Why people start startups
From an engineering perspective, you might rationally work as an employee in a startup under at least one of two conditions (I'll explain this below):
- you feel that the founders have significant skill or resources that you lack
- you are receiving a market-reasonable salary
- you feel that the company has a great product which will change the market
- you really like working with the team
- you enjoy working on this product
- you can't get a job anywhere else (unlikely)
If you're very lucky, the company might be sold for $100M. When you start, the company is probably already worth a fair amount -- say $20M, so the option income might be $400k. Tack this onto a slightly-below market salary of, say, $80k (for someone graduating with a BS), and you've made $180k per year. And again, that's if you're lucky. In contrast, it's not unlikely that you'd make almost this much as a late employee at Facebook, which is going to offer restricted stock units, a much more reliable way of making decent income. To be more clear: there's also a decent chance that the startup will be worth nothing in two years. Then you're out of work, you have Netscape on your resume, and you've made below-market wages for a while.
To be sure, startups aren't a bad lifestyle: you have flexible hours, you learn a lot, and there are a lot of reasonable reasons (second list, above) to work for them. They're particularly great for new grads.
But if you have the same skills and resources as the founders, or at least think you do, then it's completely irrational to work for them, when you could be taking a higher level of equity from the start. A 20% share of that $100M company is now $20M, or $5M/year. With even a 10% success rate, you're taking home an average of $500k / year, compared to your $120k from before.
My suspicion is that this explains the exploding number of startups we're seeing: many reasonably-skilled founders are finding that they don't want to work for Mark Zuckerberg: they want to be the next Mark Zuckerberg.
How will this turn out? My hope is that founders will start giving considerably higher equity to non-founding employees -- co-ops, effectively. Unfortunately, I don't have high hopes for this. First, it doesn't make sense to give high equity to employees whom you barely know. Second, distributing a company more widely gives much less control to the founders. This distributed control might lead to all sorts of infighting, indecision, and bad decisions.