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Risky Business?

by erik on April 13th, 2011

Cristina Cordova recently posted a great essay about Why More Minority Women Aren’t In Tech. One of the things she highlights is risk:

Minority women are taught to be risk averse … Growing up in a family that is financially insecure (as many minority women are), children are pushed to have a lifestyle with a steady income. The first careers that come to mind are not start-ups when financial security is the end goal.

It’s an excellent point, and it points to important questions: Are startups inherently risky? Is there a culture of risky behavior in the startup world? Just today comes a quote on the 37 signals blog from founder David Heinemeier Hansson:

Basecamp was done almost entirely without risk. It was completely self-funded. We treated it as a side-product and a side-project until it could pay the bills … I think it’s a misnomer that entrepreneurs somehow are in love with risk and making big gambles and taking big bets. I think that’s probably true for some. It’s certainly not true for me.

It’s definitely true that great startups can grow out of stable jobs without any period of financial uncertainty. 37 signals is a classic example of this: a software company that grew out of a stable consultancy.

But I think it’s important to note that not everyone is already the principal at a successful software consultancy. Consultancy has the nice property that you can go to 3/4 time and then 1/2 time and then 1/4 time before you finally switch over to your startup full time. Not all jobs have that property.

And not all industries allow you to get a business up and running during off hours. You can do a lot of work getting your restaurant planned out in the evenings after work, but you need a lot of capital and commitment before you’re in a position to get paid.

And not everyone has equal amounts of free time to put into “side projects”. Whiteness, Manness, and Not-in-povertyness (among other things) all contribute to a bigger pocket of free time. Men tend to lean on women for housework, for example, which frees them up to be able to more work on the computer. Even world renown feminist Jessica Valenti found herself taking on her fiance’s wedding obligations while he poked around on the computer.

That all said, I think the startup community needs more examples of how to bootstrap companies while having a job, without money, and without excess white and male privilege, in industries that women and people of color are interested in building in. To that end, David’s lesson is really great start. Let’s find more.

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