Being a recovering startup employee tired of gambling 2008-03-21

I finally feel I am over the post-Edgeio "daze". A startup is always exhausting, particularly when things aren't going your way, and after every startup I've worked in there's been this period where my mood swings between elation and euphoria it's over and that I can go back to a semi-normal life for a while and frustration if it didn't go well.

I'm generally a very optimistic person, though, and see opportunities even in pretty depressing circumstances.

In the case of Edgeio, I was depressed for about a day, and then the calls from recruiters started, and went on and on and on. When I landed at Aardvark Media I was back on a high - the demand was so high I was seriously considering taking a while to decide and just seriously push my salary in through the roof, and I was also seriously considering several early stage startups that had approached me.

In the end I picked Aardvark because it's a) profitable, b) growing at a very nice rate, c) still small enough I can have a significant impact on the company by restructuring the technology side and working on getting new services in place - at the moment we're working on launching a niche ad-network. Aardvark isn't a Silicon Valley style "sky is the limit" type of startup. It won't make me a billionare or even a millionaire. But then, what most people forget is that neither will 99%+ of Silicon Valley type startups.

The difference between Europe and Silicon Valley startups

There's no doubt that European startups to a greater extent are cautious. There's certainly a group of people here that have the same mentality of growth at all costs that rule in SV, but most companies focus on building revenue and growing organically. I've done the growth thing in Europe - one of my earlier startups started out as a typical dot-com, and came awfully close to crashing and burning.

But growth at all cost is an aberration here, and I think I'm growing weary of it too.

Edgeio wasn't particularly bad in that regard. It had a burn rate that was high compared to the limited business we managed to pull in, but that was still tiny in the overall scheme of things. We could've started cheaper and built slower, but would we've gotten further? I very much doubt so. I could list dozens of things we did wrong, but most of them are very much things we learned along the way. I still believe in the idea, and I hope someone picks up on it (Looksmart, who bought the technology, would certainly be in a good spot to benefit at a much lower cost than what it cost to keep Edgeio running).

But next time (and there always will be - I love the buzz of starting from scratch too much) I want to bootstrap much leaner and delay outside investments much longer, and focus much harder on revenue.

Will that reduce the odds of making it "big"? Maybe. But frankly, I'd much rather have a 1 in 10 chance of building a $10 million business if I'm one of the founders than a 1 in 100 chance of building a $1 billion business. What the real odds are I don't know, and obviously when you actually get around to starting a business the odds very much depend on circumstances, idea and the skill of everyone involved.

Ultimately, though, the Silicon Valley approach is little more than gambling in many cases. If you look at the number of failures vs. the number of successes, it's scary. If you look at the number of successful founders that either failed numerous times before success, or fail numerous times after success vs. the number of founders that go on to repeatedly succeed, it's also scary. We hear all about the successes, but the failures only become brief footnotes.

I think it's unhealthy. A gambling culture that focuses too much on the goal of becoming the next Facebook founder vs. a balanced life, and in the process significantly reduce the chance of success for the hope of the big payout.

I'll happily work hard, but I doubt I'll do the 12-16 hour work days + the added complication of 8 hour time difference (I worked from London, the rest of the team from California) again for a long time, if at all. I make so much money as a regular employee at my level, and have plenty of room to grow, that the appeal of soul sucking startup environments become less and less appealing and with the poor odds of a big payout they have less and less to offer.

In the Edgeio case, it wasn't actually Edgeio as a company that pushed me into that pattern, but the time difference and my own frustration over how long everything took to get done. Had I been in California I'd probably have felt differently - the regular trips I made to California to meet with the team felt like vacations.

But joining Aardvark was a revelation, and THE main factor that made me take the job at Aardvark, who "only" roughly matched what I was paid at Edgeio, when I know from the push from recruiters that I could have made a big step up in salary was the working environment. People leave on time, and take proper lunch breaks. The guys frequently grab a book and spend their lunch break reading. But people hunker down and WORK the rest of the time. Meetings are limited, short and to the point. There are no primadonna developers of the type I've seen far too much of in many startups. I'm pretty certain the team at Aardvark is achieving more per head than in most of startup environments I've worked, where the pressure to perform has often been completely counterproductive.

And while there is a focus on growth, the focus is on sustainable growth without putting the company at risk or taking outside investment.

It's how I'd like my next startup to be, and I've spent a lot of time thinking about what makes Aardvark different from the more dysfunctional companies I've worked in, and even from a lot of the good ones I've worked in.

(And we're hiring, by the way. We're located in London - Chelsea to be precise)

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