The Economic Case For A Nontraditional Career Path

For many young people, law school or a job in finance seems like a safe bet. In his new book, Smart People Should Build Things, Venture for America founder Andrew Yang argues that the economic potential of individuals and America alike instead relies on risk takers who choose a different path.

Who was the eighth employee at Google back in 1999?

I don’t know either; I tried to Google it and couldn’t find out. But I’m pretty confident that the eighth employee joined before the company was cool, built some amazing things, and had an incredible experience--and is now loaded.

Google is perhaps the most important and influential company in the country today. But most people can only name its founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and maybe its former CEO Eric Schmidt. Same thing with Amazon and Jeff Bezos, Apple and Steve Jobs or Tim Cook, or Starbucks and Howard Schultz. We have a very human tendency to associate large organizations with their leaders, particularly if, as in the cases above, the leader is also the founder. It makes the narrative easy. You can show a picture of the person, interview him or her, and ask for lessons learned. This also shapes people’s aspirations; hundreds of books and classes on entrepreneurship exist to teach us how we can be a bit more like these visionary leaders. It’s as if Howard is actually running around and opening all of those Starbucks branches in our neighborhoods.

But with every growth company story, there’s a whole team of capable, talented, motivated people who have worked for years to make it happen and whose lives have been transformed as a result. It’s not just the founder--it’s the people who have been a part of the organization throughout its progression. If a company happens to go on to become a household name, as in the cases above, you typically have dozens or hundreds of early employees who have their careers defined by it.

The vast majority of companies don’t go public and mint dozens of millionaires. And most companies don’t go around doling out stock options; private companies tend to be very tight about ownership. But the same collective transformation is true on a lesser scale with any growth company that makes headway. At Manhattan GMAT, Danielle Diciaccio started straight out of college in 2006 as an entry-level hire and now runs a whole department. It’s very different being a director at a $20 million company from working at a $2 million company--imagine seeing and making that happen throughout your twenties. Moreover, you’d know and trust the people you’re working with because you’ve been a part of the team that built the enterprise to that level.

Sounds great, right? You’re thinking, Sign me up! The trick is that by the time it’s evident that a company is going to take off, it’s often too late to be a big part of the team. If I joined Google today as employee number 53,862, no one would care. But back in the day, Google was no sure thing. Larry and Sergey even offered to sell Google to Excite in 1999 for $1 million, which Excite’s CEO turned down at the time (to his eternal regret).

So it’s a bit of a bet. You want to join a team before it’s cool and hope that the company takes off. If it does, you could have yourself a very good run. You could even wind up being the difference between the company taking off and languishing on a small scale. Maybe you will attain a position of real responsibility--maybe it even gives you a career. If it doesn’t work out, you almost certainly will have developed some skills that will make you a contributor for the next thing.

These people--the builders who work with the founders to help these companies grow and prosper--are, in many ways, more appropriate role models. The plan should not be, for the most part, “start a company.” More realistically, the plan should be “join a team.” If you’re positioned to start your own organization, that’s great--but rare. You’ve got an unusual profile.

If you join a growth organization, you’ll likely do different things in different roles throughout your career. It’s excellent to learn and build with others. You’ll meet people you want to work with. If you have a good run, you can always come back and start something later. For example, Alexis Maybank worked at eBay with Jeff Skoll for years. She launched and ran eBay Canada and helped start eBay Motors. Years later, she went on to cofound Gilt Groupe, a major e-commerce company that makes my wife and many others happy.

And it’s not just coders and engineers that these new companies need. Just about any growth company is going to need smart salespeople, account and project managers, business development, marketing, operations, customer service, content creation, communications, analytics, and social media. If I told you that there’s a startup company in New York founded in 2005 that has grown to over $1 billion in revenue with over 1,000 employees, you would probably think it must be a tech or finance company. But it’s not. It’s yogurt maker Chobani, founded by Hamdi Ulukaya, a Turkish immigrant who bought a defunct yogurt plant in New Berlin, New York, in 2005. Now it’s the top-selling yogurt in the country (and quite tasty). I’m sure the eighth employee at Chobani is also having a pretty good run.

Make no mistake--it’s not easy to find or pick a good team or early-stage company to join. Even professional investors mess this up all the time and they’re looking at dozens of companies for a living. You hope to find an outfit with experienced, high-character, capable leaders. As we’ve seen, even if everything is in place most companies will not achieve their goals. Have confidence that if the company doesn’t work out, you will take lessons from the experience and apply them to your next endeavor, giving it a much greater chance for success. People can grow from adversity as much as they do from prosperity.

When the tech bubble burst in 2001, virtually everyone I knew lost his job as companies flamed out right and left--mine included. Some people did something totally random to pay the bills for a while as the smoke cleared (like teach the GMAT). But most everyone bounced back. My friend Robin worked for a company that went under; then he went corporate for a little while, and then years later he started a company that was acquired by Zynga. My friend Brian, who worked with me at Stargiving, also went corporate briefly and later became an independent film producer who produced a successful documentary on a then obscure college basketball player named Jeremy Lin. Another friend whose business went under, Matt, became the cofounder of a tech company called Videolicious that’s funded by Amazon.

We’d all gotten in the habit of building things. Sometimes you’re the founder, sometimes you’re a team member, and sometimes you’re just in the vicinity and scheming. But once you become a builder, it’s hard to let go.

--From Smart People Should Build Things by Andrew Yang. Copyright 2014 by Andrew Yang. Reprinted courtesy of Harper Business, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

[Image: Flickr user Nikola Ostrun]

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4 Comments

  • Tracey Garet

    just a short, why are you interested in number 8, ( the eighth employee), is there anything mathematical concept or just to prove the point you made saying that people try to remember team leaders and forgetting the team as a whole. http://traceygaretposturebrace.com

  • Nitzan Mor-Sarid

    I'm not exactly sure, in what way is this an economic case for nontraditional career paths? If most of the companies/teams fizzle out, won't it be better, economically speaking, to go corporate?