Many twentysomethings talk about feeling undervalued by corporate America. Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman are doing what many others are doing to solve this problem: starting their own company. At universities like Harvard and Carnegie Mellon 30-40% of graduates end up starting their own business after five years, and the trend is poised to go up.
The entry-level job inherently undervalues someone who is bright and driven, according to Paul Graham, partner at Y Combinator, a Cambridge-based venture capital firm that funds startups almost exclusively from very young people. He sees entrepreneurship as the great escape.
“For the most ambitious young people, the corporate ladder is obsolete,” says Graham. For the last hundred years everyone started out at the bottom. Even if the candidate held extreme promise, corporations put the candidate as a trainee on the bottom rung so he didn’t get a big head. Graham writes, “The most productive young people will always be undervalued by large organizations, because the young have no performance to measure yet, and any error in guessing their ability will tend toward the mean.”
So, if you are smart and energetic, you might be better off working for yourself. Ohanian and Huffman started their own company before they even graduated from University of Virginia. Today they are twenty-two, and running their company, Reddit, out of their Cambridge apartment. Huffman turned down a job offer at a software company in Virginia so that he could write the software for Reddit, which is a little like social book marking and a little like RSS feed: Think “the five most emailed Boston Globe stories” only not just the newspaper but the whole wide web.
The value of people in their twenties is touted fervently at Google, a company always on the lookout to buy companies from young entrepreneurs. On a blog entry about a conference for entrepreneurs in their early twenties, Chris Sacca, principal for new business development at Google wrote, “I was instantly struck by the sheer energy of the crowd. No one was running off to check in with their assistant or jump onto a mindless conference call with sales finance.”
Graham estimates that a top programmer can work for $80,000 a year in a large company, but he can be 36 more times productive without corporate trappings (e.g. a boss, killed projects, interruptions) and will generate something worth three million dollars in that same year if he is working on his own. Before you balk at those figures, consider that Ohanian and Huffman started their company in June 2005 and by November 2005 they received a buyout offer from Google, (which they declined in favor of continuing to build the company on their own.)
But not everyone is sitting on a great idea for a company. For those who eventually want to start your own business — once your find an idea — use the time beforehand to learn the right skills. Jennifer Floren, CEO of Experience and an entrepreneur herself, recommends going to a small company “where you will usually be able to see first hand what each part of the company does. At a big company you won’t get such wide exposure.” Also, “look for opportunities to be creative or take a leadership role, two good types of experience for an entrepreneur to have.”
If you have spent some time in the workforce, consider becoming a consultant, which essentially is making a business out of yourself. “You should have at least five years of workplace experience before you go on your own,” says Laurie Young, co-principle of Flexible Resources, “because you are offering your experience.” Also, you need marketing skills to sell yourself.” It takes a certain kind of talent “to show people you have skills they can use.”
Alexandra Levit worked in public relations for Computer Associates and then struck out on her own, as a consultant in publicity and marketing communications. In terms of making the transition, Levit advises that you “try lining up a few jobs that you can have before you take the leap,” and be prepared to spend “about 30% of your time marketing yourself.”
Levit provides a snapshot of reality for all entrepreneurs when she says, “Don’t expect the drawbacks to be only financial. You need a lot of self-discipline to sit down in your home office and work without any external pressure. Working for yourself means you’re responsible for every aspect of the business,” and this means, ironically, even the boring, entry-level job that you would have done in a big company.
Ohanim can attest to this, too: “I am spending a lot of time right now doing our taxes. We merged with a company and they kept terrible records.” But, he says, “I really like the notion of not having to look to a superior, to have independence and be doing the entrepreneurial thing.”