Careers in Tech Startups & Innovation: What will I learn?

Jennie Baird left a comment on Monday's post about learning from each job and I think that is of the most critical importance. If you're not considering how this next job will make you a better contributor to the job after it, and so on, then you're failing to adequately assess the ROI of your time in a new position.  It's something I'll be talking about at General Assembly later this month.

With any position, I think that if you're not going to strive to be world class, what's the point? This isn't about working harder or making your career the most important thing in your life. If anything, people who might not want to spend every last waking minute of their day slaving away at a job would be well served to try to be world class at whatever they do. The best people get paid more, are able to negotiate more flexible hours--essentially picking how and when they work, and for who. You can have a pretty nice life that way if you're willing to make the upfront investment in learning a craft and working hard to be the best.

There are three ways to learn while working:

1) Work for people who are great at what they do. I've had the privilege of working not only for investors like Josh Kopelman and Fred Wilson, but for an institutional LP that had been invested in venture capital since 1980.  In all my investment jobs, the professionals I worked for were mentors and actively participated in my development.  Through other people, I've learned a ton about investing, being a better board member, building a portfolio and building a firm. Mentoring is probably the most effective job training you can get and you'll generally never make a wrong move working for great people.

2) Trial by fire.  Having a ton of responsibility at a young company is sure to be a learning experience--but learning what mistakes not to make is very different than learning how to be great.  One, it's a race between making so many mistakes that you can't climb out of the hole you created for yourself and two, when you're in over your head it's hard to pull back and examine patterns, signals, and identify skill gaps you need to fill.  You'll learn quickly what you're good at and what you're not good at--but in a young company there usually isn't enough people to go around to pawn off what you're not good at to someone else for sometimes quite a while.  Drinking from a firehose might get water into your system, but I doubt you'll ever say it was refreshing. 

3) Build a peer network and get in the flow of best practices.  If you're the first marketing hire and you don't have the privilage for working for someone you can learn from, as is often the case in a young startup, you're going to have to look elsewhere for guidence.  Find the best startup CMOs while also branching out to your peer group to learn as a cohort.  Invite people to meetups, run your own, run webinars and phonecalls to learn industry best practices.  Get coffee with someone who has been doing your job for years every week. 

What's also important is that you're upfront and transparent about what you're trying to learn, both to the people you report to and to the outside world.  When you tweet that you're researching affiliate marketing programs, front end development frameworks, etc. it lets others know to keep you in mind when information about these topics come up, and they can help you with knowledge discovery and relevent introductions to experienced people.  Blogging what you've learned positions you as a professional continuing to develop, striving for more knowledge and invites others who have learned similar lessons to share and compare notes, making your learning that much more efficient.