In 2019, Netflix was nominated for over 20 Oscars. It was an incredible achievement made more incredible by the fact that it was never even part of their original vision. The most successful tech companies today bare little resemblance to their founding vision. It’s not news that Netflix rose to crush Blockbuster on the premise of direct to consumer convenience. What’s most fascinating is that the key advantage which gave Netflix the critical leg-up (mail-direct without brick and mortar) now has nothing to do with their business model. Netflix went from dominating Blockbuster as a movie rental service to defining an entirely new industry as a content streaming service to competing with HBO and Disney as a top-tier production studio.
Netflix could have easily confined themselves within the limits of "movie rental business", but after pivoting toward opportunity they were able to successfully expand their vision to simply "movie business". Startups like Netflix begin against insane odds, but what enables them to challenge massive, established organizations and rise above their peers in any market is their ability to innovate and pivot fast. They dream big, and they let those dreams evolve with every pivot.
"Startup" has become a fairly elastic term. There are a number of different ways to categorize a startup. Employee count, rounds of funding, annual revenue, valuation, risk profile, years since founding, the list goes on. A company can be considered a startup by one measure, but no longer a startup by other measures. Generally when the term is used, the connotation denotes an exciting company culture, disruptive products or services, and fast growth. Most of all, it denotes how the business operates. Startups think much differently than mature corporations and there are a few things startups are known to do far better: Innovating, growing and solving problems. These abilities are the root of potential in a startup. Increasingly, the same is true for an individual.
Diversity is critical to the Amazon Rain Forest's ecosystem. It is also critical in a stock portfolio, and even on a team of individuals. Darwin's theory of "survival of the fittest" applies to a species in the wild, as well as a business in a market and an individual within a business. There are countless universal truths that apply as patterns to all facets of growth and life. It's easy to understand how "survival of the fittest" could apply to both a startup and an individual and it's not unreasonable to suggest that any principle which applies to the growth of a startup can also be applied to your growth as an individual. In other words, if a set of principles exists for growing and solving problems within a startup, then such principles can also be applied by a young professional navigating their career.
“Startup” is a way of thinking. There are countless studies that attempt to explain the recipe for success among startups. Not all startups are created equal but the successful ones often have something in common - the way in which they approach growth and problem solving. The modern young professional gets ahead by applying these startup principles to their 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. As we’ve discussed, the talent market has changed dramatically in recent years and continues to evolve still. Career success cannot come with an aversion to change, so the modern young professional must learn how to lean into change.
Take risks. It stands to reason that "playing it safe" is a reliable strategy for mediocrity. 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 to 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.
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 and show their value with meaningful data insights is a super power. They 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 useful for its end point. It must remain an evolving blueprint. The successful young professional knows their end goal, and 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. 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.
Stay solving 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 solves 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.
As you're starting your career remember, solutions don't follow money - money follows solutions. A sales driven organization has its limits. The teams that rise above are more often than not the teams who are obsessed with the problem they are solving and the customers they are serving. The same is true for you. Money follows passion, and not always the other way around. Bill Gates has said you have the highest probability of succeeding at what you loved doing in high school. Any passion or interest you have is an industry. Let that be your guiding compass. When you find yourself studying and reading up on "work stuff" for fun in your spare time, that's a great indicator that you're set on a course for success.
If financial growth is important to you it might feel absurd to accept the 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 you're far more likely to add value when you are interested in the work you're doing. Your brand is far more likely to shine when you're excited to dive into your work. When you add value and your brand shines, the money will always follow. Opportunity will always present itself. Find the job 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, don't torture yourself to get there.
Lastly and most importantly, dream big. Form a huge vision, and let that vision evolve as you grow and pivot. Like Netflix, your end point might bear little resemblance to your founding vision, but great things lie ahead if you seek work you enjoy, work hard, and think like a startup.
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