There are few things more synonymous with fast growth and problem solving than startups. If their goal is to grow fast and solve problems in today’s career landscape, a young professional really has to view themselves as a startup. “Startup” has become an elusive term, but I think most of all it represents a way of thinking. Thinking about yourself more like a startup provides a mental model for viewing your career through a lens of the problems and solutions that will propel you to success. It offers a modern approach to engineering a career that allow you to do what you truly love in today's crazy career landscape.
Here are a few startup principles to apply as you navigate your own career:
Embrace change. At a fast growth startup, it can feel like a completely different company month over month. Change is the only constant because growth is change. The nature of work has changed exponentially and continues to evolve still. Entirely new job titles appear seemingly every year. Career success cannot come with an aversion to change, so the modern young professional must learn how to lean into change and leverage the opportunity that comes from it.
Take risks. "Playing it safe" is a reliable strategy for stagnation. Proven solutions are easy to replicate, but that means they are easy for everyone to replicate. This is why startups tend to buck best practices and do things their own way. They think outside of the box. You can’t do it better than the competition if your plan is to copy what they’re doing. The same is true for an individual. All too often we look for "career paths" in terms of following the steps that are already laid out for us. Early career success comes to those who question best practices and stick their neck out when they believe they can find a better way. The modern young professional surges ahead of their peers when they see their career as something to be discovered rather than tracing along the lines everyone else can see.
Make data driven decisions. Data has become humanity’s sixth sense. It is the best tool to understand problems and identify opportunities. The successful young professional is either moderately data literate, or taking steps to get there. No matter what their field, the ability to support their ideas at work and show their value with meaningful data insights is a super power. They also constantly research salary data for their field to inform their salary negotiations and audit their current salary against the market.
Learn from failure. Taking risks isn’t only valuable when they pan out. Sometimes the most valuable lessons leading to success for a startup come from past failures. The successful young professional asks for feedback after failed interviews, and reviews notes to improve for the next one. They see rejection and failure as an education.
Adapt. Every startup knows things don’t go as planned. A good plan is quite useful to get started, but it is not actually useful for its end point. It must remain an evolving blueprint. The successful young professional has an end goal, but is constantly adjusting their understanding of how to get there as they learn new information. They are even open to changing their end goal as they grow and gain a deeper understanding of the options in front of them. They dream big, and pivot often as opportunity presents itself.
Maintain a sense of purpose. Always draw a connection to the big picture with everything you do. Not surprisingly, a common point of study around startup success is purpose. The engagement and passion for the mission at hand that inspires long hours and intense focus from employees, all who are focused on the end goal. The successful young professional falls in love with the pursuit of their end goal. They find motivation and passion in the vision they carry, but don’t expect to reach it overnight. They enjoy the challenge and struggle of each step toward it and they know how to celebrate small wins along the way.
Push through ambiguity. The right answer isn't always clear. Often progress is a matter of seeking the best answer, not the right answer. The more we understand about our environment, the more we are required to see things through multiple lenses at once. What is true through the microscope may not also be true through your reading glasses or through the telescope. Technology simplifies, but it also complicates our lives. The pace of change around us is exponential. The young professional has to learn to embrace ambiguity and look through the lens that best suits their question. They must be able to navigate scenarios that are both true and false, both positive and negative simultaneously.
Solve problems. People pay for solutions to their problems. They seek the company or the individual who adds value. As an individual, a problem is only as big as you are small. When a problem feels too big, it's just a trigger for you to grow bigger. Get creative. The one who avoids problems may be comfortable, but the one who pursues tough problems is growing. The one who solves problems is adding value, not just to their own lives but to the lives of those around them.
Be customer obsessed. As you're starting your career remember, solutions don't follow money - money follows solutions. A sales driven organization has its limits. The startups that rise above are more often than not the product-led teams who are obsessed with the problem they are solving and the customers they are serving. Once value is created for the customer, money follows. The same is true for you. Your boss, your peers, your cross-functional partners, they are all your customers. The company interviewing you for your next job and offering a 40% pay increase is another customer competing for the value you create.
Build a brand. If financial growth is important to you it might feel absurd to accept a job that pays less now just because it's more interesting work. The truth is, taking the more interesting job now could lead to far greater rewards down the road. You are a startup, and your brand is far more likely to shine when you're excited to talk about your work with others. When your brand shines, opportunity will always present itself. Find the job in a field that you think about with excitement in your off-hours. Find the ladder you will enjoy climbing. Fall in love with the PURSUIT of your end goals and let that passion and joy be your brand. Use it to build meaningful relationships. Share with others as you learn and grow and let yourself be known and heard for the contributions you make to your field.
Lastly and most importantly, dream big. Form a huge vision, and let that vision evolve as you grow and pivot. Netflix started with DVD rentals, and since then they’ve created an entire new category for consuming content (streaming) and they’ve become an Oscar winning production studio. Like Netflix, your career end point might bear little resemblance to your founding vision, but great things lie ahead if you dream big, and think like a startup.