It’s more fun to be a pirate than to join the navy. – Steve Jobs

Every product that can be easily packaged as software as a service (SaaS) has been built and shipped by now. If you can think of something that can run in a web browser, you’ll find it on the Internet.

The fact that it’s all already been built doesn’t mean that people won’t keep building it, however. That’s a good thing. At this point we want to make things better, not make more things.1

There are two ways to make something better. First, you can work for the company that’s already at the top and improve their product, or you can become a competitor and build your own similar-but-better product.

Here are two pivotal factors that play into which direction you’ll go:

  1. Cash flow. Can you afford to go a year or five burning through money? Or do you need a paycheck right now, and next month?
  2. Power. Must you be Founder and CEO, or are you okay with answering to others? Must you create your own company so you have absolute control over a product, or perhaps because you simply have low tolerance for answering to a boss? Or are you okay with acknowledging that others got there first, and joining their team to become part of something greater?

Saying that Competitor X has a great product but you can build the exact same thing for half the price is a poor reason for becoming a competitor.2

If you think LinkedIn doesn’t deserve to be the #1 professional networking site, should you build a competitor site? It might be easy to make one that’s nicer, but who will use it? In the 4th quarter of 2015, LinkedIn’s cost of revenue (i.e. marketing) was $119m. Do you have that to spend on spreading your idea?

“Oh, but their revenue for Q4 was $862m, and if we could just get 1% of their user base, why, that’s a million dollars!” Yes, but good luck getting that one percent (hint: it’s one of the hardest things you’ll ever try), and do you really think puttering around in a fishing boat is preferable to playing a role on a battleship?

Becoming a pirate and starting from scratch sounds glamorous on the surface, but more times than not it’s a far better idea to join the winners and help them win even more.

Those who become pirates have a chance of great riches but more often than not, they end at the bottom of the ocean, their heads severed from their bodies. Those who join the navy must pay their dues for many years, but they will make a good living at it; and by the time they’re retired, if they’ve been diligent at their work, they’ll be experienced, valuable, and high in rank.

The fact that you make a living writing software means you don’t have enough discretionary money to risk the volatility of the startup world and the long years of hard work and no ROI. Save the risk-taking for venture capitalists and millionaire businesspeople, not computer scientists. Gone are the days of when a Wozniak or a Gates could with minimal assistance build something that would eventually take over the world. The software industry has drastically matured since those days, and it’s time to shift gears and play the slow steady game of improving what we’ve already built.

Are you with me?

  1. There continue to be new companies with genuinely new successful ideas, but their R&D costs are ten times higher than what most people think of as SaaS, because they involve either very hard-to-engineer computations, or new hardware, or some physical product or service component. Think Google Car, Oculus Rift, Uber, Harry’s. Those type products are not at all what I’m talking about. The majority of software developers in the web server and JavaScript world are building stuff that doesn’t fit that description. ↩︎
  2. That’s how Samsung viewed Apple, and look where it got them. ↩︎