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Advice to a Youngster

Summary: Stability and security are the least important career drivers when young. Go for the wild and crazy!

A good friend visited his newly-married 29 year old son and spouse in New England recently. This young man is brilliant, very social, and has a PhD - a success by any definition.

He recently began a new job with a near-startup of 50 people doing cancer research. A recent influx of several hundred million dollars means they can do their work without the normal money problems faced by new and small businesses.

Yet everyone there is unhappy.

The new money means everything is changing, and change always causes discord. Established procedures get tossed, new approaches ruffle feathers and abrade established hierarchies, even in a small, young business.

To top it all off, the new spouse feels her hubbie needs a job that pays six figures.

My friend, this young fellow's father, is advising his son to stick it out for at least a year or two. Sure, he could find a more stable (boring?) job elsewhere. Probably one that pays a lot more. With reasonable work hours and less friction. But should a young person with enormous talent and education go for the tried and true, the safe path with few challenges and less opportunity?

The obvious reason to stay with the startup is the promise of IPO wealth. But my pal - and I agree - thinks that's not important. For someone just entering a career the dynamic, crazy, fluid and inventive nature of a decent startup is a perhaps once-in-a-lifetime chance to make a mark and to learn what business is really about.

My friend and I reminisced about our first real jobs. We both worked at a small space startup which was devastated by the collapse of manned space flight after Apollo. The company survived by moving into commercial markets. We both worked as engineers designing some of the earliest microprocessor-based equipment.

There was little money; as in so many small outfits heroics replaced adequate capital. We worked insane hours - 80, 100 per week. As in so many startups our boss plied us with stock options rather than compensation beyond 40 hours/week.

But what fun! We were given huge amounts of authority over the technology and products. The boss was an analog guy who really didn't get digital; when we said we needed a PDP-11 for this or an Intellec 8 for that he acquiesced from sheer lack of knowledge. The products, from soup to nuts, were our designs. We eventually had dozens of engineers working for us, despite our youth.

Most of them were brilliant. It's one thing to know how to design a circuit. But some of the old timers taught us how to create designs that will work reliably over temperature and other factors, ones that can be manufactured in quantity without problems.

There were never enough people, so we traveled the world supporting customers. In those pre-credit card days it was unusual for people to make it to Europe. We commuted. And to pretty much every other corner of the globe.

The lack of money was always enormously frustrating (like when paychecks bounced occasionally) but meant we learned a lot of ways to do tough things on a shoestring.

It was impossible to not learn about business. Where the money comes from, how it's budgeted, where it goes. How to raise capital and make each of those dollars do the work of three.

In our time at that company we learned an enormous amount about a wide range of subjects. Maybe if we'd gone to work for Microsoft (we were one of their earliest customers) my buddy and I would be fabulously wealthy today. But neither of us have any regrets. Decades have slipped by, but those years shaped the rest of our careers. The money we didn't make has been far less important than the fun we had, how we learned to have fun with our careers since then, and the experiences gained.

His advice to his son is that there is no better time to take risks than when young. Push the envelope, try wild and crazy stuff, use the opportunity of a well-funded startup to greatly expand knowledge both in the science of his area of expertise as well as in business. Don't sweat the money; use these years to gain the experiences that will shape the next forty years.

Oh - and the IPO we hoped for back in the 70s? It never happened, though a large outfit did acquire the company for a pittance, millicents per share. We each sold our equity for $0.50.

And you know what? The collapse in the value of our stock options didn't make a darn bit of difference.

Published February 21, 2013