Over the last couple of years I’ve met a lot of people who work in the startup world. A considerable number of the connections I’ve made stem from introductions from friends/colleagues or somewhat circuitously by way of stuff I’ve written on other sites. For example, in September of 2012 I wrote an answer on Quora where I shared my perspective on what it took to work effectively alongside people more intelligent than I am. Since that time my answer has received over 1,200 votes. When I wrote that answer I was shooting from the hip. I actually wrote it while at work. I expected it might get a few votes, but not that many.
After writing that answer I met with a few people who contacted me directly via Quora to ask me a bit more about how I navigated my career. I was able to be more nuanced in my discussion with them in person than I was via my Quora answer and I thought I’d share some of that nuance.
An Economy as a Metaphor for Career Strategy
What I wrote about in my Quora answer was that failure and unhappiness was a certain outcome of trying to be something you’re not. Everyone has their inherent strengths and weaknesses. I’m of the camp that believes that people should focus most on playing to their strengths and to align their strengths with a role that requires them to use their strengths regularly. That’s the gist of my answer to that question on Quora. I think that’s just one part of career success though.
In addition to finding work that leverages your strengths, you should think strategically about the career moves you make. What you should do is think strategically about the skills you develop and how those skills can preempt an increase in demand for those skills within the job economy. Then, as the demand for those skills flood the market, you’re in the pole position to leverage your supply of that skill to use the career economy in your favor. Let me be more specific with my own experience.
Placing a Bet
When I decided to leave Facebook I had only been there for 2 years. I was recently promoted and received a 50% salary increase, a cash bonus, and 15% more stock. I was pretty damn happy, predominantly because I felt valued by the company. I went home that day and did one of these in the front yard of my house:
Three months later though I left the company. I left despite the money and the sureness of Facebook’s success. I left because I saw an opportunity that I hoped had greater potential for long-term career outcome. Let me explain why.
I worked on the Growth team at Facebook. We were responsible for figuring out how to get more active users on Facebook. It was a first of it’s kind. No consumer internet company had ever had a Growth team. Our team crushed it and produced tremendous value for the company. While working on that team I had an epiphany. More consumer internet startups needed a Growth team because not enough companies had a pragmatic approach to growing more efficiently and reliably. I could either stay at Facebook and earn more promotions over time and make some solid cash off of the equity. Or I could leave to attempt to build more growth teams at more companies. What I eventually decided was that I wanted to be the person responsible for bringing Growth teams to more companies.
This is where the career economy metaphor comes in. Want I wanted to do was become one of the most knowledgeable people on the planet when it comes to understanding how to grow a consumer startup. I also figured that the demand for people who understood how to grow startups would increase proportional to the rate of success of consumer internet companies. Basically, the consumer startup industry had incredible momentum. In parallel, more startups needed Growth teams since more and more growth was engineering/product/data driven and not traditional marketing driven. I wanted to have a significant amount of the supply of growth knowledge at a time where there was very little real supply of that information but a tremendous amount of demand as well.
That was the bet I placed when I left Facebook in 2010 and went to Twitter to build a growth team. I’ve continued that trend by having been involved full-time or as an advisor to companies on growth including Quora, Khan Academy, Flipboard and a few others. Today, it appears that was the right decision. The whole “growth hacking” craze has elevated the position of growth teams and “growth hackers” in the startup world, more companies are explicitly looking to hire growth designers, engineers and product managers, and more companies have had successful implementations of growth teams. Even more established companies are hiring for growth such as the acquisition of IronPearl by PayPal where Stan Chudnovsky was named PayPal’s new VP of Growth.
Those who got started early as leaders in Growth are benefiting from the economy around it where every startup is looking to hire a growth leader but very few people have a deep, legitimate understanding of consumer startup growth. Those in control of the supply of valuable growth information are in an advantageous position and can basically choose where they want to work.
Sure, I would likely have plenty of career options had I stayed at Facebook for 4+ years. But I can say without hesitation that I understand growth of consumer internet startups much, much more deeply having now worked on growth at multiple companies. With deeper knowledge in the field of growth, I’ve encountered career opportunities I would have never predicted, such as joining Greylock as a Growth Strategist in Residence.
The Next Career Economy
Today, I continue to think about what future economies around skills and experience will exist and how I can preempt that economy to establish early ownership of the skills supply. The advice I’ve been giving to people struggling to establish themselves in the startup world is to first start by making sure they understand what they are good at and enjoy doing. Secondly, they should think deeply about how their strengths/interests can be applied in a way where the skills economy is in their favor. If you can preemptively determine where you think the skills economy is going to move, get ahead of the pack by establishing your skills earlier than most.
Based on my experience here are a few of the skills economies that I’ve come across where significant opportunity exists for the owner of those skills:
- Designers that can code since most top-tier startups want designers that can code more than designers that can’t (e.g. Richard Henry)
- Designers with data skills since you can self-administer a/b tests as well as design products (e.g. Rob Matei)
- Statisticians who are technical enough to pull large data sets and massage the data into actionable insights (e.g. Adam Kinney)
- Mobile business development pros who know the global mobile landscape and have contacts across the industry (e.g. Ali Rosenthal)
- Marketplace Community Managers who do relationship management on both sides of a two-sided marketplace (e.g. Sheila Karaszewski)
For those looking to craft a career strategy, I hope you find this information useful. Here’s a recap of the key points:
Focus on your Strengths
Start by finding a job that requires you to utilize your strengths more often than not. By focusing your work around what you’re good at, you’ll find greater long-term enjoyment with your work as well as a higher likelihood of being successful at it.
Identify Skill Economies
As you gain more skills and experience, continually evaluate skills economies around you. Find scenarios where others have accelerated their career trajectory by doubling down on building skills deemed highly valuable by the career economy.
Don’t be afraid to place a career bet by going after a particular skill economy, especially when the skill you are looking to improve is aligned with what you are naturally good at and enjoy.