One of the things people love about working at small startups is the flat management structure. Instead of presenting your ideas to your manager’s manager after spending two days preparing a PowerPoint presentation, you can focus on simply executing them. When you’re the entire marketing department or the only mobile developer, there’s simply no need for dozens of meetings.
For many people, this type of autonomy results in greater levels of responsibility and can give your career a great deal of breadth. But even in this type of environment, a year or so after you’ve gotten a job you love, you might be looking for new challenges (and maybe even more money). So, how do you continue to advance your career without a formal organizational ladder to climb? Try one of these strategies.
Join a Growing Company,
This one is the most obvious approaches: If you join a company that’s growing and changing quickly, there will likely be more opportunities for new roles and new responsibilities. So, when you’re interviewing for positions, ask questions that give you a sense of the company’s trajectory: What’s the funding situation? What are the company’s sales and revenue goals? What’s the hiring plan over the next 12 months? How does leadership see your role evolving over time?
Be Upfront About Your Goals,
The worst thing you can do—at any job—is to be quiet about your career goals and hope they work out. Do you want to eventually manage a team? Are you hoping to switch roles when your dream role opens up? Let your company’s founders know now, and ask what you can do to get yourself there. Then, make a point to regularly check in on your progress.
Also, be clear about what type of advancement is important to you. You may want more responsibility and new projects, or you may just want a better title that you feel you’ve earned after a set period of time.
At my startup, one of our early hires let me know she really wanted management experience, so we put her in charge of managing our summer intern. But we might not have made a point of doing so if she didn’t tell us she wanted to gain that skill.
Pick Up New Projects,
At a startup, there’s always way more to do than people to get it done. So, think about the types of people your company would hire if the company was twice the size, choose an area that you’d like to learn about, and suggest a project to the founders. For example, if your company has talked about building out a sales team in the future and you’d love to get exposure in that area, offer to test out the viability of sales as a customer acquisition strategy.
As long as you’re still performing in your core role, your manager will probably be happy to have the extra help—and you’ll have the chance to build out a new skill set.
Be a Leader,
Even if you’re not managing a team, there are lots of opportunities to lead in a growing company. When new hires start, take the initiative to help them get up to speed. Instead of waiting for directives from your manager, put together a plan for how you think your time would be best spent.
Proving you can make those around you more productive and planning strategically will show you’re the person for the job when your company does need a management structure.
Hiring and keeping top employees is the goal of any startup management team. With so many companies competing for talent in San Francisco, New York and other areas with lots of startups, your manager will most likely do what he or she can to make you happy—and make you as valuable as possible to the company’s future. But it takes two to do this, so determine your goals, voice them and work to get there.
Globalization is not (all there is to) progress,
Technology, to our great detriment, is the forgotten side of the coin.
Globalization basically means copying things that work. “Developing” countries copy 19th century railroads and 20th century plumbing. There is no innovation; you go from 1 to n. Technology, by contrast, involves doing new things. True technology companies—Facebook, Palantir, SpaceX—involve going from 0 to 1.
People focus too much on the 1 to n of globalization and not enough on technology. But to be great, you have to do something new and important. All great companies solved the 0 to 1 problem in unique ways. All failed companies somehow botched it.
It is better to be right than to be contrarian,
But being contrarian is very often a good heuristic for finding what is right.
There is usually little value to be found where there is unanimity. Value tends to be hidden. The key question is: What important truth do very few people agree with you on? The business version of this is: What valuable company is nobody building? A certain degree of contrarianism is embedded in these questions. Wrestling with them can lead to important truths.
Secrets exist in you and others,
People don’t really believe in secrets anymore. But secrets exist. It’s just a matter of learning how to find them.
Risk aversion and complacency discourage people from thinking about secrets. Existing conventions are much more comfortable. But secret truths can be incredibly valuable. Importantly, they are discoverable; by definition, any answers to the questions in Lesson 2 above are secrets. Perhaps the biggest secret of all is that there are many more secrets in the world that are waiting to be found. The question of how many secrets exist in our world is roughly equivalent to how many startups people should start. From a business perspective, then, there are many great companies that could still be—indeed, are waiting to be—started.
Capitalism and competition are antonyms, not synonyms
Capitalism is about building wealth. But in perfect competition, nobody actually makes any money; all economic profits are competed away.
Competition is overrated. In practice it is quite destructive and should be avoided wherever possible. Much better than fighting for scraps in existing markets is to create and own new ones. Sometimes you have to fight. When you do, you should win. But conflict tends to be romanticized, and people tend to get sucked in. It is worthwhile to think about how to run away from the fighting and build a monopoly business instead.
People lie on their turn,
We are biased to think that things are as they appear. Very often, that’s not true.Everybody thinks that advertising works on other people, not on them. But that cannot actually be true for everybody. Sales is all around us, all the time. And it tends to work best when it is hidden.
Sometimes people lie to themselves. Sometimes they lie to others. “This product sells itself” is most likely a sales pitch; “This product is so mediocre that it takes great salespeople to sell it” doesn’t have the same ring to it.
People tend to overlook the importance of sales and distribution. But getting distribution right is absolutely crucial; most companies fail because of distribution problems, not technology problems. And to understand distribution, one must understand the theatre that is sales.
Much of life is a power law,
The default assumption is that things are normally distributed. Sometimes that’s true. But very often it is not. Very often things follow a power-law distribution. This can be counterintuitive and uncomfortable to think about.
Startup outcomes are one example. They tend to be very bimodal. Some companies succeed wildly. Most fail and go to zero. Accordingly, portfolio approaches and hedging tend to fail. Finding the company that falls on the right tail of the distribution is absolutely crucial. Venture capitalists who don’t realize this lose money. Entrepreneurs or employees who don’t realize this end up doing the wrong things.
A bad plan is better than no plan, A good plan is even better
Today, people have resigned to indeterminacy Thinking about the future—let alone forming beliefs about it—is seen as crazy. The future, people seem to believe, is essentially random.
It didn’t always used to be this way. In centuries and decades past, chance was seen as something to dominate. People could forge their own luck. Calculation reigned supreme. People had grand visions.
We have since shifted to a more probabilistic, statistical perspective. Indeterminacy abounds. Young people take a portfolio approach to their resumes, adding new lines each year but never taking a meaningful swing at something big. But playing it safe has serious costs (and, apart from those, it may not be as safe as it is perceived to be). To be great, you must take a swing at something. You must have a plan. Not planning for the future is, quite literally, resigning your fate to chance.
Thiel’s Law: A startup messed up at its foundation cannot be fixed.
Beginnings are special. They are qualitatively different than what comes after. You can change things at the founding that you’re forever stuck with afterward.
Getting your foundations right isn’t sufficient for success, but it is certainly necessary. Founding mistakes will amplify and destroy companies from within. Companies usually fail when some internal conflict blows up. From the outside, it may appear that external competitive forces were the cause. But very often, mismanagement or a founding mistake is the true culprit. Founders must think carefully about keeping people’s motivations and incentives aligned. Otherwise, a startup is essentially doomed from the start.
Founders are different,
Most traits are probably normally distributed. Most people are average. Founders are not. Founders’ traits seem to have an inverse normal distribution to them. Founders are at the extremes on both ends: they are extreme insidersand extreme outsiders, disagreeable andcharismatic, infamous and famous.
Whether the inverse distribution is fact, fiction, or some combination of both, it seems to map well onto most founder figures, from Steve Jobs to Lady Gaga. And this is nothing new; Achilles was strong and perfect, except for his flaw that made him weak. Howard Hughes was on track to go down as the greatest entrepreneur of the 20th century, yet he suffered a bizarre 30-year fall from grace.
Unpacking exactly how or why founders are different is difficult. But different they are. That is as dangerous for them as it is empowering. People victimize founders. A founder’s primary task is, in some sense, to perpetually extend the founding moment and thereby indefinitely delay his execution.
Find a frontier and go for it,
I’ll quote from my notes on Thiel’s final lecture:
There is something importantly singular about each new thing. There is a mini singularity whenever you start a company or make a key life decision. In a very real sense, the life of every person is a singularity.
The obvious question is what you should do with your singularity. The obvious answer, unfortunately, has been to follow the well-trodden path. You are constantly encouraged to play it safe and be conventional. The future, we are told, is just probabilities and statistics.You are a statistic.
But the obvious answer is wrong. That is selling yourself short. There are still many large white spaces on the map of human knowledge. You can go discover them. So do it. Get out there and fill in the blank spaces. Every single moment is a possibility to go to these new places and explore them.
There is perhaps no specific time that is necessarily right to start your company or start your life. But some times and some moments seem more auspicious than others. Now is such a moment. If we don’t take charge and usher in the future—if you don’t take charge of your life—there is the sense that no one else will.