Summary and Review: The Start-Up of You
Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career
✍️ The Author
This book was written by Reid Hoffman and published in 2012. Hoffman cofounded LinkedIn, currently works as a partner at VC firm Greylock Partners, and is regarded as one of the most successful angel investors in the 21st century.
💡 Thesis of the Book
Every individual is an entrepreneur, because at a minimum, they have their career as a venture. This book makes the argument that we should treat our careers as startups, and apply Silicon Valley principles to them in order to advance in the 21st century job landscape.
💭 My Thoughts
I first read this book during my junior year of undergraduate study, and it was instrumental in my pivot from chemical engineering to data science. Both my career strategy and trajectory experienced an inflection point shortly after reading this book. The principles and strategies conveyed by Hoffman are simple to understand but profound when implemented, and I continue to incorporate them in my game theoretic approach to career. My main takeaway is to manage your career like an entrepreneur manages a successful startup, meaning your “career venture” should follow a broad vision, be highly adaptable, create a competitive advantage, leverage network intelligence, involve risky but intelligent moves, take advantage of breakout opportunities, and continuously iterate in the face of market realities.
📕 Chapter Summaries
All Humans Are Entrepreneurs
Entrepreneurship is a concept that extends well beyond companies and businesses. It’s a mode of risk-taking, iterating, networking, and strategizing. The forces of competition that give rise to entrepreneurship manifest for both companies and individuals. Every individual is an entrepreneur of sorts, because at a minimum they have their career as a venture. This book makes the argument that we should treat our careers as startups, and apply Silicon Valley principles to them in order to advance in the 21st century job landscape. For companies and workers, the market conditions are shifting rapidly, and to stay adaptable, both must maintain a mindset of continuous, feedback-based iteration, a mode known as “permanent beta”. In the 20th century, careers were very linear, where time spent in a role or industry was the primary lever for career advancement. Now, if you are not in permanent beta, 20 years of experience is just 20 repetitions of a single year of experience, and that won’t get you far. If your value proposition does not fit a market, your career will collapse just like a company would. To cultivate a meaningful career, it’s time to become the startup of you.
Develop a Competitive Advantage
Startups thrive when they have a competitive advantage, and fail when they don’t. Our careers are no different. As a worker, you need a competitive advantage, a unique value proposition, that makes you more valuable than other job candidates. Competitive advantage is comprised of three pieces: assets, aspirations, and market realities. Your soft asset mix is your unique combination of skills, relationships, and strengths, and its what distinguishes you. Your hard assets (cash, investments, physical items, etc.) define the level of risk you can take on (with more money, you can afford more risk). Aspirations provide alignment towards higher order goals, where pursuit of those goals gives birth to passion and endless motivation. People who pursue aspirations tend to outwork those who pursue money. Market realities define the value of your soft asset mix for a particular role and industry. These three pieces change over time, which is why it is crucial to be adaptable. Just because you have competitive advantage now, does not mean you will in 5 years. Grow your assets in alignment with your aspirations and with the market realities in mind.
Plan to Adapt
Traditional career advice, inspired by Richard Bolles’ “What Color is Your Parachute”, is to identify a pre-existing passion, sketch out an elaborate long-term plan to cultivate a career surrounding that passion, and then execute that plan. This advice simply does not work in the rapidly changing economic landscape of the 21st century. Long-term planning is counterproductive because it restricts your career path, limits career adaptability, and involves predicting a future that is too far away. Instead, you should think like a startup and have both an overarching vision and flexibility to adapt to market conditions. The planning framework that startups follow is ABZ planning, where there is a Plan A, a Plan B, and a Plan Z. Plan A is your current competitive advantage; Plan B is your set of pivot options; Plan Z is a safety net that catches you if everything goes wrong and you need to regroup and make a new Plan A. These plans change over time because the pieces of competitive advantage are dynamic. The benefits of this planning framework are it puts you in a permanent state of planning, allows for both vision and flexibility, and enables you to engage in a trial-and-error approach to career, where you test a role or industry, gather feedback on how it fits with your competitive advantage, and make the next move based on that feedback. Long-term planning does not utilize feedback or account for major changes in your assets, your aspirations, or the market realities, whereas short-term planning uses quick feedback-based iteration to adapt to these changing pieces.
It Takes a Network
Both the individual and the network are relevant. To grasp this idea, think of an individual’s capabailities as scaled exponentially by that individual’s network. To foster a good network, focus on quality over quantity, which means striking a balance between alliances and weak ties. Allies are very close relationships with people you consult regularly, share opportunities with, and make sacrifices for. Weak ties are people you don’t interact with regularly, but know well enough to schedule a chat with for intel, opportunities, or informal conversation. Studies show that most career opportunities come via weak ties, since alliances tend to be redundant and rare while weak ties cast a broader net that touches many industries, companies, and disciplines. It is important to focus on diversifying your weak ties and maintaining depth in your connections. Also, remember that your network is bigger than the people you directly know. It includes their networks as well. Each person is a bridge into their network, so be sure to leverage 2nd and 3rd degree connections when applicable. Lastly, relationship-building should be fun, so if it feels like a chore, you are doing it wrong.
Pursue Breakout Opportunities
Startups and careers don’t grow gradually. They experience sharp spikes in growth brought on by breakout opportunities, which are opportunities that significantly increase one’s competitive advantage. Luck plays a profound role in these kinds of events, but you can control how likely you are to get lucky. This is the premise of serendipity, which is the idea that you can do things to increase the likelihood of good fortune. So be active, stay in motion, meet people, learn, and when fortune gives you a breakout opportunity, pursue it. This is how real professional growth happens.
Take Intelligent Risks
When it comes to careers, risk is the downside consequences of a decision and their likelihood of occurring. It might seem intuitive to make decisions that minimize risk, but this is actually a bad strategy in the long-term. Confused? This is the essence of the Volatility Paradox, which states that low volatility systems are less stable in the long run because they are not resilient to disruptive shocks, which inevitably will happen. Stress tests are vital for the sustainability of a company, just as they are for careers as well. The paradox of this idea is that high short-term risk leads to low long-term risk, so injecting volatility into your career is an inoculation against career-disrupting events. In order to pursue breakout opportunities and expand your competitive advantage, you have to take intelligent risks, not avoid risk all together. Intelligent risks are calculated moves. They inject the volatility in your career needed for its resilience but in a way that won’t destroy your career in the worst-case scenario. The potential upside should be high, and the downside should be tolerable. There will naturally be a lot of uncertainty in these moves, so don’t shy away from uncertainty. The best opportunites are often born out of moves with uncertain outcomes.
Who You Know is What You Know
There is an entire body of information stored in your network. Similar to how startups use non-public business intelligence to inform their decision-making, learning to tap into network intelligence offers a competitive advantage. If searching through public repositories for career insights were 2D chess, network intelligence is 3D chess, the advanced game. The ability to process information existing in your network is called network literacy, and becoming network literate will offer profound career benefits including access to non-public information, advice personalized to your situation, and network filters that pinpoint signal in public information. Building a network for the purpose of gathering intel is like placing sensors in various industries, companies, and disciplines, so it is best to diversify the location of your sensors. Access to sensors in every sector, company type, and job level feeding you streams of information lets you build a complete picture. When conversing with people in your network, remember to engage in back-and-forth conversation rather than interview-style, be targeted with your questions, and dig deeper into their responses.