Published May 03, 2016
When you were a child, what was your dream? Professional baseball? NASA?
When my son was a toddler, he was fascinated with the brushless car wash machines and dressed as a car washer two consecutive Halloweens. My older daughter wants to be a teacher, and my younger daughter has decided on art for now. For me, it was medicine, although in truth that wasn't really my dream. My mother decided to give me a microscope for my tenth birthday, a chemistry set for my eleventh birthday and, for my twelfth, a book on the top 100 medical schools in the United States. She told me to seriously consider Columbia.
I disappointed my mother. I am not a doctor, or at least not a medical doctor. At age 24, a couple years out of college, I quit my job as a computer programmer and started a company. It wasn't some divine plan. I simply liked the idea and felt I would be wasting time if I didn't jump on it.
Yet it seems today, unlike the past, we don't want our children to dream of becoming doctors or artists any more. We want them to dream of starting companies. Is it because parents didn't take the plunge and are imposing their failed aspirations on their children, as all good parents do? Or is it simple wisdom and experience?
Maybe our values have shifted and we now collectively romanticize entrepreneurs. We watch movies and read books on Facebook's origins and Steve Job's life. Startups are all over TV, too, even South Park. Major colleges are offering entrepreneurship in their curriculum. Stanford University even has an entrepreneurship center with supporting staff and faculty.
In truth, I'm an entrepreneur. Since quitting my engineering job 23 years ago, I've been running businesses I co-founded. I've enjoyed it, for the most part, but I'm not sure I'd encourage anyone to do the same. It's hard work and involves a lot of personal sacrifices that, on balance, render success somewhat hollow for those lucky few. Research cited by the Economist supports this view. In the recent Schumpeter piece (9/27/2014 Schumpeter: Entrepreneurs anonymous | The Economist), we read that "first-time founders have the job security of zero-hour contract workers, the money worries of chronic gamblers and the social life of hermits."
"Phil Libin, the boss of Evernote, a document-storage service, says that “It is amazingly difficult work—you have no life balance, no family time, and you will never work harder in your life.” Aaron Levie, a founder of Box, a cloud-storage firm, says he spent two-and-a-half years sleeping on a mattress in his office, living off spaghetti hoops and instant noodles. Vivek Wadhwa, an entrepreneur turned academic, had a heart attack when he had just turned 45, after taking one company public and reviving another."
I add my own story to this list, and recall starting the road show for my secondary offering of my public company (three weeks, twenty cities) a few days after my father passed away. We were buying another company in parallel with the offering. And yet, per Schumpeter, "over half of American startups are gone within five years. Most of the survivors barely stumble along."
Despite these sobering facts, parents still dream. They often contact me regarding potential internships for their children at my current start-up, Smule. They want their kids to taste entrepreneurship during before they start college and become entrenched in more traditional professions, like medicine. In fact, at a recent fundraising auction at a top prep school in Palo Alto, parents paid $5k for such an internship.
A friend several years ago told me he was frustrated that he was approaching his mid-thirties but had yet to start a company. Imagine the hypothetical future interview with the senior engineer considering an offer to join, who asks about the vision of the company, and hears in response from the co-founder, "yeah, I was almost thirty-five and so felt I had to start something."
Why attempt to teach entrepreneurship in college? How exactly does one teach insanity? How could you simulate and codify the myriad experiences, situations and models? I find such programs inane, and have said as much when giving guest lectures on entrepreneurship at Stanford. What if Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison had taken those classes? Ironically, all three dropped out of college.
Some would say the fact that you can't teach brilliance is no argument against teaching. Perhaps. But consider Beethoven. He was taught and studied music from an early age. If you scrutinize his early works, you see Mozart and Haydn with homage to Bach -- counterpoint, voice-leading, harmonic language, and form all developed through a school of Western music running back a few centuries.
The true innovations of Beethoven came later, where he pushed up against his "education," those rules of tonal theory, and explored the boundaries of what was possible within these confines. In contrast, a typical entrepreneur breaks early via the concept or innovation, and only later, if successful, adopts more orthodox conventions such as standards in organizational theory, marketing, product development and finance.
That is to say the trajectory of the artist/genius often starts with education and then builds towards innovation, whereas for the entrepreneur this trajectory is inverted -- the innovation comes first. My mentor at my former company, David Marquardt, partner at August Capital and early stage investor in Microsoft, among other companies, believed "entrepreneurs bloom early".
So why force the issue, and try to craft an entrepreneur? Maybe instead, as a society, we should forget about cultivating entrepreneurship and let the kids spend summers fishing and hiking. When they get to college, they could study English, math, or even calligraphy. If, along the way they decide they must start something, all the better.