Sometimes, I feel like every single person in their 20s is hoping to either create or work at the next big startup. But Bryan Schreier, a partner at Sequoia Capital, said that’s largely a West Coast phenomenon. For example, according to Sequoia’s research, 41 percent of Stanford’s computer science majors go to work for a startup after graduation, while that number is only 13 percent for Harvard, with similar results at other top East Coast schools.
So Sequoia is hoping to bring those numbers up, in part through a conference at Princeton this weekend (co-hosted by student publication Business Today) called Start @ A Startup.
Obviously, there’s an element of self interest here. As everyone in Silicon Valley has said ad nauseum, startups are desperate to find the top technical talent, so it’s in Sequoia’s interest to convince smart programmers to come work for its portfolio companies. And indeed, there will be speakers from a number of Sequoia startups (including Dropbox, Inkling, and Square) on stage and holding interviews. But there will be speakers from non-portfolio companies, too, including Uber.
Schreier said this is also a personal issue for him, since he studied CS at Princeton and worked at Morgan Stanley after graduating. There’s just more opportunity at a startup, he said, because most large companies have a certain “maximum velocity” — they only allow you to grow and advance so quickly, and at a certain point, you’re just waiting for “somebody to die or retire” in order to take their position. Startups, on the other hand, “can’t find enough bodies,” and they’re often run like true meritocracies.
“I feel like I joined a big bank because I was following the herd,” Schreier said.
Sujay Jaswa is the vice president of busines developments at Dropbox and he has a similar story — he said he was “a victim of that same mentality,” so after he graduated from Princeton, he went to work for McKinsey. He will be speaking at the conference, which made me wonder: In the context of looking for a job, what does it mean to be a “startup”?
Jaswa admitted that Dropbox is a big company compared to many of the brand-new startups that TechCrunch covers. However, he argued Dropbox is a “startup with scale” — there are still “certain functions that don’t really exist yet” and the number of engineers working on any given project is still very small. The bottom line, he argued, is that you should look for a company “where you can work on hard problems, that’s going to change the world, and where you can work with the most brilliant people in the world.”
But as much as Schreier and Jaswa complain about the tendency to go work for big companies, isn’t that already changing, thanks to The Social Network and growing attention to startups in popular culture? Jaswa said that may be true, but at the same time, he recalled making a recruiting trip to the East Coast last fall, and he said, “There were still people who wanted to talk about my experience at McKinsey, which was 12 years ago!”
Schreier said it’s also hard to overcome the enormous presence that established companies have on Ivy League campuses. This conference is an attempt to provide some balance, but they only had room for 140 or 150 attendees (selected from more than 500 applicants from a number of schools). Schreier said Sequoia hasn’t committed to doing another event, but if this one does well, he’s definitely interested.
Of course, the big Silicon Valley dream isn’t just working at a startup, but actually launching one yourself. Still, Schreier said that if students don’t already have “the one idea that they’re ready to dedicate their life to,” then working at a startup is great preparation: “There’s no better way to learn how to be a founder.”