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Physics Physics phD to computer startup?

  1. Sep 15, 2011 #1
    I just started grad school in Physics a few weeks ago, but I have recently considered quitting in order to start or join an existing startup, probably related to software. But I am also considering staying in my phD program (maybe leaving with an MS) and just doing research in an area of Physics that uses lots of programming, such as computational condensed matter, as opposed to string theory.

    I have read a few of Paul Graham's essays, and I think starting a startup would suit me well because I am willing to take the risks involved in it and work the long hours as opposed to taking a low-stress, comfortable good-paying job working in a cubicle. The main problems at the moment are that I have poor programming skills and that I have no friends that are interested in programming or in a startup. But I have been considering joining a club on campus with other grad students that are interested in forming a startup

    But in the meantime, since I'm not in a Physics research group yet, I would have to self-teach myself programming in my free time. To give you an idea of my current skill level, the most recent concept I learned in C++ was Vectors a few months ago. How should I start getting better? Should I try working through O'Reilly's book? Look at someone's existing code and try to improve it? Come up with my own problem to solve?

    I was thinking I could also try applying for a job at a startup to see what its like. But would any startups be willing to hire me considering how poor my programming skills are? I suppose I'd be willing to be hired just to perform menial tasks at first, so I'd have to improve my programming skills on the side, but I wouldn't exactly make a great salesman.
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 16, 2011 #2


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    Hey creepypasta13.

    If you have poor skills in programming and are not 100% motivated (more like 200%) I would strongly recommend you not do it.

    A startup is absolute hell for someone that wants security, certainty, regularity, and anything but high stress, but by the sounds of your post you have acknowledge this already.

    Let's say for a moment you wanted to join and put all of your energy into a startup.

    The first question you need to ask is very simple, but often very ignored, and that is "How is the startup going to make money?". The answer needs to be simple and understood by anyone, because if it is not simple, and the founders can't answer it, you know that it will not end well.

    The second question that you need to ask is "Who are the people?". If you decide to go into something like this, you need to know who is involved. You need to have a really honest evaluation of them, and that might mean getting someone elses opinion if you have some emotional bias (like being their friend for example). You need to really find out how they will react, and how you will react in situations when **** really hits the fan. It's all smiles and laughs when things go well, but people really show themselves when there is high stress and many problems, and that is something that you need to find out as early as you can.

    Another thing you need to find out is "Can the startup really make it?" If you have a bunch of friends who like programming, but have no idea what it is like to do a long term project, I would be very cautious. It is really hard sticking to projects that are many months or even years in length, and you want to be damn sure that if you enter something, you will see it to the finish.

    Let me tell you from experience, that software development can be an absolute nightmare at times. You can developing in a complex environment and things are all well and then all of a sudden "boom!" everything has crashed. Your code base is hundreds of thousands of lines of code and something has just created chaos. If you are relying on outside funding, chances are you have deadlines and you might be spending all day and all night stepping through a giant function evaluation (many tens of calls deep) just to find some obscure behavior that in hindsight caused something completely unintuitive behavior.

    My overall evaluation is that if you want to go that route later, then by all means do so, and consider the points (as well as others) before going that route. Spend some time in an existing company and rotate around the different areas to get exposure to all areas of the business and the industry: it will help you make a more informed decision.

    If I were you I would not do it for reasons mentioned above. You should know that the average age of most entrepreneurs is very high (in the late 30's or 40's I believe) so you should be aware that many that take this route usually piggyback on prior experience (the kind I mentioned above).

    In hindsight, a PhD is good training for project work, and that will give you some idea of what its like to work on project based work that is involved in software development.

    In my opinion, get your PhD, or get into entry level software, and take it from there.

    Good luck in getting into your PhD program as well.
  4. Sep 16, 2011 #3


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    As someone who had a startup at one point, my advice to you is don't. To have a succesful startup requires:
    1. A good idea - Ideas are easy to come by but good ideas aren't. For an idea to be good, it has to be realistic and solve a concrete problem (or create demand for some new thing). Chances are if you have come up with the idea, others have too.
    From what I can tell of your post, you don't have an idea that is burning to get out. You just are looking for something else other than you PhD. .
    2. People with the ability to implement the idea - If you're trying to have a succesful software startup, you need to know something about software. Doesn't sound like you do.
    3. Money - Startups grow on money. You will need money for programmers (unless you pay them in equity only), computers and software, office space (at some point), marketing and of course, to eat.
    4. Sales skills - This is probably the most critical skill to have. By your own admission, you are not a good salesperson so you'll have to get people that are. The best product in the world is worthless if you can't sell it to people. Software just doesn't sell itself. If you're doing something like an iPhone app, then the sales part is kinda taken care of but you may still need to advertise.
    5. Sweat - Startups are incredibly hard work. I would even guess that it can be more work than getting a PhD. If you're looking for a quick, easy way to get rich, this ain't it.
    I don't know of any low-stress, comfortable job that is also good paying.
    If you think you might have interest in programming, it is a good idea to start learning now. C++, Java, Python...whatever you think you might enjoy.

    If you are trying to jump ship at this early stage of your Phd, I would question if you really should be in a PhD program. You have a long, hard slog ahead of you and you probably won't make it unless you are fully committed to it. I would consider learning programming while getting your MS and then looking for work after that.
    Last edited: Sep 16, 2011
  5. Sep 16, 2011 #4
    The one piece of advice that I've gotten from everyone that has done a start-up is "don't quit your day job." The fact that you have a safety net will help you a lot in that it means that you won't be dead if you make a mistake (and you will make tons of mistakes).

    One you are at the point were the startup makes enough money for you to survive *THEN* you can consider going to work for it full time. Also, one other thing that can be done is to work for some company in which someone else has already done a lot of the legwork to keep things going. The gotcha there is that if you work for a 20 person company rather than a 200,000 company, personalities become extremely important. If you work for a 200,000 and you hate the CEO that doesn't matter since you are never going to meet them anyway, whereas in a 20 person company, the CEO is in your face every day.
  6. Sep 17, 2011 #5
    First of all... what are you planning on doing in a software startup? Especially given that you don't know how to program? (This is sort of like saying you'd like to be a rock star, but haven't really given any thought to what instrument you want to play.)

    Secondly, my startup experiences seem to be very different than twofish-quant's. (I'll attribute this to a west coast/east coast thing!) But my experience has been that in the earliest stages (when no one is getting paid), what companies are typically developing are powerpoint presentations. Once you have a good one, you show it to people who will give you the money to get everything underway. At that point, everyone gets paid... and the startup *is* your day job! (And your night job, and your weekend job, and...) Revenue comes *much* later.

    (This has been what I've seen for 4 companies and 3 failed attempts. As I said, your mileage may vary, and I'm sure other people have very different experiences.)
  7. Sep 18, 2011 #6
    Curiously enough, it's rather similar.

    Yup. The hard work of starting a company involves going around to people asking for money. Also it helps a lot to have work experience at this stage because 1) you have "street cred" 2) you have some savings that can tie you over 3) you probably have know someone that knows someone that knows someone with money.

    Yup. When I said "don't quit your day job" I meant before you have a line of funding. Once you have funding, then your day job becomes the startup and the funder becomes your boss. Also revenue can't come too much later, otherwise the funder gets impatient and stops writing checks, and you get fired.

    One thing that is sort of funny is that in Silicon Valley, it's not particularly impressive to be a CEO, since you have thousands of CEO's. The people that pull the strings are the venture capitalists.

    It's pretty much what I've seen. Also, technical ability is not the most important thing in a startup.
  8. Sep 20, 2011 #7
    Of course. Sales and marketing rule the world. As an engineer at heart, this annoys me somewhat, but I cannot deny the truth of it.
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