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« Don't Read the Manual, Write the Manual | Main | Changing my mind about blogging »

Get Off My Lawn! Crazy Kids and Their Sex, Drugs and Startup Advice!

There is nothing I've ever written that makes me feel older than this post.  

"Get off my lawn!"

That's what this post is going to sound like, but I think it needs to be said.  There are too many people giving advice who have been through one or two startups, none of which grew into a huge company, got to profitability, or an IPO.  I think we all need to be a lot more discerning about where advice is coming from.  The startup world, which is supposed to be tolerant of failure, rarely admits when failure occurs.  We sugar coat everything and we're so super supportive of each other, we never hold each other to a high standard--making the difference between real success and mediocrity nearly indistinguishable.  

How's anyone supposed to figure out who to actually learn from?

For example, as an investor, I've never invested in a company that has gotten to an IPO or a billion dollar exit.  I can't tell you how to do that.  If that's what you're counting on to learn from me, I'm not your guy.  I'm very conscious about what I've done and what I haven't done.  I'm good at finding early winners and helping them get up and off the ground, but I've never sat on a board for seven years through all the ups and downs to be around to see a 500 person company ring the bell at the stock exchange.  

That's why I'll probably hang around the Canary board a little longer than I would otherwise--to learn from future later stage investors as the fast growing company, now around 20 people, grows over the next few years into a powerhouse.

That doesn't feel like the perspective you get from a lot of advice givers these days.  A founder will raise one party round worth of seed money and they'll go teach a class on how to raise venture capital.  A BD person at an aqui-hire will write a book on the art of the deal.  Growth hacking?  Don't get me started.  Everyone's an expert there with a participation trophy to prove it.

It's fine when you advise people on how to get hired at a small startup, because you did exactly that, and probably talked to others in the same position.  Your advice matches the experience of your accomplishments.

But, managing your career?  You haven't had a career yet.  

You're like 25.  

Yet, it all sounds like awesome advice to other startup people--i.e. other 25 year olds.  These represent the bulk of the people commenting, retweeting and liking your posts and sending it viral.  They're the ones showing up to the classes you teach.  Sometimes, it's good advice.  A lot of times, it's horribly misguided, but they'll probably never understand why.  

That's because a lot of people don't respect or understand the difference between levels of success.  Really successful rocketship riders are often pretty heads down about it.  There were tons of people early at eBay or Amazon or Google who worked there for 10 years and had a stratospheric ride up into key positions in the company.  They grew with the company and flurished as they learned how to be managers.  They'll probably disagree with a lot of what you said about startup careers, but you'll never hear from them.  

While what you've done feels successful to you because you're at a startup that has gotten a lot of early downloads for a free app, there are other people who are really hitting it out of the park that possess knowledge and insight that you don't have.  Yet, you're out there like you've got it all figured out--you and your PR startegy webinar on how to get covered in Techcrunch while your competitor is getting interviewed on ABC News.

Take this guy, Alex.  Alex writes a blog about giving things up.  It's funny and entertaining--and generally worth reading for fun.  

Alex got fired from his startup job.  Not as funny:

"I joined the company eight months ago when it was just three guys with laptops, and I’d watched it successfully launch, raise $3.7M in funding, and expand from 3 employees to 13—three of which I’d recruited and hired. I was proud of my first 8 months at work. I ran a viral email campaign that signed up a person a minute for the week preceding launch, and then generated a firestorm of media coverage when the product opened for business. Shit, I had just released a new version of our website two days prior that improved on-site conversions by 400%.

What happened?

It’s painfully simple. I excelled at the company’s growth stage because I had a ton of hustle, a lightening fast ability to learn, and the entrepreneurial wherewithal to juggle 30 skills at once. Now, the company had blossomed, hired a new VP of Marketing with twenty-five years experience, and had reached a point where it “needed specialists instead of generalists.”

 

So... the way in which he fell short was that he was so awesome that he helped the company grow to a point where it didn't need him.

This is like when someone asks you for your worst quality and you tell them that you're too much of a perfectionist.

He then goes on to dole out some career wisdom:

"I would go so far as encouraging everyone to get their ass handed to them along with an Employee Termination Letter at least once in their life. It’s an unforgettable feeling, and getting kicked in the gut by the unforgiving boot of unemployment is a beautiful thing. As long as you have the resilience to counter it with a roundhouse kick to the face."

What?  Try to get fired?  Umm...  I don't see how this is good advice at all.  Sure, getting fired isn't the end of the world, but neither is cutting off your left pinky.  You likely won't die from it and you'll likely be able to lead a normal life without a pinky, but that doesn't mean it's a good idea.

"You remember friends, right? Those things you pushed aside in favor of late work nights? You know, something other than your laptop’s blueish hue? I thought I did too—but after getting canned, that view changed.

After that fateful Friday lunch, I immediately started calling friends. Close friends. Old friends. New friends. Friends in high places. Friends in low places. I talked to over 40 people in 4 days. So many were unbelievably willing to help. They readily dispensed advice, made intros, and lent sympathetic ears. It was tremendously humbling"

It better have been humbling.  Who pushes friends aside in favor of work?  I'll tell you who.  Assholes.  Don't be an asshole to your friends, your family, or anyone.  Making time for others and living a balanced life would have made this nugget wholely unnecessary.  

So you only learn to appreciate your friends because now you need their help?  Last I checked, the definition of friends wasn't "people who can help you find a job."  What about what you do for them?  If someone ditched me over the last few years in favor of their job, my first response wouldn't have been to stick my neck out for them.  It would have been to ask, "Dude, where've you been?"

It's sad that it took getting fired for this guy to appreciate his friends.

"Other than being an affable goofball, there was not one thing I was best at in this last company. Our designer is a better designer. Our engineers are better coders. Our CEO is a better marketer. Our Chief of Staff is a better leader. Yes, I was very good at those things, but was I the best at any one of them? No. Painful, but true.

In other words: I was expendable. That phrase “we need specialists instead of generalists,” already haunts me. It will also be the last time I hear those words. Think I’m going to become a master in my next job? Yep. Better fucking believe it."

This is the most humble section in this post, barely.  I'm glad he aims to master a craft in his *next* job, but what he misses out is taking some responsibility for not learning how to do that in *this* job.  And was there absolutely no warning given along the way that he wasn't going to be what the company needed in the future?  Feels hard to believe that this came out of nowhere--with no opportunity given to him to step up into a bigger role.    

The vast number of startup employees at the most successful companies are totally unqualified for their jobs.  Even if they have prior experience, they don't have experience at *this* company at *this* particular moment in technology with *this* particular product.  It's all new to them and the most successful people adopt, learn, change, and grow.  

That didn't happen here and the author never asks why or holds himself accountable for that failure.  Why did he fail to see the need for new skills coming?  Skate to where the puck is going, dude.

With every hiccup I've had in my career, I've tried to make the best of it, of course, but the first question needed to be "Could I have done better?"

I got hired as a two year analyst at Union Square Ventures--as did Andrew Parker after me.  When my time was close to being up and we discussed my next moves as a firm, it just seemed like a normal transition.

When Andrew stayed longer than two years and started sourcing investments--I realized that anything short of surpassing expectations at my job was a failure on my part.  Maybe if I had been better, a transition conversation wouldn't have happened.  Just because it was only supposed to be two years didn't mean it was written in stone.

That's why, when I got hired for a one year stint at First Round to help them build a presence in NYC, I made it a point to say that my goal was to be indespensible.  It was kind of a crazy thing to say when they had plenty of east coast coverage and no partnership positions available.  Instead of one year, I was kept on for a second year and I wound up leading seven investments while I was there.  That wasn't even supposed to have been my job, but it didn't matter.  

Surpassing expectations was my job--and even then, I was still trying to be good enough for them to add on a *fifth* east coast partner.  Of course, it didn't make sense economically, but working on the things that would have made that even a consideration was still in my head.  For example, why didn't *I* find Birchbox before anyone else?  I was at that Internet Week when Katia and Hayley were networking pre-raise.  Who didn't I talk to there that I should have that would have introduced me?  Why wasn't I in Makerbot?  I knew people from NYC Resistor. 

So before you concede that you aren't a fit for something, or that some outside force prevents you from success, try being a bit tougher on yourself.  Resist putting on the spin of a happy post-mortem and be honest with yourself about what you might have been capable of had you done better.  You'll thank yourself later for kicking yourself in the ass instead of patting yourself on the back every time things don't go your way.

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