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Growth hacking. MVPs. Beta-testing. Pivoting. These strategies are now practically clichés — start-up principles that drive almost every high-growth company hitting the market. I’ve experienced them all firsthand in my career, working everywhere from scrappy five-person operations to robotics powerhouses at the cutting edge of AI.
Here’s the thing: Sure, these principles can help businesses. But in key respects, these same tenets can also be used to supercharge your own career — especially at a time when the way we do business is in flux.
The fact is, for many of us, the world of work has been turned on its head during the global health crisis. People have had to switch roles, return to school to reskill or start totally fresh in new markets after a job loss.
This has only accelerated existing trends. In the past, staying at a company for decades wasn’t uncommon; today the average person stays at a job for less than five years. Then there’s the gig economy boom in full swing, and the added impact of digitization and automation on workplace roles. The bottom line is that being able to evolve and adapt is key, during a global crisis and beyond.
With that in mind, here’s how to apply start-up principles to yourself — whether you’re climbing the ladder inside a growing company, looking for a new job or even thinking of blazing your own path as an entrepreneur.
Identify your unfair advantage
In a business sense, start-ups need to have that special something if they’re going to compete with the big, established players. This is something that can’t be bought or copied by competitors. Ali Ash, marketing director at Just Eat, wrote the book on The Unfair Advantage and has documented how the world’s most impressive start-ups have defined their own categories and offered something no one else was providing.
If you look at your own career, the same question applies: what’s your unfair advantage? By leaning into your unique strengths, you’re positioning yourself to offer what no one else can — just as SnapChat put its own unique spin on photo-sharing and Tesla pioneered high-performance electric cars. When you lean into your own personal value proposition, you’re eliminating the competition and setting yourself up to be a monopoly of one.
I was an accounting major in college, a qualification that’s a dime a dozen. But early on in my career, I possessed a willingness to explore new fields and untested companies. Instead of sticking to my lane, I developed a diverse sales background — jumping, for instance, from selling multimillion-dollar software contracts to $9-per-month SaaS subscriptions. Ultimately, that breadth of experience, lateral flexibility and pattern recognition became my unfair advantage.
So how can you isolate and leverage your own unfair advantage? Think about the unique intersections of your passions, training and personal disposition. You may be trained as a lawyer but have a passion for languages and a knack for networking. That’s a combo not everyone can replicate. Once you’ve found your unfair advantage, think like a start-up and leverage it every chance you get. Look for roles and opportunities where you, uniquely, can shine, and don’t be shy about your unique skill set in interviews and networking opportunities.
MVP your next role
Another tenet of start-up philosophy is “minimum viable product”: the idea of testing an early version of a product in the market before investing tons in R&D. By measuring consumer response and iterating, you can either improve the offering or pivot to a new direction — all without spending a lot of time or money.
In a career sense, this means being open to testing the waters for new opportunities, even ones you may not be entirely comfortable with yet. Instead of waiting to be fully “ready” for something (a new career, a new role), be willing to dive in and learn some elements on the go. You may need to scramble, adjust, even backtrack. But — just as in the start-up world — the opportunity cost of not going for it is too big to ignore.
In the middle of my own career, for example, I left business software behind to join a social media company, just years after Twitter started. Though I could see the growth potential was huge, this was a brand-new industry for me. And there was always the chance social media might be just a passing fad. But I put myself out there, acquired skills on the job and grew into the role. (My unfair advantage — curiosity — definitely came in handy.)
So how do you MVP yourself? Understand that no role will ever be perfect, nor will you ever be perfectly positioned to seize it. Exploring lateral roles within your own organization is a great way to test the waters and observe what “sticks” and what doesn’t. Above all, give yourself permission to set aside perfectionism. (I’d go so far as to say you should always feel a bit unqualified for a role.) And don’t be afraid to switch gears or pivot when you need to. Just as in the start-up world, career iteration never ends.
The best businesses, even when they’re all grown up, still think like start-ups. Netflix describes its corporate culture as one that “avoids rules.” That means the company prioritizes innovation, autonomy and risk-taking in everything it does. Rather than resting on its laurels, Netflix is constantly exploring ideas and isn’t averse to disrupting the status quo of its own organization.
That same philosophy can be applied to our own careers. Far too many people fall in love with their product. They put themselves in one category and are unable to evolve beyond that. They get too comfortable — with a role, a company, a city — and stop being curious and pushing themselves. In this process, career prospects are curtailed or short-circuited altogether.
I continue to try to live by this self-disrupting philosophy. Case in point: I recently jumped from almost 20 years in the SaaS space to the world of AI and software-enabled robotics. A more traditional route would have been to stay in my vertical and stick to senior roles in industries I was familiar with. But I would have missed out on a once-in-a-lifetime business opportunity with a robotics company. And more importantly, I would have missed out on a chance to grow personally and professionally.
How do you disrupt yourself? For starters, keep an ear to the rails for the next big thing — technologies or cultural shifts that promise to upend how we live and work. Right now, for instance, automation and AI are opening up brand-new horizons. Continue to push and stay curious, even as you grow more senior in your career. And I’d even go so far as to say you should be downright skeptical of your comfort zone. If you’re not moving forward, you’re bound to go stagnant.
That being said, start-up principles can be taken too far — in business, and in life. “Move fast and break things” doesn’t really work in sensitive industries such as health care, security, even social media. Likewise, in life, adopting “lean start-up principles” shouldn’t be about being flighty or disloyal. If you’re doing it right, you’ll be building the necessary nimbleness to thrive in a shifting terrain, but providing stability and leadership for your team even when things are chaotic.