainable, that is, a company that doesn’t exit. A company like Pinboard, which makes a nice comfortable income for its single programmer, would not be a success from a VC’s point of view. They’re short-term thinkers. They care about their return on investment. They do not care about your business or about you.
This is capitalism; nothing wrong with it when well-regulated. You merely have to be aware of their goals and how they affect VC decision-making: what they fund, how they fund, and what it means they demand from the people who take their money. They will want growth. If the product is the usual insane given-away-for-free iPhone app, they’ll want massive growth so the product is attractive acquisition bait for advertising broker companies like Facebook & Google.
Do not mistake their values for yours. They want a home run; they don’t win if you hit a nice solid single to left. They want their money back tenfold. Everything they do and everything they demand from you is aimed at that goal. If it’s beneficial for you, that’s entirely by accident.
Let’s talk some more about that giving your life up thing. Think it’s an exaggeration? Here’s Michael Arrington on the topic:
If you work at a startup and you think you’re working too hard and sacrificing too much, find a job somewhere else that will cater to your needs.
He quotes extensively from jwz’s Netscape diary. Here’s what jwz says about Arrington:
He’s telling you the story of, “If you bust your ass and don’t sleep, you’ll get rich” because the only way that people in his line of work get richer is if young, poorly-socialized, naive geniuses believe that story! Without those coat-tails to ride, VCs might have to work for a living. Once that kid burns out, they’ll just slot a new one in.
Consider a startup accelerator that considers women involved in a startup to be “a distraction”, and silently refuses to fund startups with women founders. Look at the assumptions there. Women are a “distraction” to the young, male, presumably heterosexual founders. A normal life activity— dating, having relationships, maybe even starting a family— is a “distraction”.
That startup accelerator does not want a healthy work/life balance from its candidates. It wants as much work from them as it can get away with, for as long as it can get away with it. It hopes the founder lasts long enough for that exit moment, but if not, it doesn’t care. Discard the burnout case as a failed investment; maybe one of the other 800 will pay off.
Wanna be a burnout case? That’s the price of that startup accelerator lottery ticket.
Some other blog posts on the differences between what VCs want and what you want:
The daddy of all such articles: jwz’s Watch a VC use my name to sell a con.
What is true is that for a VC’s business model to work, it’s necessary for you to give up your life in order for him to become richer.
Follow the fucking money. When a VC tells you what’s good for you, check your wallet, then count your fingers.
99 problems but money ain’t one
A balanced look at when to take money & when not to: Entrepreneurs: Go as Long as Possible Without Taking Venture Capital
Here’s a good survey of articles about what the VC model is: Does the VC model suck?
As usual, publishing something jars loose more thoughts on the topic. This obsession with naive youth also explains Paul Graham’s obsession with people who start hacking at age 13. He needs those 20-year-old founders to be capable of writing software that works well enough to look acquirable. The only way they can do that is with a years-long head start; hence they have to get going in their early teens.