Sunday, September 19, 2010

Python Startups and the True Entrepreneur

I've got lots of friends that are crazy about Python, about what it can do for development especially with AppEngine, Django and All That.  True enough, delivering on these promises can happen and lead to new ideas in software that weren't possible before.  With this realization comes the thought, then the firm idea, then the inception of a new startup company dedicated to the realization of this concept.  I've got loads of friends thinking of making the jump, and a significant number that have, and python is always at least part of the discussion and sometimes the main topic.

It's not just Python - this kind of thing happens all the time with software entrepreneurs. Of course it seldom turns out the way expected.  Usually after six months or a year of trudging along, a trail of bitter tears and dashed hopes is all that's left.  What sounds fun, exciting, with limitless potential turns into just another way to work for low wages and use up all your savings and the savings of friends, family and investors.  Then it's back to the daily grind, perhaps wiser for it and with Awesome New Coding Skillz, but nonetheless back to workin for Da Man.

But there is such a thing as a True Entrepreneur. I'm not one, but I know them. They are few and far between, and often not astoundingly successful. I'm talking about the people who wouldn't hold down a stable job, even if offered it, not because they don't have skills, but because they can't imagine not running their own business. Someone who would rather work minimum wage, even after years of college and experience, at their own company, rather than make $100 an hour working for The Man. Someone who, far from shying away from the risks of loosing money and skirting close to bankruptcy, actually thrives on this kind of gambling and stress.

In microeconomics, you may have been taught that new businesses have a high rate of failure, between 75-95% depending on the study, which means only 5-25% of startups are still in business after a few years.  Your chance of succeeding, not just surviving, is even less, where me might consider a startup successful if it grows to be worth $1 million, $10 million, $100 million, or more.  We are further taught that the entrepreneur takes on such high risks because of the high chance of reward.  Staying at a major company and becoming a senior executive may get you a high reward, maybe even $500 million, but it will never approach the potential of the most successful entrepreneurs, with multiple billions or even $20 billion at the top level.

However success is not the primary motivator of the entrepreneurs I know; it is a factor, but not even I think the primary factor.  The primary factor is self-actualization, which is a combination of ego, arrogance, self-delusion, and wish fullfillment.  If you went simply by the odds, it would be a net loss to be an entrepreneur, like a mutual fund that invested in the lottery.  Sure, you might win, you might even win big, and if you don't play you won't win, true, but statistically you'd be better off putting your money in Treasury bonds.

A True Entrepreneur doesn't found a company just because they think it might succeed; in fact they would found the company even if they knew it would fail.  They simply are compelled to do it, in the way a monk might be compelled to pray in the desert, in the way a Peace Corps volunteer is compelled to help the less fortunate, in the way Guido van Rossum was complled to make life better for developers with Python.  It is a basic, primal, ultimately irrational and unexplainable inner drive.

If you're this kind of person, a True Entrepreneur, you will be compelled into your own business, be it coffee shops or software, and you will over your working life at least be able to eek out a living. If you're not, you either need to get on board with one of these, or stay as an employee or freelancer.  I'm not saying this from the perspective of the entrepreneur, "come join the bandwagon with me!".  Rather, I'm saying this from the outside, from having been on the inside but spending more time out of it, from choosing more often then not to stay out of the game even when many family and friends are in it.  What I'm really trying to do is make sure people understand what they are getting into, so they know if this life - and it is a life - is the one for you.


  1. You hit it on the head m8. I quit my 9 to 5 job two years ago and spent 9 months not working at all. I focused on my self education and personal projects that I tried to turn into a startup (which flopped). For the last year I've been doing contract work and have for the last 5 months been working another startup with a previously successful entrepreneur. Success is nice icing, but it is the independence and rich diversity of experiences I get from working on the leading (sometimes bleeding) edge of technology, thought and innovation that makes me love it. Freedom is gladly had for the self discipline, sometimes lonely, and extreme highs and lows of doing the "wild west thang".

  2. Very insightful John. You caused some self reflection.

    I came here to read about Python, since it is the primary technology we're working with now at my new company, but was happy to find a reflection like this one instead. I subscribed to the feed and hope to hear more from you over time.

    My start up is recruiting people like you, but we have an outsider's view of a software startup. It is a little different to say the least. You can read about our founding principles here:

    And find out more about joining us here:

  3. I love the Guido comment: setting out to make life easier for devs. Guido is demiGod for what he did.

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