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Perspective on the billion-dollar exit  

Adam Siegel:

Instagram sells for $1B. Evernote is now valued at $1B. Pinterest at $1.5B. 3 month old companies coming out of YCombinator are getting investments based on $10M+ valuations. And today will be the Facebook IPO which will likely put a market cap on the company north of $100B.


As the founder of a small company in Chicago who only took $17k from YCombinator 6 years ago (YC-W06) and now runs a classic "lifestyle" business that support myself and a small team from client revenues, I find myself wavering between being fairly satisfied with the state of my business life to mild depression and jealousy that I'm not in a situation to be cashing in myself.

Adam goes on to offer numerous tips for maintaining perspective while working on a "lifestyle business":

  • Spend time with friends who are not in tech or startups
  • Read the newspaper
  • Go for a lot of walks
  • Go visit some of your customers in person
  • Maintain a healthy relationship with parents
  • Keep a journal (not a blog)
  • Find a therapist, life coach or mentor
  • Appreciate your time more

Those seem like good things to do whether or not you run a billion-dollar startup.

However, addressing the point of billion-dollar-depression head on, it seems to me that the problem is more to do with a fundamentally incorrect perspective than with specific daily habits.

Generally, people looking to build those mega wealth successes are either insanely obsessed with money/control/power/etc (I'm not addressing this post to them), or just wish to have a great impact on the world - to make a dent in the universe, in other words.

It's a commonly repeated fact that the difference to your lifestyle from having $10m (or revenues that provide an equivalent lifestyle, e.g. $500k-1m/year of revenues) versus having $100m is much smaller than the difference between $0 and $10m. There's a very strong law of diminishing returns in application to the value of money. So as far as money goes, having a "lifestyle business" that provides you great but not headline-grabbing returns seems like a perfectly fine deal.

The depression can then only come from the lack of impact. It seems perfectly reasonable to me that people should wish to have a great impact on the world, to make a lot of people's lives better, to be a force for good and improvement and progress. So far, so good (though not everyone feels like that - some people are happy to simply enjoy their lives and be good people).

It's well-known that luck plays a huge part in mega-successes like Facebook, Instagram, and so on. There's a good reason why this merry game is called the "startup lottery". The chances that you will pull a billion-dollar business from the magic hat are very slim. Obviously, if you do, great - but you can never count on such an outcome.

The fallacy in that depression is the implicit assumption that your current business is the only or greatest thing you'll ever do with your life. This may be true for someone like Mark Zuckerberg. Topping Facebook is going to be a struggle. To an extent, it's Mark who should be depressed. How will he top what he's already achieved? How can he give his life a meaningful direction upwards?

For most of us, though, we have not only the current business we're working on, but the rest of our lives (short or long) to make an impact and change the world. That your current business will not change the world doesn't mean that your next one won't. If you want to change the world, you are even more likely to be able to do so from a base of wealth and competence (after running a successful business for a few years and becoming a millionaire in the process) than when you're broke and fresh out of uni.

Keep in mind that changing the world takes time, and that you don't have to hit the ball out of the park first time. Changing the world in your twenties is a lottery ticket, not a plan. Viewed through this lens, the "billion-dollar depression" seems, well, absurd.

More from the library:
Why I won't sign your NDA
How to scale a development team
Failing in a unique and interesting way is hard