Laid Off or Lonely, You May Be Lucky

by Jared Tame on May 26, 2011

Before Dennis Crowley created foursquare, he started Dodgeball. The circumstances of being laid off at the same time as his cofounder led them to work together which would set off the chain of events that led to Dodgeball’s creation. Eventually, Dennis went on to create foursquare with someone he met at Google, just after Dodgeball was shut down. If Dennis didn’t get laid off, it’s more likely that he would not have reconnected with Alex Rainert in graduate school, which means Dodgeball wouldn’t have been started. He also wouldn’t have met Naveen Selvadurai at Google, his current cofounder at foursquare.

GitHub was started over nights and weekends because Tom didn’t know anyone in San Francisco. A lonely guy whose wife was doing fieldwork in Costa Rica, Tom was forced to do something with his time. It’s possible that GitHub might not have ever finished if Tom was always hanging out with friends; he had a full-time job at PowerSet so his nights and weekends were all he had free–PowerSet was eventually acquired by Microsoft and they went on to build Bing. Being lonely or not having a lot of friends worked to Tom’s advantage.

In Dennis’ case, getting laid off turned out to be great for him. Tom eventually met people by going to Ruby meetups. Even the idea for GitHub wasn’t necessarily started by Tom. It was Dave Fayram–a coworker from PowerSet–who approached Tom and introduced him to Git. Several Ruby meetups later, Tom decided to centralize the way Git repositories were managed.

For most of my college experience, I approached the idea of finding cofounders as something I was very intentional about doing. But that’s not how it has to be done, and I think this is something business students should pay attention to. The business students I know are set on finding cofounders, often being more direct than I was. I knew business students who tried to recruit my same cofounder by lying to him. One business student changed his domain names to make it look like their project was much more impressive than it actually was and told my cofounder he had until the weekend to make a decision on whether to join or not.

Business students don’t have to be deceptive or use aggressive tactics to score a technical cofounder. LikeALittle is a case where the business cofounder, Evan Reas, was able to find exceptionally smart people: one is the top student from the leading university in India, IIT-Delhi and a world physics Olympiad gold medalist; the other is ranked #1 in India at TopCoder, the youngest Google Code Jam world finalist, twice, and an ACM world finalist, twice. Evan doesn’t know how to program and he graduated from Stanford’s Business School. He says don’t be forceful about finding cofounders; be genuine about it and stop approaching programmers as mere monkeys. Most business students I know still approach students that way and it doesn’t work. Maybe they should just start hanging out with students casually instead of pushing ideas on them, as backwards as that sounds to conventional wisdom.

If you’re in Dennis or Tom’s position of being laid off or having no friends in a new city, it might be the best thing that ever happened to you (at least after you’ve connected the dots). If you’re a business student, you should spend time doing things other than just talking about all of your business ideas to computer science students. And never lie to anyone about the progress you’ve made, it’s only going to cause them to write long blog posts about you later down the road. Paul Buchheit says that serendipity is the more fun way to live life. But it’s actually possible that it’s just more effective. Let me know if it works better for you.

The Luck Factor Studies

There was a study conducted in 2003 by Richard Wiseman called The Luck Factor where he asked participants to look through a newspaper and tell him how many photographs were inside. The unlucky people took 2 minutes to complete the task, while the lucky people took seconds. What the unlucky people missed was the second page of the newspaper which read “Stop counting. There are 43 photographs in this newspaper.” According to Wiseman, the message “took up half of the page and was written in type that was more than 2 inches high.” The answer hit anyone in the face who was willing to slow down and look at it, rather than tunnel vision themselves just aggressively trying to find photos.

Conclusion? “Personality tests revealed that unlucky people are generally much more tense than lucky people, and research has shown that anxiety disrupts people’s ability to notice the unexpected… And so it is with luck–unlucky people miss chance opportunities because they are too focused on looking for something else. They go to parties intent on finding their perfect partner and so miss opportunities to make good friends. They look through newspapers determined to find certain types of job advertisements and as a result miss other types of jobs. Lucky people are more relaxed and open, and therefore see what is there rather than just what they are looking for.”

Other founder examples

Here are some other great examples where founders had no idea they’d even be doing a startup while they were in school. Serendipity found them.

  • Alexis Ohanian wanted to be a lawyer before he created reddit.
  • Tom Preston-Warner wanted to be a theoretical particle physics researcher, dropped out sophomore year, and turned down $300,000 from Microsoft to start GitHub.
  • Brian Chesky was vaguely interested in entrepreneurship but had no interest or background in the web–he was an industrial designer creating things like sanitary toilet seats for contestants on the TV show American Inventor. As an industrial design student at RISD, he had no clue he’d wind up starting Airbnb, which has just booked 1.5 million nights and continues to disrupt the entire travel industry. Brian was dragged into moving to San Francisco from Los Angeles by his other cofounder, Joe Gebbia, who nagged him for two years straight before Brian gave in and quit his design firm job.
  • Kevin Hale wanted to graduate with an MFA and teach art to hippies, and he went on to start Wufoo which recently sold for $35 million.
  • After quitting varsity soccer for Stanford, Ashvin Kumar decided to build a Twitter app which grew so quickly it got banned, and Ashvin later created a series of profitable projects and what would become Blippy, a service that now tracks over half a million dollars in purchases every day.

If you liked these stories, you’d love Startups Open Sourced, now a best seller in the Amazon Kindle Store.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Ian May 27, 2011 at 6:00 am

Very interesting article. As an entrepreneur I can say that what seems like a negative event at first can be a blessing in disguise. Twice in the past 4 years I’ve had a major disruption to how my business operates. And each time after a (stressful) readjustment period I’ve been better off than before.

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