Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Thoughts On Taking the Entrepreneurship Plunge

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I found myself at a time in my career when I had to look back and reflect, and decide what I want to do next. Remain an employee? Or leave it all and become an entrepreneur. It's hard to make purely logical decisions about these things, in part because your life and well-being might be affected, but mostly because you need to make projections into the future and the future presents itself as a hazy picture at best. A lot of this decision is based on gut feel. This post outlines my thoughts.

Financial aspects

This was obviously the most important thing that I was thinking about. Salaried jobs give you a decent amount of financial stability. This is in sharp contrast to starting up, which has near-zero financial security, at least at the outset.

However, financial growth in a salaried job is not in your control at all. Your salary increments depend on a lot of factors: What is the industry standard paycheck being given out, what's the salary of your peers and bosses, what's the revenue of the company, what's the funding status of the company, etc. Yes, your performance does matter, but even with excellent performance you have an abysmal salary increase every year. What's worse, no boss will ever tell you that your performance has constantly exceeded all set expectations. They'll always find some cop-out; things like: "Your performance has been good, but you should take on more responsibility."

That's an awfully bad deal — the factors that affect my financial growth are not in my control, good performance pays very little, and there are text-book methods to even reduce the payout for excellent performance! I've tried fighting this at all my past jobs, and I've always lost. It's a system designed to make you lose every time.

It's very easy to take this negatively. When you realize that your performance doesn't matter anymore, the quality of your work suffers. You start going to work simply because you are obliged to. You start hating Mondays, and look forward to Fridays.

I am not like that though. More than anything else, I have a strong primal urge to create stuff. I never let my obviously slow and completely-out-of-my-control financial growth affect my quality of work. Fortunately, this kept me in the good books of my bosses and my employers at all times. That makes everything fine, right? It does, except when you stop to think: Where is all this going?, and discover that you don't really know. You realize that if you could instead use your zeal, energy and passion elsewhere where the promise of financial growth is higher, you could maybe make a lot more money for the stuff you are doing.

May be, I should start up.

Of course, the promise of financial growth is just that — a promise. There's a huge possibility that it will not work at all, and I will have failed. But then I realized that if I fail, it'll be of my own doing. It will be my mistake that stalls (or negatively impacts) my financial growth. That's a lot more control than I've been used to! I only need to be able to learn from my mistakes and change what I'm doing wrong quickly enough. I should be very cognizant about what might be mistakes, and reduce possible risks from those mistakes. Easier said than done of course, but at least I would be in control.

Creating something

Let's now talk about that primal urge to create that I mentioned above. It's one of the reasons I work with technology — it's very easy to create things seemingly out of thin air, with very little effort at nearly no cost. It's an awesome feeling when you build something and watch the world use it. This, I now understand, is why programming is argued to be an art — you are always creating. I have that creative urge in me, and I intend to never let go of it. It's the single most important character trait that I will treasure and nurture.

So, how do you create stuff when you are an employee? Turns out, it's nearly impossible. Firstly, there are the business goals of the company, and you have to align personal goals with business goals. For most people, personal goals just means making money. But that's not the case when your biggest passion is to create things. What it means then is that you have to compromise. You end up doing things that might not be fun to do, because the business requires it. Like most other people, this is what I have been doing.

Secondly, on those occasions when you do get to create, you are not in control of the decisions taken. There are several stakeholders in practically anything you do. Their opinions have to be factored in as well. By itself, the idea rocks — creating stuff is a form of collaborative art in some sense. However, in practice it never ends up that way; people's egos, unclear vision, different motivations, etc. get in the way of the quality of the product. You end up creating something that is not as good as it could be.

So, creativity at work practically doesn't exist. As a creative person, how do you deal with this? What I used to do was wait to get back home, and then I'd work on my own little side projects. Most of these projects have never seen the light of day. There have been all kinds of projects I've worked on on the side over the last couple of years: creating protocols, implementing protocol clients, writing some funky server-modules, and building stuff on the bleeding-edge of web tech. These products were meant to be given out for free, and I could've built a business model around it in the future if I wanted to. Actually, it didn't even matter that I didn't get these live; I was happy enough to have satisfied my urge to create. On some days, I have found myself working on my side projects till the wee hours of the morning, getting very little sleep, spending time at work because I had to, only to come back home and continue having fun on my side projects till the morning. It was exhausting, but I enjoyed it because I could finally create.

Starting up

If I could channelize this energy, focus on something that can actually see the light of day, and get it to generate enough revenue for me, I could maybe survive on this. I'll be working just as hard, and will have more fun doing it.

It's an unsettling thought process that's been eating into me for several months now, and I've been meaning to act upon it. I've been discussing this with several people, and there's a lot I've learnt. There are several factors to be considered and risks involved. It hasn't been an easy decision. I would be leaving my cushy job to take on what would be my biggest risk ever. And then I realized something.

Starting up is not a risk at all.

What is the worst that will happen? Even if I fail, I'm only losing my financial security. That's a reasonably easy problem to fix. I could always take loans from friends and family. Or I could secure investment to buy me more time. I'd have to have a revenue model that will start generating money from get-go, and that in itself will reduce the risk significantly. There are several solutions, but the fact remains that it's an easy problem to fix. If all else fails, I'll still be at least as employable as I am right now. I'd end up doing a salaried job like I have been doing, as much as I wouldn't like it.

The worst that will happen is that I'll end up where I am right now. That's hardly a risk!

Last Friday was my last day as an employee. I've never been more anxious and excited. I've finally taken the first steps towards doing what I wanted to always: fully control my financial growth, create what I want the way I want to, and do this at minimal risk of my financial security. At the risk of sounding overly dramatic: last Friday was the first day of the rest of my life.

Watch this space for more announcements coming soon!