Web 2.0 as the “Founders Game”

There are a lot of good reasons to join start-ups, especially in the web 2.0 space. However, I was talking to a friend of mine from undergrad who mentioned to me that he wanted to join a web 2.0 start-up to “get rich” (as opposed to work with good people, learn, grow, etc). For awhile I have been really thinking that the web 2.0 world really is a “founders game” for all intents and purposes. So what’s a “founders game” you ask? Well, it’s a situation where the economics so greatly favor the founder(s) that employees joining a company must do so for reasons other than the economic payoff. To test this hypothesis I tried to cobble together some basic assumptions about what my buddy from undergrad is likely to face should he join a start-up to “get rich” quickly:

  • Company has raised one round of institutional money
  • No future financings (in other words, no more meaningful dilution for him a common shareholder)
  • M&A exit valuation in the range of $50 million
  • Options equivalent to 0.5% – 1% ownership at the time he joins (I’m assuming he’s not a VP or a big-time CEO)
  • Company is acquired fairly quickly (time to acquisition is less than 24 months)

Assuming the above numbers work out, our hypothetical employee ends up with $250K to $500K in pre-tax winnings in a fairly short period of time – not bad if you ask me. However, those winnings might be contingent on hitting milestones or some term of service with the acquiring entity. In the event that the exit valuation is not in the $50 million range, the numbers get a lot smaller very quickly and you begin to approach numbers that can be achieved by simply “working for the man” in some other company with less risk. The same is true if you assume future financings which dilute common. My take is that the opportunity to “get rich” in the current web 2.0 start-up environment is only open to the founders or maybe the CEO if he/she is not a founder.

In the end, I think it’s not so bad that line employees won’t necessarily “get rich” from the current crop of web 2.0 startups unless some of those core assumptions change. One of the most important things about work, no matter where you work, is the quality of the people around you and opportunities to grow and do interesting work. If you want to do the get rich thing in web 2.0, I think you need to be a co-founder or find a YouTube.

  • The best way to maximize your chances of getting rich is to go to NYC and work in finance or law. Your expected return will be much higher than doing a Silicon Valley start-up.

    Of course, maximizing chances at being rich isn’t the only consideration!!

  • Ben Casnocha

    The best way to maximize your chances of getting rich is to go to NYC and work in finance or law. Your expected return will be much higher than doing a Silicon Valley start-up. Of course, maximizing chances at being rich isn’t the only consideration!!

  • charles

    Ben, I couldn’t agree with you more. There are a million reasons to join a small company and getting rich is not a viable one in the web 2.0 world. I just found it odd that someone would choose “getting rich” as a reason.

  • I passed up working in banking last year post-grad to start my own Web 2.0 company in Silicon Valley- it’s the best decision I’ve ever made, win or lose.

    For me, it wasn’t about getting rich quick. It was about returning to the Valley (where I grew up), and starting something that I was passionate about- all while surrounding myself with like-minded people.

    Like you said, Ben, the expected return of those careers may be greater, but nothing beats the energy, creativity, and resources of Silicon Valley.

    It is odd that people are looking to Web 2.0 land as the next frontier for striking it rich- when only a very small percentage of companies thus far have hit.

    I’m reminded of the private equity craze in the late nineties, and the hedge fund craze up until last year. Hopefully 2.0 isn’t the latest “fad”…

    any thoughts???

  • Jon Lunetta

    I passed up working in banking last year post-grad to start my own Web 2.0 company in Silicon Valley- it’s the best decision I’ve ever made, win or lose. For me, it wasn’t about getting rich quick. It was about returning to the Valley (where I grew up), and starting something that I was passionate about- all while surrounding myself with like-minded people. Like you said, Ben, the expected return of those careers may be greater, but nothing beats the energy, creativity, and resources of Silicon Valley. It is odd that people are looking to Web 2.0 land as the next frontier for striking it rich- when only a very small percentage of companies thus far have hit. I’m reminded of the private equity craze in the late nineties, and the hedge fund craze up until last year. Hopefully 2.0 isn’t the latest “fad”… any thoughts???

  • charles

    Jon,

    I totally agree with what you said. I wrote the post because I was perplexed that someone would see the current crop of web 2.0 companies as a way to get rich quick.

  • charles

    Jon, I totally agree with what you said. I wrote the post because I was perplexed that someone would see the current crop of web 2.0 companies as a way to get rich quick.

  • David Sachs

    Charles, I agree. But I would argue that this isn’t just a web 2.0 phenomenon. In nearly every economic circumstance, only those who own meaningful equity in an enterprise are likely to become wealthy.

    In web 1.0, it felt like everyone at all levels of startups was getting rich. In reality, it was mostly only founders, investors and senior officers that became wealthy as a result of most startup exits, even at the crazy web 1.0 valuations. Lower-level employees only got “retire now” rich at startups that became major companies with market caps or acquisition values >$5B (and whose founders/senior officers became near or actual billionaires).

    VCs and founders do well when companies go public; I’d argue that employees only get rich when companies continue to grow at a torrid pace for *years* after they are public. Big tech companies that grew to tens of billions in market cap over time are the best examples: Microsoft, Cisco, Amazon, Google, eBay, Microsoft, Intel, Oracle, etc. Save for the internet bubble and Google, most of these companies took >10 years to scale those heights.

    If you really want to get rich quick, found a hedge fund and outrun mean reversion for as long as you can. Also, as Warren Buffet has said, if you build up a business over a period of years and sell it, you’re not any richer than you were before–you now just have assets in the form of bonds and stocks of companies you don’t know as well as the one you just sold.

  • David Sachs

    Charles, I agree. But I would argue that this isn’t just a web 2.0 phenomenon. In nearly every economic circumstance, only those who own meaningful equity in an enterprise are likely to become wealthy. In web 1.0, it felt like everyone at all levels of startups was getting rich. In reality, it was mostly only founders, investors and senior officers that became wealthy as a result of most startup exits, even at the crazy web 1.0 valuations. Lower-level employees only got “retire now” rich at startups that became major companies with market caps or acquisition values >$5B (and whose founders/senior officers became near or actual billionaires). VCs and founders do well when companies go public; I’d argue that employees only get rich when companies continue to grow at a torrid pace for *years* after they are public. Big tech companies that grew to tens of billions in market cap over time are the best examples: Microsoft, Cisco, Amazon, Google, eBay, Microsoft, Intel, Oracle, etc. Save for the internet bubble and Google, most of these companies took >10 years to scale those heights. If you really want to get rich quick, found a hedge fund and outrun mean reversion for as long as you can. Also, as Warren Buffet has said, if you build up a business over a period of years and sell it, you’re not any richer than you were before–you now just have assets in the form of bonds and stocks of companies you don’t know as well as the one you just sold.

  • charles

    David,

    That’s a very good and detailed explanation. I had a bunch of friends from Excite who went to eBay in 2000 and all did really well when eBay got its “second wind” as a public company.

  • charles

    David, That’s a very good and detailed explanation. I had a bunch of friends from Excite who went to eBay in 2000 and all did really well when eBay got its “second wind” as a public company.

  • I couldn’t agree with this post more. Working for a startup is more about experience than potential wealth. Billion dollar outcomes are far & few between and, generally, only a handful of folks really walk away with gobs of money.

    However, by working at a startup at a young age, if you’re ambitious and a self-starter, you can assume responsibilites that might take years to reach in a large organization. There is an opportunity of current income by working for a startup, not to mention generally increased stress levels – so it’s not for the faint of heart.

    The real gem is the risk/rush of starting your own business and the joy of making it worth — now that’s where wealth comes from — independence.

  • Charlie Kemper

    I couldn’t agree with this post more. Working for a startup is more about experience than potential wealth. Billion dollar outcomes are far & few between and, generally, only a handful of folks really walk away with gobs of money. However, by working at a startup at a young age, if you’re ambitious and a self-starter, you can assume responsibilites that might take years to reach in a large organization. There is an opportunity of current income by working for a startup, not to mention generally increased stress levels – so it’s not for the faint of heart. The real gem is the risk/rush of starting your own business and the joy of making it worth — now that’s where wealth comes from — independence.

  • Hey Ben, aren’t I the one who always tells would-be entrepreneurs that there are many easier ways to get rich? Credit where credit is due, old friend!

    I didn’t choose entrepreneurship to get rich–if I wanted to do that, I could simply have stayed at my first employer D. E. Shaw & Co. (David Shaw recently sold a 20% stake in the company to Lehman Brothers for $3 billion, and most of my former colleagues are multi-millionaires by now). I’m an entrepreneur because I enjoy it. Although it is my contention that without at least the slim chance of getting rich, I couldn’t justify it. Entrepreneurial wages and payoffs may be worse than Wall Street, but we’re not talking NGO-level compensation here.

  • Chris Yeh

    Hey Ben, aren’t I the one who always tells would-be entrepreneurs that there are many easier ways to get rich? Credit where credit is due, old friend! I didn’t choose entrepreneurship to get rich–if I wanted to do that, I could simply have stayed at my first employer D. E. Shaw & Co. (David Shaw recently sold a 20% stake in the company to Lehman Brothers for $3 billion, and most of my former colleagues are multi-millionaires by now). I’m an entrepreneur because I enjoy it. Although it is my contention that without at least the slim chance of getting rich, I couldn’t justify it. Entrepreneurial wages and payoffs may be worse than Wall Street, but we’re not talking NGO-level compensation here.