adventures in making stuff with Daniel Higginbotham

Why I Don't Want to Start a Startup

03 August 2011

Over the course of my programming career I’ve spent a little more than two years working at startups. At the time, I thought that the experience would help me when I eventually started my startup. Instead I became convinced that the startup life is not for me.

Reason #1: I Don’t Want to be Like the Founders I’ve Known

The reason why I stopped working at one of the startups was because the founder had me work for a month and a half without paying me and without telling me he was having cash flow problems.

The founder – let’s call him “Reginald” – had been late in paying me before, so when I didn’t receive a check on time I didn’t think much of it. However, when I hadn’t been paid after 45 days I asked him what was going on and he told me he didn’t have the money to pay me and wouldn’t for four months. During those 45 days, he had known that he wouldn’t be able to pay me, yet he didn’t say anything to me about it.

Instead, he had me to continue to work under the assumption that I would get paid in a timely manner. I ended up confronting him about this, telling him that he had been dishonest with me. His rationale for his behavior was that he wanted me to embrace a more entrepreneurial spirit. The idea is ludicrous, but even if it were not, it was not his right to make that decision for me.

What made this worse was that I had considered us to be friends. How could someone whom I had worked with for nearly a year treat me that way? How could someone who I thought considered me a friend disrupt my life so tremendously?

And it did disrupt my life. I was supporting someone who was very ill and required expensive treatment. “Reginald” knew that, yet he decided to set me back financially anyway. All of a sudden I was without income, and forty-five of the days I could have spent looking for a new job were taken from me. It was one of the most stressful periods of my life.

The point of this is not to excoriate “Reginald”. The point is that I don’t want to become like him. My interpretation of his behavior is that his startup was so important to him that he was willing to disregard honesty and integrity and inflict suffering on a friend in order to buy a little more time for it.

I could see myself behaving like that. If I had come to identify myself as a failure and saw my social status – my identity, even – as tied to the success of my business, it’s possible that I’d behave just as he did. Or at least, I might be tempted to. I’d like to think that I wouldn’t, but the point of all this is that I don’t want to put myself in a position where I’d have to find out.

Reason #2: I Don’t Think Financial Freedom is Required for Happiness

One of the reasons I wanted to start a startup was that I liked the idea of having the financial freedom to do whatever I want. I thought that would allow me to be happier.

In the past few years, though, I’ve come to learn that happiness is something you learn to cultivate, and that it’s not something that just happens as a result of changes to your external environment.

This is something that’s hard for me to put into words, so I’ll just steal the words of Thich Nhat Hanh (even though I feel a little pretentious quoting him here):

Freedom is above all else freedom from our own notions and concepts. If we get caught in our notions and concepts, we can make ourselves suffer and we can also make those we love suffer.

Hanh, Thich (2003). No Death, No Fear (p. 11). Riverhead. Kindle Edition.

What good would it do me to be constantly reinforcing the concept that financial freedom is required for happiness? It didn’t do “Reginald” any good. Instead of working myself to death day in and day out, why not concentrate on being happy now?

Reason #3: I Already Have Big Challenges

Another reason the idea of starting a startup appealed to me is that it seemed like a fun challenge. To be honest, it still seems like it could be a fun challenge. It’s just not one that I want to take up right now.

For a little more than a year now, the challenge I’ve set for myself is to express love regardless fear. That expression can take many forms, whether it’s just telling a co-worker that I think they’re great or telling a friend that I’m glad she’s in my life or telling my girlfriend that she’s wonderful.

It’s also influenced how I see my side projects. At the beginning of the year I decided that, for 2011, I’d only work on side projects that will be freely available and that come from my desire to help other people.

Clean Up Your Mess was the first such project, and it was born of my desire to help other people experience the joy that I feel when I’m attempting graphic design – to give them some tools that will allow them to communicate more clearly and creatively. I’ve received numerous tweets, emails, and comments on how the site has been useful, and those notes have been very gratifying to me.

There were many times, though, when I thought it was pointless to work on the project. I imagined people criticizing it, calling it confusing or boring or worthless (which hasn’t happened). The idea of expressing love regardless of fear kept me going, though.

There are many more “projects” I’d like to tackle, all of which seem more interesting than starting a startup. I’d like to be a better friend and a better brother. I’d like to get better at lifting other people up. I’d like to communicate better. All of these challenges are meaningful to me.

And they don’t require me to live on ramen for the next three years.