Son, It's Time We Talk About Where Startups Come From

Hey there, I'm glad we're watching CNBC together. Don't those Silicon Valley entrepreneurs look awful young? Especially that main one ringing the NASDAQ bell, with the spiky hair and shifty eyes?

Interesting he chose to wear a hooded sweatshirt on the day he became a billionaire. When he talked about dropping out of college because it was "slowing him down," did that make him seem cool? Put his net worth aside. Money isn't everything. I'm talking about how a man lives his life.

I realize it's awkward, discussing these adult matters with your father, but have your buddies asked you to join a start-up? Be honest—Dad knows the HTML. Seriously, have you already started a start-up in the attic? I see you moved the family computer up there.

I want you to know I love you, even if you've experimented with JavaScript or started wooing venture capitalists. I'm just worried. The world of start-ups is troubling and irresistible. You've probably heard these funny phrases being tossed around at school: click-through rates, all-hands meetings, UX design and back end servers. You and your friends may have talked about changing lives with code. Yacht parties with Ashton Kutcher! IPOs! Medieval-themed weddings! Webbys galore!

Soon enough, talk turns into action. In the cafeteria, a guy slips you some wireframes to review. Your artsy friend Chloë has some user interface layouts at the ready, and suddenly she's saying stuff like, "What do you think about jade versus indigo for the main tool bar?"

Well, this exciting "concept" you had for a smartphone app or new messaging service—it's gotten a bit more involved, hasn't it? And doesn't it feel like it's escalating out of control? Chloë could be saying things you don't quite understand. That she wants to "circle back end of day" and have a "strategy session."

Much as your mind is screaming, "Go for it!" it is definitely not okay to have a strategy session with Chloë. Even if she is standing there looking all cute in front of a dry-erase board reassuring you there are no bad ideas.

Good people are especially prone to bad ideas, son. But at an Internet start-up, right and wrong become murky. One gets caught up in the hoopla. That seemingly innocent strategy session leads to late-night hackathons. Those become, oh god, launch schedules and tech conferences. Before you know it—bang—you're inside a horribly decorated start-up, Razor scootering from one cubicle to another. And there's no turning back. All your jokes become meme-based. Some dreadlocked hacktavist named Rumble will start crashing on your couch. Finally, you'll change your Twitter bio to simply read, "maker." Which is when I will disown you.

You may be thinking, "Can it, old man. Don't you know most parents would pray their kid becomes the next Mark Zuckerberg?" Fair enough. But you could also become the next Snapchat dude, who didn't pocket three billion because why exactly? I mean, that app won't even let you upload a previously shot photo or video. How are you supposed to send proper sexts, where you found the best angle, with nice lighting? Right now, that young CEO is handing dried goji berries and other free healthy snacks to his employees, wearing talking video glasses, living the dream. He yearns for more. Only he's afraid, scrambling to find advertisers. That's what all of this boils down to: ads. Tomorrow, after his users grow bored, he'll be living in his hybrid, muttering about "revolutionizing the way we do timesheets." Broken at twenty-three.

My start-up rage comes from direct experience. I co-founded Sockets.com. This was pre-bubble, and damned if it wasn't sweet pandemonium. I wrote our tagline: "Your cyberspace mall for anything that plugs into a wall." Our offices rivaled what Google has now. Coconut water ran from the taps, employees brainstormed in faux subway stations, and every day was Free Taco Day. Our initiatives were ambitious. One Earth, One Socket aimed to unite all plugs to a single global standard. How blind we were. Never once considered evolving our business model. When certain appliances went wireless, we looked the other way. Then one night, our servers were shut down. The money had dried up along with our ideas.

So I became an editor at a news aggregator. Let me rephrase that. I became an Executive Assistant to several influential blogger-slash-editors. Moved us to this peaceful houseboat in Sausalito. And sure, on nights and weekends I do a little content creation, to keep my brain working. But at least I've freed myself from the endless cycle of building platforms and monetizing them.

All I ask is that before getting involved in any start-up, talk to us. Mom and I would never forbid you from following your dreams. Strongly discourage, maybe. If adding yet another tech company to the heap is what you really want to do, so be it. Use us as sounding boards. We'll tell you if your idea is scalable. We know. We've sat in those meetings.

One last thing: None of this applies to your sister. After reading Lean In, I want her to take Silicon Valley by storm. Those nerds need all the lady help they can get.

This post originally appeared on McSweeney's. It has been republished here with permission. You can follow the author, Marco Kaye, on Twitter.

Image: Getty/Hulton Archive