The New Peer Pressure: At Stanford, “If You Haven’t Started Company by Age 20, You’re a Failure”

Recently, New York magazine featured Feross Aboukhadijeh  in a piece titled “Bubble Boys.” Aboukhadijeh is a Sacramento-born, 20-year-old computer science student at Stanford who has been characterized as among the school’s most heavily recruited students by a course adviser. The piece suggested he may ultimately be among those geeks to succeed the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world.

While perhaps a stretch, it’s easy to see Aboukhadijeh’s appeal. A year ago, Aboukhadijeh created a small media sensation with YouTube Instant, a site that invites visitors to scan YouTube videos in real time, and which Google was at one point interested in acquiring – along with Aboukhadijeh.

“They were talking about adding [the code] to YouTube and having me come on, but it never really worked out,” says Aboukhadijeh, who speaks quickly and breathlessly, like someone needing to get to wherever he’s next expected. “I’d only been in school for two years at that point. It seemed silly to stop and take a job. Then they said, ‘You can do an internship while you’re in school.’ But I wasn’t really interested in doing that. I knew that to do well [at Google], I’d need more than 15 hours a week. Also, when you join a new company, it takes three or four months before you’re even up to speed.”

Aboukhadijeh has some idea about what happens inside companies. Two summers ago, he scored an internship at Facebook, and it took “two months before I was going all out, doing stuff.” This past summer, Aboukhadijeh snagged another enviable internship, at the question-and-answer site Quora.

Still, Aboukhadijeh says he’d rather start his own company than work for someone else’s. At least, he thinks he knows that’s what he wants. Aboukhadijeh, who is starting his senior year, tells me he’s applying for Stanford’s computer science master’s program and that he’ll “then possibly complete it or do something else, like put it on hold to go start a company.” A lot of his friends are making the same choice. “They’re saying, ‘I’d like to take a leave for a year or two and try something risky.’ And if it doesn’t work out, they can come back and finish their master’s degree. It’s kind of nice. Stanford is pretty flexible compared to most schools.”

The school has little choice, evidently. In fact, “probably half” of Aboukhadijeh’s friends are already working on projects that they think could become viable companies, he says.

“A bunch of them are interested in research, but most have done some side project, and a subset of them have a project that they call a company, and a subset of those friends has actually joined Y Combinator or another accelerator program,” he says. The last, Aboukhadijeh says, comprises “the guys who are clearly serious about it. They’ve taken VC money, and they are going for it.”

It can make even a guy like Aboukhadijeh — a handsome former track-and-field star who stands 6’ 5” tall and receives “two to three” emails a day from recruiters — a little insecure at times.

“I feel like I should have started a company by now,” he tells me. “You feel like if you haven’t started a company by age 20 and you’re not a millionaire, you’re kind of a failure. I know that’s kind of exaggeration, but there are so many people starting companies at [age] 20 and 21, it’s not that much of a stretch to feel that way at times.”

Aboukhadijeh calls the pressure “self-inflicted. I know if I put my mind to it – if I focus 100 percent on something — I’ll do an amazing job. If you think of the things I’ve made in just a few hours, like YouTube Instant, the lesson from that is even if you have no idea where you’re going but you decide to do it anyway, you can wind up in a nice place. But you have to start. Doing your own thing is obviously way better than [working for a company].”

Naturally, Aboukhadijeh already has a lot of ideas. “My goal in the next quarter is to find time to start experimenting with those [that] could potentially turn into companies,” he says. Maybe they’re stupid ideas, he adds, but “I’ll go crazy if I don’t start building them and find out.”