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Why You Should Work For Someone Else Before Starting Up

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When you look online for advice about entrepreneurship, you will see a lot of “just do it”:

The best way to get experience… is to start a startup. So, paradoxically, if you’re too inexperienced to start a startup, what you should do is start one. That’s a way more efficient cure for inexperience than a normal job. – Paul Graham, Why to Not Not Start a Startup

There is very little you will learn in your current job as a {consultant, lawyer, business person, economist, programmer} that will make you better at starting your own startup. Even if you work at someone else’s startup right now, the rate at which you are learning useful things is way lower than if you were just starting your own. –  David Albert, When should you start a startup?

This advice almost never comes with citations to research or quantitative data, from which I have concluded:

The sort of person who jumps in and gives advice to the masses without doing a lot of research first generally believes that you should jump in and do things without doing a lot of research first.

I don’t believe in doing anything without doing a ton of research first, and have therefore come to the surprising conclusion that the best way to start a startup is by doing a lot of background research first.

Specifically, I would make two claims:

  1. It’s unclear whether the average person learns anything from a startup.
  2. It is clear that the average person learns something working in direct employment, and that they almost certainly will make more money working in direct employment (which can fund their later ventures).

I think these two theoretical claims lead to one empirical one:

If you want to start a successful startup, you should work in direct employment first.

Evidence

Rather than boring you with a narrative, I will just present some choice quotes:

Even a stopped clock is right twice a day

It’s interesting to think about what exactly the “people don’t learn anything from a startup” hypothesis would look like. If we take the above cited numbers of everyone having a 20% chance of succeeding in a given startup, then even if each success is independent most people will have succeeded at least once by their fourth venture.

So the underlying message that many in the startup community say of “if you keep at it long enough, eventually you will succeed” is still completely true. I just think you could succeed quicker if you go work for someone else first.

But… Anecdata!

I am sure that there are a lot of people who sucked on their first startup, learned a ton, and then crushed it on their second startup. But those people probably also would’ve sucked at their first year of direct employment, learned a ton, and then crushed it even more when they did start a company.

There are probably people who learn better in a startup environment and you may be one of them, but the odds are against it.

Attribution errors

So if entrepreneurs don’t learn anything in their startups, why do very smart people with a ton of experience like Paul Graham think they do? One explanation which has been advanced is the “Fundamental Attribution Error”, which refers to “people’s tendency to place an undue emphasis on internal characteristics to explain someone else’s behavior in a given situation, rather than considering external factors.” Wikipedia gives this example:

Subjects read essays for and against Fidel Castro, and were asked to rate the pro-Castro attitudes of the writers. When the subjects believed that the writers freely chose the positions they took (for or against Castro), they naturally rated the people who spoke in favor of Castro as having a more positive attitude towards Castro. However, contradicting Jones and Harris’ initial hypothesis, when the subjects were told that the writer’s positions were determined by a coin toss, they still rated writers who spoke in favor of Castro as having, on average, a more positive attitude towards Castro than those who spoke against him. In other words, the subjects were unable to properly see the influence of the situational constraints placed upon the writers; they could not refrain from attributing sincere belief to the writers.

Even in the extreme circumstance where people are explicitly told that an actor’s performance is solely due to luck, they still believe that there must’ve been some internal characteristic involved. In the noisy world of startups where great ideas fail and bad ideas succeed it’s no surprise that people greatly overestimate the effect of “skill”. Baum and Silverman found that:

VCs… appear to make a common attribution error overemphasizing startups’ human capital when making their investment decisions. – Picking winners or building them? Alliance, intellectual, and human capital as selection criteria in venture financing and performance of biotechnology startups

And if venture capitalists, who sole job consists of figuring out which startups will succeed, regularly make these errors then imagine how much worse it must be for the rest of us.

(It also doesn’t bode well for this essay – I’m sure that even after reading all the evidence I cited most readers will still attribute their startup heros’ success to said heroes’ skill, intelligence and perseverance.)

Conclusion

I wrote this because I’ve become annoyed with the “just do it” mentality of so many entrepreneurs who spout some perversion of Lean Startup methods at me. Yes, doing experiments is awesome but learning from people who have already done those experiments is usually far more efficient. (Academics joke that “a month in the lab can save you an hour in the library.”)

If you just think a startup will be fun then by all means go ahead and start something from your dorm room. But if you really want to be successful then consider apprenticing yourself to someone else for a couple years first.

(NB: I am the founder of a company which I started after eight years of direct employment.)

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About the Author
This article was written by Xodarap of Philosophy for Programmers (P4P). Xodarap is a programmer interested in number theory, abstract algebra and empiricism. Read more of his work.

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Agnes Yee, Legal & Compliance Recruiter of Space Executive

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Agnes Yee started Space Executive in Singapore, which is a hub for businesses in some of the world’s fastest growing economies.

What’s your story?
After graduation, I joined a design media company as a Business Development Executive, during the era when ‘reading a magazine online’ was unheard of. I believe that laid the foundation for being unfazed by rejections.

I fell into recruitment pre-GFC and rode the highs and lows in the early years. A decade later, I decided to set up my own recruitment company, partly because I could. I’m acutely aware of the face that being an Asian female in Singapore is sometimes a privilege, and that many women in the world are living a very different existence.
Thereafter, we joined Space Executive as part of a merger. I am currently the Partner of Space Executive, a recruitment company focused specialist disciplines, including Legal, Finance, Digital, Sales and Marketing and Change. We also run Space Ventures, a venture capital business, which invests in seed and pre-series A businesses.

What excites you most about your industry?
On a daily basis, we’re influencing how one spends a third of their day. It is interesting how the Internet has transformed the industry, and I’m excited to see how we can harness technology to bring us to the next phase of this business.

The VC is an extension of applying our skills and experience in reading people. We very much invest in the people as much as the idea. Being a native Singaporean, it’s been exhilarating watching Southeast Asia becoming a hotbed of ideas; and young entrepreneurs simply daring to dream.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I’m a born and bred Singaporean. I love that I speak both English and Mandarin, grew up playing with Indian friends and eating Malay food.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore for the low barriers of entry to set up a business, but has to be China (and Hong Kong) for their hunger and constant innovation.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
青春不要留白 which translates to ‘Don’t waste your youth.’

Who inspires you?
Anyone who has gone against the grain.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
It wasn’t recent but reading the article on https://waitbutwhy.com/2015/12/the-tail-end.html never fails to blow my mind how little time we have left. Charting our lives in weeks, and realising I only have enough time left to enjoy 60 Christmas turkeys, read 300 books (all if I’m lucky); and mostly, I’m left with the last 5% of the time that I spend in-person with my parents.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I’m cognisant that every decision I made in life has brought me to where I am today, and I wouldn’t change one thing. But I’d really like to have had more time to travel.

How do you unwind?
Exercise and wine.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Trekking any mountain in Asia. It brings us back to the most basic. To overcome elements of nature and our own mind.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Start with Why, Simon Sinek

Shameless plug for your business:
Space Executive started in Singapore, a hub for businesses in some of the world’s fastest growing economies. We assist organisations in accessing a targeted and specialised, and often times transient talent pool.

Out of Singapore, we have recruited across 14 countries; and have embarked on our global expansion plans with offices in Hong Kong and London this year, and US, Japan and Europe in the following years.

Space Ventures provides funding, management and financial guidance to young businesses with original ideas. We have invested in peer to peer lending platforms, credit scoring, social media education, and other start-ups spanning diverse industries. We are always interested in hearing more about new ideas.

How can people connect with you?
https://www.linkedin.com/in/agnesyee/

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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Callum Connects

Chrystie Dao-Szabo, Founder of iPayMy

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Chrystie Dao-Szabo founded iPaymy for Business – a secure and easy to use
platform enabling SMEs to pay rent, salaries, invoices, and even corporate tax using the credit cards they already have in their wallet today.

What’s your story?
I’m Chrystie Dao-Szabo, and I’ve worked as an international banker for over 22 years. During that time, I travelled through Asia, Australia and Europe, and everywhere I saw how my clients struggled with managing their finances and keeping cash around.

I wanted to use my experience to help them, but I also knew the solution they needed didn’t exist yet. This pushed me to give up on my secure career, and instead look into the innovative world of FinTech for an answer.

This is how I founded iPaymy – at its launch, a platform to help consumers pay their monthly expenses using their credit cards. We’ve grown a lot since, and today, iPaymy for Business is a platform that allows business owners to use their credit cards to pay for rent, salaries, invoices and taxes, freeing up their cash for business-critical operations.

What excites you most about your industry?
What excites me most about FinTech is it’s culture of constant disruption, thanks to cool and innovative products and services coming out every day.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born in Vietnam, grew up in Australia and worked in Asia, Europe and Australia. Being raised by traditional Vietnamese parents meant that deep down I was still an Asian at heart, so I have a strong connection with the region.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore of course. It’s easy to do business, English is the main language, and the infrastructures like public transportation are great. Also, the government supports local innovation in multiple ways, like giving grants for SMEs and FinTechs.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Keep giving, and one day you will receive.

Who inspires you?
My parents. My father had a successful business in Vietnam just before the fall of Saigon in 1975. After the war, my father was sent to a re-education camp for three years, which meant my mum had to bring up two young kids – a 3-year-old, me and my 4-year old brother on her own.

In 1980, we all fled Vietnam on a boat and arrived in Sydney, Australia via refugee camps in Indonesia and Singapore. There, my parents had to start over with nothing to their names and only AUD 50 given to them by the Australian government.
They went on to build several businesses in Australia!

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
The number of young and smart people who have carved out successful careers by founding their own startups (or joining really cool ones). When I was starting out my career, doing any of these was not a viable option; it was either working for an accounting firm, an insurance company or a bank.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
If I were starting out my career now, I would choose the path of joining a startup as you get to learn so much about running a business and how to assemble a winning team.

How do you unwind?
I like travelling to a beach or a resort destination and just relaxing by the pool or beach. I also like to unwind after work with a glass of champagne or wine, and a bowl of truffle fries.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Thailand. I love the people and the spicy Thai food.

Everyone in business should read this book:
The E-Myth. It’s a book series that dismantles common myths about entrepreneurship in different industries.

Shameless plug for your business:
With iPaymy for Business, SMEs can pay rent, salaries, invoices, and even corporate tax using the credit cards they already have in their wallet today. SMEs love iPaymy because it works like a credit card, but pays like cash.

iPaymy’s secure and easy to use platform reliably delivers payments to vendors while freeing up cash and providing access to interest free credit. Forget the delays and aggravations that come with traditional SME financing options. Schedule recurring payments, manage invoices, set payment reminders, and monitor payment status all from one dashboard.

It’s never been easier for SMEs to meet monthly payment obligations while keeping cash available to fuel growth, bridge receivable gaps, and make immediate investment in the supplies, services, and expertise needed to drive a growing business forward.

How can people connect with you?
You can find me on LinkedIn or contact me by email.
My LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/chrystiedaoszabo/
My email: [email protected]

Twitter handle?
https://twitter.com/ceedeees

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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