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The Third Option: Why I Encourage Students to Create Startups

I’ve realized I am very much in a bubble. Everyone I know is building a company. Amongst my circle of friends, that is the norm. This, however, is mostly out of choice: I believe, in agreement with Seth Godin, that to be an outlier is an inefficient way to make progress:

The easiest way to thrive as an outlier is to avoid being one. At least among your most treasured peers. Surround yourself with people in at least as much of a hurry, at least as inquisitive, at least as focused as you are.

With that said, there was a time when I felt out of place. I was studying Computer Science, and all of my friends were making their choices about what to do after graduation. All events and advice were centered around either getting a job, or continuing on to further education. Those were the two options. The only options you’d find. I had other things in my mind. I was considering building my own business, creating a startup. A third option.

I fundamentally believe that this elusive third option should be talked about much more. I think there needs to be higher awareness that creating a startup is a real, tangible option for increasing numbers of students. It’s one of the reasons I speak at college and university events as often as I speak at some of the bigger scale events with more marketing potential. I hope to inspire a few people to take the third option.

My story of choosing the third option

During my time studying, I was always doing side projects and freelance work. By the time I was approaching graduation, I had worked as a freelancer on the side for several years. As a result of my side projects and practical assignments, I had decided that I’d like to create a product: (something much more scalable and with my income not tied to time) instead of continuing freelance work or getting a regular job.

So, after graduation, I took the plunge and tried to create my own startup. The third option. It’s certainly not a smooth path, it’s not the easy option. For some, it may never work out.

For the next year and a half, I struggled to build a startup while I still worked as a freelancer to make ends meet. From the outside it may have seemed that I was not going anywhere. I made little progress with my startup, and I intentionally limited time I spent working as a freelancer. Yet, that’s how it works with startups: it’s the bamboo effect. You’re accumulating learning. Suddenly it all comes together and you have an impact.

After a year and a half of struggles with the first startup, I launched a little experiment called Buffer. Two years later, it’s a 25-person company generating over a million dollars a year. I would like to say I would always have got here, but I know in my mind I was close to being influenced by the fact there were only two obvious choices for me. I luckily found a way to choose that third option that fewer people talk about.

The upside of doing a startup

Building a startup is not for everyone. If, however, you think this path might be for you, I want to share some of the amazing benefits to my life that I’ve found as a result of choosing the third option.

One of the things I like the most about building a startup is the immense freedom and responsibility that results. This is also true if you work for an early stage startup—and that could be a good first step, too. The other side of the coin of this freedom and responsibility is that the choice of whether to get out of bed and keep going is only up to you. For me, this triggered a spiritual journey, where I have learned more about myself and what motivates me. It’s also why I’m always changing my routine and habits.

The more direct upside is through learning and the potential to have your income not be tied to your time, you can build wealth in a very short period of time. Paul Graham explained this in the best way I’ve come across:

“Economically, you can think of a startup as a way to compress your whole working life into a few years.”

What Paul Graham is talking about takes hard work, but is achievable. A regular job doesn’t require too many hard conversations, or making decisions without complete information. This is what makes a startup harder. Paul Graham once again has a great way to put this:

“if you want to make a million dollars, you have to endure a million dollars’ worth of pain”

It’s a fun way to live. I’ve never learned as much in a couple of years as I have building Buffer. I can definitely recommend it.

The opportunity cost of working a normal job

I have come to believe that not only is there a massive upside to building a startup, there is also an opportunity cost of working a regular job. That is to say – if you have the goal to eventually build a startup, then every moment you spend working a regular job is making you less experienced as a startup founder.

Why would this be the case? Well, firstly, let’s look at the lifestyle implications of a regular job. A lot of smart folks will graduate and have good prospects of working at in investment banking or at a consultancy, and the salary potential is very high. So you get started and you have a nice apartment. Once you get a raise, you naturally upgrade your lifestyle. You soon reach a point where you have a lot to lose by cutting your salary in half or to nothing.

Not only is it very easy to get used to the lifestyle promoted by the salary and the people you are around, you also learn to speak in a way which helps you as an investment banker, but not necessarily when you’re building a product or service for the masses. Most importantly, you are becoming an expert of something, and thereby losing the beginner’s mind which is vital to have as a startup founder.

Let’s encourage the third option

As a result of my own experience and the interaction I’ve had with students who could have been great founders, I believe the most useful thing we can all do is to provide encouragement for anyone who shows the smallest sign of considering the path of being a startup founder. Sure, there are risks and there will be failure, but there is immense learning and satisfaction ahead for those who choose the third option.

Anyone can point out the dangers, that’s the easy thing to do. Let us be positive about the good things that could happen. Will you join me?

Did you consider the third option when you graduated, or are you nearing that point in your life and considering your options? I’d love to hear from you.

Image Credit: Herkie

  • joehack3r

    It’s definitely easier and less risky to create a startup when you are younger. How do you feel about experienced (7+ years) people starting a company? Do you encourage your employees to think about and try creating their own company?

  • Trifecta Handgun

    Good Post Joel. I’m 45 and still working on my start up. I will never give up.


  • Hugo Fauquenoi

    Joel, thanks for sharing something I was trying to explain to my friends for a long time now :)
    I feel this is the perfect time to start up a business as a young graduate. And even if it does not work out, you acquired an amazing amount of experience to.. well.. start over again!!

  • Brian Wrest

    Agree on many points. Straight out of college went into a contractor-mode which did very well for me for a number of years before going “in-house”. Now…going “in-house” with a wife and three boys afforded us a little to safe and launch HER business/start-up. So..if you can’t do it yourself…help those who are close to you start their business (preferably sooner than later).

  • Tomáš HromnĂ­k

    Very well written. But startup/company is not just about me. It’s about like-minded colleagues. I think people makes 90% of company and 10% is product.

  • Great post Joel thanks

  • Andres Miguel

    I did consider the third option. My first enterprise didn’t go well. So I ‘am at grad school right now, again building my third option! ;-)

  • Guest

    The third option is my only option.

    You can cheat in an office or in organised education. You can’t cheat when your prospects are tied to adding perceived value to people’s lives. That stimulates genuine education.

    Joe, Buffer is an inspiration of ours. Especially the way you manage your team. Check out Can we stay in touch?

  • Joshua Vantard

    The third option is my only option.

    You can cheat in an office or in organised education. You can’t cheat when your prospects are tied to adding perceived value to people’s lives. That stimulates genuine education.

    Joel, Buffer is an inspiration of ours. Especially the way you manage your team. Check out Can we stay in touch?

  • I’ve always felt out of place myself, for much of what you described Joel, so thanks for the insight. I, however, had to grow up at a very young age (became a parent very young, married very young, etc )… and enlisted in the military straight out of high school. Under those circumstances (and back before twitter, facebook, buffer, etc) the amount of risk I could take (i had to answer to my then wife) was limited since I had obligations (mouths to feed, etc.), BUT… I made a promise to myself never give up on my goal of starting my own business, so through the years, no matter where I was (I started “things” while stationed in Japan and even deployed and on a ship). Granted, I was limited to how much time and resources I could commit to them, but I had fun doing it and kept my Entrepreneurial passion alive in me. To date, I still haven’t hit gold yet (again, life, obligations, kids, etc.), but I’m keeping my eye on the prize. In this case, starting something (and leaving my day job).

  • Mike Ambassador Bruny

    Dope piece. I’m very curious on the your thought for folks with non-technical degrees. Usually when I think start-up I think tech. What does the message sound like for the Liberal Arts students of the world. I think everyone should be entrepreneurial and I’m not sure if that equates to a start-up for the people.

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