Get a Job
If you’re going to throw your time, energy, and youth at a company, try to join one that’s not just making a better mousetrap. Find a business that’s starting a revolution. A company that’s likely to make a substantial change in the status quo has the following characteristics:
It’s creating a product or service that’s wholly new or combines existing technology in a novel way that the competition can’t make or even understand.
This product solves a problem—a real pain point—that a lot of customers experience daily. There should be an existing large market.
The novel technology can deliver on the company vision—not just within the product but also the infrastructure, platforms, and systems that support it.
Leadership is not dogmatic about what the solution looks like and is willing to adapt to their customers’ needs.
It’s thinking about a problem or a customer need in a way you’ve never heard before, but which makes perfect sense once you hear it.
You do not have to be a manager to be successful. Many people assume that the only path to more money and stature is managing a team. However, there are alternatives that will enable you to get a similar paycheck, have similar amounts of influence, and possibly be happier overall. Of course if you want to be a manager because you think you’ll love it, then absolutely pursue it. But even then, remember that you don’t have to be a manager forever.
Remember that once you become a manager, you’ll stop doing the thing that made you successful in the first place. You’ll no longer be doing the things you do really well—instead you’ll be digging into how others do them, helping them improve. Your job will now be communication, communication, communication, recruiting, hiring and firing, setting budgets, reviews, one-on-one meetings (1:1s), meetings with your team and other teams and leadership, representing your team in those meetings, setting goals and keeping people on track, conflict resolution, helping to find creative solutions to intractable problems, blocking and tackling political BS, mentoring your team, and asking “how can I help you?” all the time.
Becoming a manager is a discipline. Management is a learned skill, not a talent. You’re not born with it. You’ll need to learn a whole slew of new communication skills and educate yourself with websites, podcasts, books, classes, or help from mentors and other experienced managers.
Data Versus Opinion
You make hundreds of tiny decisions every day, but then there are the critical ones, the ones where you’re trying to predict the future, the ones that will put a lot of resources on the line. In those instances, it’s important to realize what kind of decision you’re faced with:
- Data-driven: You can acquire, study, and debate facts and numbers that will allow you to be fairly confident in your choice. These decisions are relatively easy to make and defend and most people on the team can agree on the answer.
- Opinion-driven: You have to follow your gut and your vision for what you want to do, without the benefit of sufficient data to guide you or back you up. These decisions are always hard and always questioned—after all, everyone has an opinion.
Every decision has elements of data and opinion, but they are ultimately driven by one or the other. Sometimes you have to double down on the data; other times you have to look at all the data and then trust your gut. And trusting your gut is incredibly scary. Many people don’t have either a good gut instinct to follow or the faith in themselves to follow it. It takes time to develop that trust. So they try to turn an opinion-driven business decision into a data-driven one. But data can’t solve an opinion-based problem. So no matter how much data you get, it will always be inconclusive. This leads to analysis paralysis—death by overthinking.
If you don’t have enough data to make a decision, you’ll need insights to inform your opinion. Insights can be key learnings about your customers or your market or your product space—something substantial that gives you an intuitive feeling for what you should do. You can also get outside input: talk to the experts and confer with your team. You won’t reach consensus, but hopefully you’ll be able to form a gut instinct. Listen to it and take responsibility for what comes next.
Make the Intangible Tangible
People are easily distracted. We’re wired to focus our attention on tangible things that we can see and touch to the point that we overlook the importance of intangible experiences and feelings. But when you’re creating a new product, regardless of whether it’s made of atoms or electrons, for businesses or consumers, the actual thing you’re building is only one tiny part of a vast, intangible, overlooked user journey that starts long before a customer ever gets their hands on your product and ends long after.
So don’t just make a prototype of your product and think you’re done. Prototype as much of the full customer experience as possible. Make the intangible tangible so you can’t overlook the less showy but incredibly important parts of the journey. You should be able to map out and visualize exactly how a customer discovers, considers, installs, uses, fixes, and even returns your product. It all matters.
How to Spot a Great Idea
There are three elements to every great idea:
- It solves for “why.” Long before you figure out what a product will do, you need to understand why people will want it. The “why” drives the “what.”
- It solves a problem that a lot of people have in their daily lives.
- It follows you around. Even after you research and learn about it and try it out and realize how hard it’ll be to get it right, you can’t stop thinking about it.
Before you commit to executing on an idea—to starting a company or launching a new product—you should commit to researching it and trying it out first. Practice delayed intuition. This is a phrase coined by the brilliant, Nobel Prize–winning economist and psychologist Daniel Kahneman to describe the simple concept that to make better decisions, you need to slow down.
The more amazing an idea seems—the more it tugs at your gut, blinds you to everything else—the longer you should wait, prototype it, and gather as much information about it as possible before committing. If this idea is going to eat up years of your life, you should at least take a few months to research it, build out detailed (enough) business and product development plans, and see if you’re still excited about it. See if it will chase you.
Are You Ready?
The world is full of people who have an idea and want to start a company. Often they ask me if they’re ready. Do I have what it takes to create a successful startup? Should I launch my project within a big company instead?
The answer is that you’ll never know until you take the leap and try. But here’s how to get as ready as you’ll ever be:
- Work at a startup.
- Work at a big company.
- Get a mentor to help you navigate it all.
- Find a cofounder to balance you out and share the load.
- Convince people to join you. Your founding team should be anchored by seed crystals—great people who bring in more great people.
You Can Only Have One Customer
Regardless of whether your company is business-to-business (B2B) or business-to-consumer (B2C) or business-to-business-to-consumer (B2B2C) or consumer-to-business-to-consumer (C2B2C) or some-yet-unimagined acronym, you can only serve one master. You can only have one customer. The bulk of your focus and the whole of your branding should be for consumers or business—not both.
Understanding your customer—their demographics and psychographics, their wants and needs and pain points—is the foundation of your company. Your product, team, culture, sales, marketing, support, pricing—everything is shaped by that understanding.
For the vast majority of businesses, losing sight of the main customer you’re building for is the beginning of the end.
A near-perfect team is made up of smart, passionate, imperfect people who complement one another. As that team grows beyond ten, twenty, fifty people, you’ll need:
» Eager new grads and interns to learn from your experienced, well-seasoned crew. Every young person you spend time training is an investment in the long-term health of your company.
» A defined hiring process that ensures that candidates interview with people from across the company who they’ll work with directly.
» A thoughtful approach to growth to avoid watering down your culture.
» Processes that ensure new employees are immersed in and build on your culture from day one.
» A way to keep HR and hiring top of mind for your leadership team and the management teams under them. It should be the first topic of business in every team meeting.
You’ll also need to fire people. Don’t be scared of it, but don’t be callous, either. Give people plenty of warning and opportunity to course correct, follow the letter of the law, then bite the bullet and help them find a better opportunity.
A Method to the Marketing
Marketing does not have to be soft and hand-wavy. While good marketing is anchored in human connection and empathy, creating and implementing your marketing programs can and should be a rigorous and analytical process.
- Marketing cannot just be figured out at the very end. When building a product, product management and the marketing team should be working together from the very beginning. As you build, you should continue to use marketing to evolve the story and ensure they have a voice in what the product becomes.
- Use marketing to prototype your product narrative. The creative team can help you make the product narrative tangible. This should happen in parallel with product development—one should feed the other.
- The product is the brand. The actual experience a customer has with your product will do far more to cement your brand in their heads than any advertising you can show them. Marketing is part of every customer touchpoint whether you realize it or not.
- Nothing exists in a vacuum. You can’t just make an ad and think you’re done. The ad leads to a website that sends you to a store where you purchase a box that contains a guide that helps you with installation, after which you’re greeted by a welcome email. The entire experience has to be designed together, with different touchpoints explaining different parts of your messaging to create a consistent, cohesive experience.
- The best marketing is just telling the truth. The ultimate job of marketing is to find the very best way to tell the true story of your product.
There’s nothing exactly like being a CEO, and nothing to prepare you for it—not even being the head of a huge team or division of a company, firmly in the C-suite. In those positions, there’s always someone above you—but the buck truly stops with the CEO. And as CEO, you set the tone for the company. Even if there’s a board, partners, investors, employees—ultimately everyone looks to you.
The things you pay attention to and care about become the priorities for the company. The best CEOs push the team to strive for greatness, then take care of them to make sure they can achieve it. The worst CEOs care only about maintaining the status quo.
There are generally three kinds of CEOs:
- Babysitter CEOs are stewards of the company and are focused on keeping it safe and predictable. They generally oversee the growth of existing products that they inherited and don’t take risks that might scare executives or shareholders. This invariably leads to the stagnation and deterioration of companies. Most public company CEOs are babysitters.
- Parent CEOs push the company to grow and evolve. They take big risks for larger rewards. Innovative founders—like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos—are always parent CEOs. But it’s also possible to be a parent CEO even if you didn’t start the business yourself—like Jamie Dimon at JPMorgan Chase or Satya Nadella at Microsoft. Pat Gelsinger, who recently took over the Intel CEO position, seems to be Intel’s first parent CEO since Andy Grove.
- Incompetent CEOs are usually either simply inexperienced or founders who are ill-suited to lead a company after it reaches a certain size. They are not up to the task of being either a babysitter or a parent, so the company suffers.
A CEO is not a king or queen. It’s not a lifetime appointment. At some point, you have to step down. Here’s how you’ll know it’s time:
- The company or market has changed too much: Some startup founders are not meant to be CEOs of larger companies. Some CEOs have the skills to manage one set of challenges and not another. If everything has changed so much that you have no idea how to manage it and the solutions you need to implement are completely out of your wheelhouse, it’s probably time to go.
- You’ve turned into a babysitter CEO: You’ve settled into maintenance mode rather than continually challenging and growing your company.
- You’re being pushed to become a babysitter CEO: Your board is demanding you stop taking big risks and just keep the trains running.
- You have a clear succession plan and the company’s on an upswing: If things are going great and you think one or two execs on the team are ready to move up, then it may be time to make some room for them. Always try to leave on a positive note and leave the company in good hands.
- You hate it: This job is not for everyone. If you can’t stand it, that doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It just means you’ve discovered something useful about yourself and can now use that discovery to find a job you love.