As a software developer, I get to know a lot of other software developers. Many of the software developers I know are either running a startup, working as an early employee for a startup, doing contract jobs for a startup, or dreaming of one day starting a startup. My point is that software developers are very interested in startups, either starting them or working for them.
My advice to anyone who’s interested in startups: Before you ever start a startup, try to make at least one cool and useful project. It doesn’t have to make money; in fact, it’s better if your project doesn’t even try to make any kind of profit.
When you’re doing a startup, you essentially have to do two things at once:
Both of these things are difficult. Really difficult. It’s easy to mess either of these up. And you have to do them both at the same time. Get one right but mess the other one up, and you still failed.
Here’s a metaphor: Starting a startup is like juggling while riding a unicycle. Riding a unicycle is hard. Juggling is hard. Doing them both at the same time? Really freaking hard.
If your goal in life was to juggle while riding a unicycle, would you get on the unicycle while holding a few juggling clubs and try to juggle while riding the unicycle? Not if you have any common sense. You would first try to ride the unicycle. You’d take your time until you’re sufficiently skilled with that. Ditto for juggling. Then you’d carefully try to do both of them at once.
The same applies to startups. Making a successful product is hard enough; it’s all too common for companies to invest a lot of resources in making an ambitious product, and when it’s launched it’s just “meh”.
Building a business on top of a product is hard as well. There are many places where you can screw it up, both by making technical mistakes or strategic ones.
As you can guess, the chance of you messing either the software side or the business side is very big.
That’s the essence of my advice. Start a project which is free of the burden of profit. Sure, you won’t get rich off of it, and you’re gonna have to support yourself financially while you work on it, but it’s your best chance at learning how to make a successful product— It definitely has a much better ROI than going to college.
Not being burdened with having to make a profit will make it easier for you to build a successful product. You’d never have to think about limiting or exploiting your users, which is something that many software businesses have to do. Think about those crippled “starter” versions of Windows that sell for cheap, or DRM, or annoying ads on websites, or desktop software that installs annoying toolbars and spyware. These are all attempts to make money by limiting or exploiting users. Software needs to act like a butler, which is difficult enough; imagine how hard it is to have a good butler who also tries to upsell you some crap as he serves you.
As a person who’s making a project that doesn’t aim to make money, you’ll be free from all of those dangerous practices.
Making a useful product is still hard, mind you, and you still have a good chance of failing; but at least when you crash from the unicycle and try to pick yourself up, you won’t have juggling clubs falling on your head.