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Sep 25, 2017
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Run Your Career Like a Startup

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Successful startups aren’t accidents. They’re the end result of well-executed growth processes.

Successful careers aren’t accidents. They require the same dedication to methodical growth.

As said by that great sage, Jay-Z: you’re a business, man.

You’re constantly testing & learning to discover your strengths. You have income and expenses. You can leverage debt intelligently or be destroyed by it. You focus to create growth, and diversify to create stability.

Many of the rules of startup growth also apply to building your career.

I’ve been running my career like a startup for years. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned.

Start with inbound.

If you’re building a company, you need people to know what you do. The same is true for your career. And the best way to help people understand what you do is to write about it — that’s inbound 101.

Your beliefs may change over time, and that’s okay. You’ll probably look back at your early work and be embarrassed by it, and that’s ok too. My early blog articles were terrible, but I learned a ton through the process.

Don’t be afraid of the judgement of your zero subscribers.

Start answering questions now.

Share what you know.

Share what you think.

Share what you don’t know.

Believe it or not, others are looking for the same information. If you’re the one to share it first, you become the go-to — the expert.

Another reason to focus on a teaching mindset is that it helps you improve your thinking and refine against possible objections. Teaching marketing at Harvard and having my students ask “stupid” questions I hadn’t thought about has been invaluable in sharpening my thinking. You get the same benefits from getting your thinking into the world.

Don’t be afraid of free.

Freemium has become an incredibly popular pricing strategy for startups over the past few years. For buyers, it allows them to test a product without making a big, up-front investment. For startups, it’s essentially placing a bet that a certain number of companies using their product for free today, will grow and therefore, expand the need for said product.

The lesson for “career of you” is this — don’t charge for everything. If what you’re doing adds value, you’ll see your payday.

It’s popular today to denounce doing work for free. And it is true that you should value your talents and abilities enough to charge for them, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a time and a place for free.

My #1 piece of career advice is this: do favors.

There’s a subtle distinction between doing free work/letting yourself be taken advantage of and doing favors for people. Free work is when you do something “for experience.” If you want experience in something and have the skills — you should charge for it. A favor is when you do something because you genuinely want to help out and/or enjoy the work.

I’ve built my career on favors.

Call it karma or call it internal political leverage — helping others without expectation of immediate reciprocity is a good growth strategy.

Outperforming your peers is great, but out-helping them can be just as powerful in a world where professional roles are becoming less and less clearly defined.

Find skill/career fit.

We are living in the hey-day of career switching. Just remember that as you seek out your best career, the roles of minimum viable product (MVP) still apply…in this case, we’ll just call it minimum viable professions ?

Bottom line with MVPs: what’s the minimum amount of work needed to test if a profession might be right for you? For example:

  • Do you need to quit your job and take an 8 week coding bootcamp to figure out if you’d enjoy engineering? Or could you start by buying an engineer coffee and learning about their career path?
  • Do you need to move to Silicon Valley to see if you can make it in the tech industry? Or can you test your hypothesis in a less costly locale?
  • Do you need to back to school to study marketing? Or could you find a small business that needs some extra help and test your chops first?

Your two best resources for testing an MVP are interviews and free learning resources. Both of these resources exist in abundance. Use them.

Know your ideal customer.

Fast growing startups have a crystal clear idea of the kind of customers that get the most value out of what they’re building. You should follow their lead. There’s a tactic called “Account Based Marketing” that’s perfect for this and it works for anyone, whether or not you have a ton of experience to back you up.

Prior to joining HubSpot, I was a college dropout with negligible experience. HubSpot was my dream company and I knew I could add a ton of value to a company in its early stages of growth, but there was no way they were going to hire me based on my resume.

So I created a marketing campaign specifically targeting HubSpot. It was complete with a website (, ads targeting HubSpot employees, and a lead-gen offer. I actually managed to capture leads from about 30% of the company! And obviously it worked, because…here I am 🙂

I didn’t know it at the time, but what I did was account based marketing. I had a very short list of companies (in my case just one), in mind that I wanted to work for, and I created campaigns customized for them.

Don’t wait for opportunities to come to you — create a target list of opportunities you think might be a fit for your goals and go after them.

At every point in your career, you should have an idea of what opportunities you want and go after them. Do not wait to be given what you’ve “earned”. Tell your manager what internal roles you want to work towards. Hell, tell your manager what external roles you want to work towards! Like a high-growth startup, it’s up to you to know the companies and opportunities where you can add the most value.

Learn how to use feedback.

In startup land, customer feedback is gold. The best companies have product teams that regularly meet with customers, understand how to interpret the unspoken pain points behind customer feedback, and can turn those learnings into a product roadmap.

In a career, this means treating your boss like your customer. You want to give excellent customer service, which means continually seeking feedback. Without that feedback, you can’t improve. As you begin to think of your manager as your customer, remember Henry Ford’s famous quote:

“If I had asked my customers what they wanted they would have said a faster horse.”

Obviously Henry Ford didn’t found the Ford Horse Breeding company. He understood the true job-to-be-done that his customers wanted from horses. Many of the best, most disruptive startups (and careers) have come from understanding that the current solution customers were using to do their job-to-be-done could be done better. In other words, don’t rely on your boss to tell you the best way to solve a problem.

Be bold. Seek out faster, more efficient ways to get the same (or better) results for your boss. Keep your eye out for pockets of opportunity your company is overlooking. Automate yourself out of a job.

Whatever you do, don’t wait around for someone to tell you how to achieve results for your company. Get out there, talk to people, gather data, and find the most valuable jobs-to-be-done.

Plan for disruption.

At some point in your business career, someone else will come along with something better.

Taxis were all the rage until Uber.

Blockbuster made movie nights special until Netflix.

And careers aren’t magically safer from disruption, for example, did you know that “computer” used to be a job title?!

You probably won’t know disruption iscoming, but that doesn’t mean you have to be blindsided. Early prep for disruption can help you weather the storm.

Your first line of defense is to make sure there’s not a single crack in the market share for someone to creep through. That means constantly researching what companies need and how you can fill those needs. Pay attention to trends in your industry as well as broader trends in technology that could impact your work.

For example, we should all be paying close attention right now to artificial intelligence and its potential to disrupt thousands of careers and entire industries.

Find your extendable core.

A core strategy in a startup surviving disruption is to identify and focus on their “extendable cores”. Coined by Clay Christensen and Max Wessel, this term refers to something that a disruptor could not replicate without adopting the same cost-structure.

For example, while I have stayed in many Airbnbs I have yet to speak at a conference hosted by one. There is simply no current way for Airbnb to accomodate the jobs-to-be-done that conferences hire for without adopting the same cost structure as the Marriott (space, A/V, catering, support staff, security, etc.). Because of this, even if Marriott may lose some business to Airbnb as hotel guests defect to that platform, they’re unlikely to be disrupted in their extendable core with event conferences.

The same applies to our careers. There are almost always lower-cost substitutes for the work that we do — don’t get sucked into a price war. An extendable core in your career is what you bring to the table that others can’t bring without having the same kind of background.

Years of experience can’t be beat by an MBA.

A bootcamp is no competition for a strong GitHub repository.

Deep expertise in a specific industry is tough to replicate.

What is the extendable core you have that even the fanciest disruptors couldn’t replicate without investing the same time and energy that you have invested?

Manage “employee” happiness.

Building a high-growth company always comes with periods of excessive work, disappointment, and adversity. Good founders are aware of the potential for these rough patches to turn into burn out, and they pay close to the impact on employee happiness.

You should do the same.

When you are the business, your entire business model relies on a single, limited resource, and that resource needs to be protected. It can take years to recover from burn out.

The ethos of our time tells us to always work harder, struggle more, hustle hustle hustle — but none of that matters if you consume the one resource you can never get more of: You.

By Sam Mallikarjunan

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