THE BRAZEN CAREERIST- The ladder: Not the only way to climb

The entry-level job inherently undervalues someone who's bright and driven, according to Paul Graham, partner at Y Combinator, a venture capital firm that almost exclusively funds start-ups by very young people.

''For the most ambitious young people, the corporate ladder is obsolete," declares Graham, who sees entrepreneurship as the great escape.

For the last hundred years, even a person of extreme promise started as a bottom-rung trainee.

''The most productive young people will always be undervalued by large organizations," Graham writes, "because the young have no performance to measure, and any error in guessing their ability will tend toward the mean."

So, if you're smart and energetic, you might be better off working for yourself.

Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman are: They started their own company before they even graduated from the University of Virginia.

Today at 22, they're running Reddit out of their Cambridge apartment. Huffman turned down a job offer at a Virginia software company so he could write the software for Reddit, which is a little like social book-marking and a little like RSS feed. Think the five most e-mailed Boston Globe stories– only not just the newspaper but the whole World Wide Web.

The value of people in their '20s is touted fervently at Google, a company always on the lookout to buy companies from young entrepreneurs. On his personal blog, Chris Sacca, principal of Google's new business development, wrote about a conference for entrepreneurs in their early '20s that Graham organized in Cambridge last October.

''I was instantly struck by the sheer energy of the crowd," he writes.

Graham estimates a top programmer can work for $80,000 a year in a large company, but he can be 36 times as productive without corporate trappings (e.g. a boss, killed projects, interruptions) and will generate something worth $3 million in that same year if he's working on his own.

Before balking at those figures, consider that Ohanian and Huffman started their company in June 2005, and by November, Ohanian said, they had received a multimillion-dollar buyout offer from Google (which they declined in favor of continuing to build the company on their own).

But not every one is sitting on a great idea for a company. Those who want to start their own business– once they find an idea– should use the time beforehand to learn the right skills. Jennifer Floren, chief executive of Experience and an entrepreneur herself, recommends going to a small company 'where they will usually be able "to see first hand what each part of the company does." At a big company, they won't get such wide exposure.

Also, ''Look for opportunities to be creative or take a leadership role, two good types of experience for an entrepreneur to have," she says.

Alexandra Levit worked in public relations before striking out on her own as a consultant in publicity and marketing. In terms of making the transition, Levit advises that one should ''try lining up a few jobs before taking the leap," and be prepared to spend ''about 30 percent of the time marketing the business."

Levit provides a snapshot of reality for all entrepreneurs when she says, ''Don't expect the drawbacks to be only financial. You need a lot of self-discipline to sit down in your home office and work without any external pressure. Working for yourself means you're responsible for every aspect of the business."

Ohanian agrees: ''I'm spending time right now doing our taxes. We merged with a company, and they kept terrible records."

But, he says, ''I really like the notion of not having to look to a superior, to have independence, and be doing the entrepreneurial thing."