- Startups should be a career choice. If you have a one and done mentality, you will not likely succeed or be fulfilled in your startup endeavors. Once you adjust your thinking to be long-term, your perspective opens up and you give yourself the time horizon for success. You give yourself the opportunity to do things like build skills (e.g. learn to code), learn from mentors, fail, etc.
- Get serious. Don't be a wannabe entrepreneur. Real startups are dirty, so jump in the mud right away. No BS. Focus on moving the needle every single day. You can think of it as a form of deliberate practice. Serious startup people don't shy away from failure. In fact, if you're not hearing no a lot (from people or the market) you're not trying hard enough.
- Get a mentor. I've failed at this myself and am correcting it only now. It's not hard to do, and that person or persons can help you navigate your startup career path to success quicker.
- Surround yourself with success. It's common advice but it is really good advice. One of the reasons I started Open Angel Forum Philly is to interact more with local people more successful than myself so I could learn from them. This applies vertically and horizontally. People you hire should eventually be better than you at what they're doing. Your startup peers should be starting awesome companies that you can learn from.
- Find something you're passionate about. The best way to maximize the probability of getting out of acqui-hire stage is to work on something you're truly passionate about. In fact, these themes may carry through multiple startups and serve as long-arcs in your startup career. I've made this mistake several times, i.e. to work on stuff I wasn't truly passionate about. There are many decent reasons why you can get sucked into doing so, but I'd try hard to avoid it.
- Start a company OR see success first-hand. When you're ready to jump I think there are two valid paths. First, you can just jump right in and start a company (what I did). If you do that please follow the mentor advice above and avoid first-timer mistakes. You're likely to fail anyways, but you'll learn a lot more if you fail in more interesting ways.
If you do go for it, go big. Otherwise you're not really being as serious as you can IMHO. Don't get me wrong -- indie companies are great. You can pretty easily make a good living filling up niches and little inefficiencies in the market. And it might maximize your financial success. But you probably won't change the world in a significant way, and ultimately I think that's the cornerstone of being serious in this business. See codified startup advice if you choose this path.
Not everyone is ready to jump right in for many good reasons, e.g. haven't found that market passion yet or just don't feel confident enough. There is an equally good path to start, however, which is joining a startup that has some success so you can see it first-hand. There is a sweet spot in companies that are small enough where you can see everything and make a huge impact, but far enough along where there is real stuff happening. Usually that seems to be when the company is about five to twenty people.
If you join a startup in this stage, take on a project management role. It's like being a mini-CEO. If you do join a startup, pick a good one. The easiest way to break through their hiring process is to proactively build something for them and then show it to them. It doesn't have to be code. If you're a designer, redesign something or greenfield a new product direction. If you're a marketer, design a new marketing campaign. You get the point.
- Start a blog. There are so many good reasons to blog, but the bottom line is it is a significantly undervalued asset that can move the needle on your startup career pretty fast. If you do start one, approach it as personal branding and so get your name domain name and a decent design.