I spent three days in San Francisco basically living with the founders, Daniel and Jason, of Disqus, a small Y Combinator startup that is building a distributed comment system for online publications (I use it on this blog). The trip was, by far, one of the best experiences of my life. I got a unique look into the micro-economy of the web startup industry. Previous to my trip, I had a wildly glorified image of the “Web 2.0″ startup culture/bubble, mainly based of how it’s portrayed in the blogging community.
I’ve posted pictures from the trip on Flickr.
While in San Francisco, I was able to talk to quite a few startups:
- Disqus — Distributed comment system.
- Dropbox — Simple file synchronization.
- Clickpass — One click login.
- tipjoy — Easy micro-payments.
What Do They Do?
Many of the said startups were still in the wee-early stages of being a company and their “offices” were also their apartments. They rent apartments month by month so that a move to a real office can be quick and painless. The lines between work and play (no secret) were extremely blurred and work sometimes lasted from the moment they wake up to the moment they go to bed. Days were also filled with all types of coffee shop meetings, from venture capital firms and other startups, to lawyers. The phrase “wearing many different hats” is an understatement for these guys. Not only are these companies building a product, they are building web communities.
Objective: Preemptive Prototyping
Web startups are not necessarily aiming to make fully scaled-up products/services or a completely implemented revenue model. Big beasts like Facebook and Digg are obviously startup anomalies and I don’t think too many web startups actually aspire for such obesity. Essentially, startups are preemptively thinking up new service and product ideas, prototyping the software and web community, and then a company like Google picks and chooses which product it wants to take on.
“The Model Race Car Model”
A startup can be thought of as building a model race car. The model car is smaller, only 1/16th the size of a real car and doesn’t have professional racing decals to make money. Google buys the models it fancies and builds them up to make real race cars, decals and all. Many web startups these days show off their potential by rapidly building a large web community or user base. By this metric, Disqus is flourishing. Of course, in reality, this “preemptive prototyping model” applies in varying degrees. Just to be clear, I don’t mean to suggest that startups are building toys, merely that its faster to convey an idea on a smaller scale.
In the end, I decided not work at a startup. At least right now, startup life is not for me. I’ll be moving to Chicago in a few months to work at Allston Trading, an algorithmic trading firm. This was definitely one of the hardest decisions of my life.