All Commentary
Sunday, August 7, 2016

You Are a Tech Startup

Approaching your professional endeavors with that mindset will save time and help you succeed faster.

If you’ve never been exposed to the tech startup world, you’re missing out. Rooms full of seemingly-crazy entrepreneurs with big ideas, all trying to create something new and bring it to market. A majority will fail, at least on their current ventures.

Most of them aren’t yet sure exactly what people are looking for, but they’re figuring out the details as they go. Even those who do understand what people want probably aren’t sure how to create it. But these heroic value-creators have ideas and are determined to bring them to life.

Everything I just described about tech startups applies to you, individually, especially if you’re looking for a job, are just getting started on a career, or are changing careers. Your product, the one you’re trying to bring to market, is called an employee. Here are some best practices from the tech startup world that could help you on your way to starting a great career.

Don’t try to do it alone.

I’ve encountered far too many job searchers and young professionals who think that because you’re hired as an individual, that your preparation must be done as an individual. Tech entrepreneurs know better. Success requires a vast support network of capital suppliers, mentors, industry partners, legal experts, etc.

You probably have an idea about what employers are looking for but have you really investigated it?

You are no different. You should actively cultivate a network of people who have an interest in your eventual success. Don’t be afraid to ask friends to give you mock job interviews or to stay in touch with college professors. Talk to people on the train and if you meet someone who could help you later, get their business card. You might be able to help them too.

Your resume is the equivalent to the pitch slide deck of a tech entrepreneur and, like the tech entrepreneur, you should spend hours agonizing over the details and present your resume to dozens of people for feedback prior to making the pitch. If you are a university student, your school almost certainly has some incredible resources and access to a vast network of people who will bend over backward to help you.

Customer discovery is critical.

You probably have an idea about what employers are looking for but have you really investigated it? How many data points did you use to develop that idea? You probably had advice from family members, a high school guidance counselor, and maybe a few articles on the internet. Yeah, that’s not going to cut it.

Startups in the VentureLab incubator program at Georgia Tech have to get out of the office and conduct a minimum of 100 interviews with potential customers. That’s what it takes to understand the market you want to go into. If you haven’t done that kind of research, you probably don’t know what employers are actually looking for and there’s a good chance you’re operating on bad assumptions.

Approach your customer discovery systematically. Write down a list of critical assumptions about the market for your current product. Treat these as hypotheses and gather evidence to confirm or refute them through informational interviews and online research. You may be assuming that a college degree is a critical feature for customers in your target market. If it’s not, that’s something you want to know. Maybe your target customers demand a feature you’re unwilling to incorporate, like long hours or constant travel. Knowing what your prospective customers want is critical to establishing what’s known as a product-market fit.

Establish product-market fit.

A product-market fit is a lot more than having an idea that you think people want. You don’t have a product-market fit until you have a demonstrable and repeatable way of producing something that people will pay for in real life. Customer discovery is part of the process. So is R&D, marketing, financing, and every other aspect of your startup.

A lot has been written about the subject, but the way you get to a product-market fit in the job market is through an iterative process of refining both your understanding of the job market and the capabilities you bring to the table as an employee. One tool that can help you keep all your evolving hypotheses organized and complete is called the Business Model Canvas.

The sections of the BMC start on the left with those aspects of the operation that are most behind-the-scenes and become increasingly customer-focused (or employer-focused) as you move to the right. The value proposition is where your capabilities and your customer’s needs collide. If you still have a clear value proposition after dozens of iterative improvements to your plan and your understanding of your customers, chances are that you’re close to a good product-market fit.

Failure isn’t bad, but slow failures can be.

If your value proposition becomes more tenuous the more you improve your hypotheses, you may want to pivot by radically rethinking the kind of employee you want to be or the kind of employer you want to work for. Pivoting can be hard, especially if you’ve planned for years for a certain type of career or if you realize that some of the skills you’ve gained or experiences you’ve had aren’t valuable in the market.

Although pivoting can be challenging, it’s absolutely essential if you don’t have a good product-market fit. Insisting on using skills you’ve acquired that aren’t valued in the market will only delay your eventual failure and necessary repositioning.

Fail quickly.

It’s an unfortunate aspect of our culture that failure is seen as something bad when growth is impossible without it. Failure isn’t bad, but slow failures can be. Any R&D manager can tell you about the importance of failing quickly so new lessons can be incorporated faster and scarce resources aren’t tied up in projects that won’t pan out. Every resume that gets rejected, every job interview that doesn’t pan out, and even every termination from a job, is a vital part of your own personal R&D efforts. The faster these failures happen, the better.

The feedback you get from a termination is some of the most valuable in existence.Each failure gives you information that you can use to refine your product-market fit. If your resume was rejected, why? Are you applying to the wrong kinds of employers? Is there a typo on your resume? Maybe they place a high value on employee referrals and you should try to network with people in the company. If you were turned down after a job interview, ask for feedback so you can improve. Many hiring managers won’t give feedback, but many will and that feedback is invaluable.

Being terminated from a job is never fun, but the only thing worse than getting fired from a job that wasn’t a good fit is spending one more minute there and failing even more slowly. That minute will be much more valuable to you if you spend it refining your product offering and developing a better product market fit.

The feedback you get from a termination is some of the most valuable in existence. It’s as if a customer returned your prototype to you with detailed information about why it wasn’t what they needed. Many businesses pay large sums of money for that kind of market insight and you’re getting it for free. So learn from it, maintain a focus on the customer, change something, and move forward.

In conclusion, never forget that you are an entrepreneur, the proprietor of “You, Inc.,” whether you have one steady customer or thousands. Continuously learn about your customers and if their needs change, change your product offering. Find partners who will have a stake in your eventual success. Perhaps most importantly, treat failure as a valuable learning experience and fail as quickly as possible so you can invest your time and resources in ways that will be more successful.

  • Max is a PhD student at Georgia Tech studying nuclear engineering and was a content intern at FEE. His research interests include fusion reactor dynamics, technology commercialization, and the future of energy policy.