A friend recently wrote to let me know that he'd returned to the Triangle after some time away. He was looking for a job and was interested in startups. His question was, basically, "Where do I begin?"
My first reaction was, hey -- Let Me Google That For You. But to my surprise, what I found was mostly lists of town-specific resources. Not too helpful if you're trying to figure out what you should spend your time doing.
I think the answer to his question is, "get noticed." But that's not a very constructive answer. So I started thinking about Triangle entrepreneurs that I admire. What gets their attention?
Spoiler alert. The answer is: Showing that you get stuff done. But for folks just entering the startup scene, it's helpful to lay some groundwork. So here are some notes from the field on what I'd recommend.
If I missed anything, do the neighborly thing, jump to the comments, and fill in the gaps.
Know the language
Of course, a lot of the knowledge of startups is coded in English, not Ruby. So read The Lean Startup and become a regular at Ars Technica. Find and follow thoughtful people who are writing about startups.
Find a project
Reasonable people might disagree, but I'd argue that you should be working on something before you start talking to entrepreneurs.
Now, if you're asking yourself the question at the title of this post, you're not ready to start a company. That's fine -- life is long. If you absolutely must start your own company and you're trying to come up with an idea, stop reading this and go read Paul Graham. Come back when you're done. It's okay, I'll wait.
Hiya. You'll start your company later, agreed? For now, let's find you a project.
If there's a specific startup that you're familiar with and super excited about, offer to be an intern. (Yes, unpaid. And don't ask for equity.) That offer, by the way, should be specific: "Hey, Ms. CEO, let me be an intern. I could do [some very specific project]." Yes, this requires that you've done your homework about what the company does and what it needs to do. And it requires that you be precocious.
Chances are, you're not ready for that yet, either. No problem. Do a startup weekend. Look for a hacking party. Start a hobby project on your own.
The best projects will stretch your technical ability. Pick something that, for you, will be tough (not crazy hard) and that you think you might be able to do in a week, working full-time. Set the goal of doing it in a month. Rinse and repeat. Always have a project.
Build your posse
Now we come to the advice that I hear given most often. (It's good advice. On its own, though, it's not enough.) Get out the door and meet people. Here in the Triangle, that means the ExitEvent Social, CED's Venture Conferences, and various events at the Universities.
You're reading interesting stuff and working on a project, so you have something to talk about. More importantly, you have questions to ask. Who should I be reading? What are you working on? What startup are you most excited about? Where is the world headed? I'm going for another beer -- what can I get you? As you meet people, keep an eye out for mentors -- which, I must remind you, come in many varieties. Collect the whole set.
The bottom line: Results matter
In your darker moments, perhaps you worry that you're not "startup material." And you might be right. But chances are, you'd be right for the wrong reason.
Anti-social? So are the last hundred engineers I met. Incoherent resume? Consider the phrase billionaire dropout. Troublemaker? Welcome to the party. The cubicle-friendly qualities don't really get much play here.
What does matter? Well, start by being genuine and honest. Don't be an asshole. Good news, by the way: in this town, almost everyone meets this standard. (If you're not in the Triangle, YMMV.) But that also means that these qualities won't get you noticed.
Want to get noticed? Get results.
At the end of the day, if you want to be in a startup, you'll have to become an entrepreneur or make a strong impression on one. Every entrepreneur has their own approach, but the good ones all excel at choosing what to ignore. You don't want that to include you.
So if you schedule a meeting, show up on time. If you start a project, finish it on schedule. If you say you'll do something, do it. Every time. And if you fail (which you will, if you're doing anything interesting), don't hide. Call up the people you failed. Walk them through what happened. Ask for advice, or offer to take the next step.
You want to be in startups? Start working on something. Make yourself available. Get results.