I have quite a few ambitious friends who have graduated for a few years now and are in finance or consulting want to start getting into tech, specifically earlier stage companies. Being at a single startup for nearly 4 years now, I thought it would be helpful to share a few lessons learned as it pertains to thriving in an early-stage environment. The common problem that I’ve seen is that many of them don’t fully understand what it takes to (1) break into the industry and (2) to thrive in the role. I thought it’d be helpful to shed some light on the day-to-day of growing a startup as well as recommend a few books I like on the subject.
To join a tech startup, many people want to do the sexy stuff and be in a strategy role or management role right from day one. However, you’re going to find yourself hitting barriers during the interview process as your existing resume is full of internships at great companies that can be interpreted as risk averse decisions that translates into a lack of transferable skills for a startup.
My advice is to focus on the core skills that you want to develop and learn as opposed to being obsessed with chasing a specific industry or company.
In addition, you need to spend 20% of your time learning skills that will make you more deadly from an operational perspective. Common skills include learning sales + marketing, specific technical knowledge, SQL, hiring, and understanding the customer life cycle.
The best book I’ve read on this lately is by DuckDuckGo’s founder, Gabriel Weinberg entitled Traction.
Earn vs. Learn
Most people don’t make the right earn vs. learn calculation properly when they are looking to join a startup. The reason is because they are not prioritizing the learning potential of their first startup.
The common question I’ve found helpful to ask is: who are the smartest people that I have access to who are hungry and want to teach me the specific skill that I’m looking for?
Alignment of motives is very important and this is why having a mentor is not enough. A mentor is someone who you can touch base with once a month/quarter/biannually but not someone who really has skin in the game to see you succeed. They will offer you recommendations but at the end of the day, whether you are successful or not doesn’t really matter to them because your fates are not tied together. In addition, as Sam Altman once pointed out, a lot of advice that you’re getting is someone’s past experiences based on a completely different sort of circumstances and they are not really with you in the trenches trying to solve the problem.
Grit and Politics
The amount of grit it takes to go in day in and day out to not only start a company but to help scale it. This is another skill that I see people who come from less operational roles being less able to pick up from day one. You need to understand that in most cases, you’re making a sale internally to multiple people within your organization and there is a network of decision makers and end-users that will need signoff. Not to mention that you’re not looking just for signoff but whatever project you’re championing to thrive and be successful. I highly recommend picking up a book such as Influence by Richard Cialdini on how to become better with this skill as it is not something anybody is born with right off the bat.
On the subject of building great teams, this reminds me of an excerpt from one of my favorite basketball books, Bill Simmon’s The Book of Basketball in which he explains that the secret to basketball success isn’t just about talent but talent management. Are players willing to sacrifice for the good of the team? Specifically for a startup facing initial success, how well do you handle the “disease of more”?
When it comes to grit and persistence, the only real tip I have here is to set yourself up in the mindset where you are activity focused as opposed to just worrying about the results. Focus on your daily, weekly, monthly activities and the end results will follow. My favorite book on this subject is by Bill Walsh (legendary SF 49ers football coach) entitled “The Score Takes Care of Itself.”
Thanks to Yvette for the inspiration for the post!