Lots of tweets the past few days on tech Twitter on privilege and how it relates to starting companies.
I would ordinarily just let your bullshit go, but this myth that you have to be a rich kid to start a startup is terribly dangerous, because it discourages people who aren't from trying it. Brian Chesky's parents were social workers. That is not a rich kid.— Paul Graham (@paulg) May 19, 2019
I think both parties are talking past each other a bit.
Camp A (i.e. PG): not being privileged shouldn’t stop you from starting a company.
Camp B (i.e. @eastdakota et al.): hard to take risks without safety net / privilege.
They are both true. However, it seems like the friction is happening from the extremes of each case.
1/ Camp A extreme (palatable): Being poor shouldn’t stop you from trying a startup.
2/ Camp A extreme (unpalatable): Wealth doesn’t matter in your chances of success.
3/ Camp B extreme (palatable): Having money helps when working on startups.
4/ Camp B extreme (unpalatable): Startups are mostly for rich people to get richer.
Startups are a game of exceptions, not averages. That said, the palatable version of each camp is true. Nothing should stop you, capital is ultimately available for all talent if you try hard enough. On the other hand, life is path-dependent, so it would be a bold-face life to pretend that everyone’s path will feel the same. They won’t.
I have been both privileged and underprivileged at various points in life. I remember getting free lunch when we moved to the US because our income made us qualify for low-income subsidies (was a foreign concept to me at the time). Such safety nets helped me stand up and achieve academically. With hard work and good fortune, I got into Harvard. But more so than being a good school, I was relieved that they had one of the best financial aid programs.
Even getting into Harvard isn’t enough, if I had $200K of student debt, I would have focused on paying that down and would not have been able to take more risks and learn more, faster. I’m so lucky that Harvard and the US government gave me the chance to get a top education.
After various programs for underprivileged students, I’m now probably categorized as exceptionally privileged. I’m grateful by how much good fortune I’ve had since school. However, what I noticed is that something in my core intuition is still different than my peers that come from a more “originally” privileged background.
Most of my friends from low to middle income backgrounds (and from prestige-driven cultures) pursue stability and immediate returns available in finance, medicine and law. Friends that take time off for creative work or “untraditional” paths tend to be from more affluent backgrounds, and if not, they had to take a big sacrifice to take the path less taken.
I just started a company, but it took me a long time to get comfortable with it. Years of doing “risky” and “non-linear” things got me to this point. I’ve hesitated in the past and still fight a nagging feeling today that if I made cash today, I could help my parents retire sooner.
I understand that PG may genuinely want more people to try it, and that’s a great ethos to establish. However, the reality is that it’s very hard to make that trade off mentally when you newly get the possibility to start making amounts of money that can be life-changing for your family.
Here’s where class comes into play. It might make sense to swing for the fences and give up a 100k salary if you come from a comfortable background (it won’t make a difference for you or your family anyways), but if your family is making say 50k total, how selfish does it sound that you are giving that up (or much more) to pursue your “dreams.” (That’s an iconically American and millennial pursuit.)
As such, the single player tradeoff of eating more ramen noodles or driving a less shiny car is a weak strawman argument compared to the downstream ramifications of the sacrifice to their family. Sure some people can’t give up their own lifestyle, but the real struggle is when you realize your lifestyle and identity starts to diverge from that of your family and your identity within it.
Ironically, PG wrote a book that compares hackers with artists. Art has traditionally been reserved for the humble artisan class or the rich. Another similar example is philosophy; to explore human nature freely and to express themselves is a pursuit economically reserved for the wealthy or those that choose a life off the beaten path.
At the end of the day, privilege helps when building a startup. It’s not just about startups, it’s really about any creative endeavor. Starting your own cafe, making a movie, becoming an actor; in any case, you have to take an economic sacrifice. So you either need a high pain tolerance or have enough of a safety net to not feel the sacrifice.
In sum, save enough to be able to stomach the risk of your venture or find something you care enough to risk it anyways. There’s no blogpost that can tell you the right time, only you can decide.
Originally posted on substack.