Tag Archives: personal branding

Career Paths, Personal Missions, and Concentric Circles of Impact

Often, people ask me for career advice or how I got to where I am, or more tactically if they should advise companies, invest in companies, start a company or become an executive or whatever. My first instinct is to say, “Why would you ask me? You certainly don’t want to follow any of the steps I took!” To try to make my advice more actionable than that, I thought I’d document some of the key decisions I went through to make a signal out of my career noise.

My career choices have been somewhat unconventional from the outside. I graduated summa cum laude in undergrad to just take an internship at Apartments.com. I joined a 15 person startup to start a marketing team at 25. To say I was unprepared is an understatement. After building up a team and growing Grubhub over five and a half years into a public company, I took an IC role at Pinterest, instead of many executive offers. After three years there, where we tripled the user base and unlocked international, I then decided to… hang out at a venture capital firm. Then started an advising business. Now, I’m a Chief Product Officer at Eventbrite, a public company.

No one would draw up a career path this way, but I focused on learning potential at pretty much the cost of anything else, and it’s served me well. What a lot of young people don’t understand is that if you bet on increasing your learning potential, your earning potential compounds over time. The money will be there if you gather differentiated skills the market values (my knowledge of obscure electronic music, for some reason, is not one of those skills the market values).

This advice is fairly easy applicable and, I think, well understood by a lot of people. If you are making a choice between learning and earning, the former will almost always make sense not only from a happiness perspective, but also from a financial perspective long-term. I want to talk about what happens after you self-actualize in this direction.

Let’s say you’ve spent a decade plus collecting valuable skills, applying them in interesting ways, and you are differentiated on the market. Problem solved, right? You’ll never have to worry about a job. You’ll have all these opportunities. Well, not really. They say in startups the problems never get easier; they just change to different problems. I think optimizing your career is the same way. What people don’t tell you is if you optimize for learning, there are fewer and fewer jobs where you can mix all that you’ve learned together. And that you actually have to pick amongst many competitive opportunities. Not picking or not leveraging all your skills can leave you unfulfilled, like you’re not at peak potential, or lead to some of your skills atrophying from lack of use.

As someone who went through this issue after Pinterest, I did some deep reflection on what makes me feel fulfilled on a path to a personal mission. I’ll share that mission as perhaps a useful example, but yours will almost certainly be very different, or even optimize on different attributes like industry, problem type, relationships, etc. After reflecting on what I liked and didn’t like at all the different companies I worked for or with, I realized I really enjoy problem solving. Specifically, figuring out problems related to building businesses and ensuring those solutions can be shared with others. Now, those solutions aren’t growth hacks or tips and tricks, but generalizable frameworks that can be wielded in the appropriate situations. I eventually landed on a personal mission of discovering and scaling the best practices of building companies.

What I found from my advising work is that the best practices of building companies are very unevenly distributed. And it isn’t that one company has all of them and isn’t sharing. It’s that companies are good at different things, and there isn’t even cross-pollination of these best practices so that every company gets better at operating. In fact, I’d say most companies in Silicon Valley in aggregate operate poorly. It’s a weird paradox that the best performing companies are some of the most poorly run, because they can be. As Rick James might say, product/market fit is a hell of a drug.

Like finding product/market fit for a company implies a product people value and a way to make money at it and scalably distribute it, the next question comes in how to deploy this personal mission. I played around with almost every model: full-time employment, advising a handful of companies in-depth, investing and helping the companies I invest in, creating courses with Reforge that anyone can take, and blogging for anyone who wants to read. There is an implied breadth and depth of impact and learning from this model. Focusing all your time on one company has the most impact on how it operates, but that scales the least of any model. Blogging reaches the most amount of people in aggregate, but with no customized learning.

What I have found interesting about my personal mission is that while there are clear trade-offs, there are also win-wins. The blog creates advising opportunities. Operating full-time at one company makes me a better advisor, course creator, and blogger by the depth of problems I get to work on. Advising allows me to see fresh perspectives that broaden my problem solving at my current company. I have not found a perfect formula to optimize the ratio of time spent between these different avenues to deploy against my mission, but what I did learn is that it is likely best to vacillate between the different circles, which is part of the reason why I am not a full-time advisor like I was in the past. This is basically a form of optimizing for different steps in my learning loops to continue to unconstrain my personal growth, much in the same way I optimize for unconstraining growth in the companies I work with.

Finding a personal mission and thinking about how to deploy against it is something I would recommend more people spend time exploring for themselves. I think it helps optimize for personal happiness and growth in an environment where there are seemingly competing opportunities all the time that are hard to judge against each other.

Skill Optionality for Career Growth

Most firms operate via division of labor and specialization. So, as a budding employee at most companies, the task is to figure out what to specialize in so you have a place in the organization. This task is valuable in that in ensues a role for you in the organization and allows you to become a subject matter expert over time in a specific field. The world needs subject matter experts, so picking the right specialty early on is an important decision.

Specializing Too Early

The problem with that decision is when most employees are forced to make that decision i.e. in one of their first few jobs or during college when picking a major, they really have no idea what a great specialty will be, either from a matching their personality perspective or being needed in the marketplace perspective. Furthermore, universities are literally the least knowledgeable about what specialties will be valuable in the market because they largely exist outside of the labor market. This is why we’re pumping out hundreds of thousands of journalism majors even though there are very few jobs in journalism above the poverty line.

Making the Bet

Andy Johns has a great post on identifying individual strengths and making bets on skills that will become more valuable over time in the labor market. I would encourage anyone thinking about how to position their career to read it. The challenge is in making the right bets, and how bets can scale long-term for a career. For example, let’s say you make a bet to focus on social media marketing. Is that skill likely to be more or less valuable in four years? Now, the answer to this question has two components: 1) how many more firms will want these skills in the future and 2) how many more people will have these skills in the future. If the answer to 1) is a lot more and the answer to 2) is not much more, that’s a gold mine, but if the answer to both is a lot more, it may not be that great of a bet.

Scaling the Bet

The second component is how that bet scales. To answer this question, you need to know far can that skill can scale upward in an organization or in a career with that specialization. Sticking with the social media example, will there be Directors of Social Media Marketing in the future? VP’s? Chief Social Officers? If that seems likely, that’s another reason to focus on that niche. Unfortunately, no matter what specialty someone looks at, the answer is almost always that there is a cap to how far that specialty goes before one needs to acquire more skills to advance further. Sticking with social media, that track may end at Social Media Manager, and then you need to have PR skills to advance to the next phase at most organizations, or more online marketing skills like SEM, SEO, and email marketing. After that, whichever track you choose, you would need to fill in those other skills to become a VP of Marketing or a CMO.

This scenario becomes a problem for many people, as there are no convenient ways to develop new specialties over time. If you are working on social media all day, chances are low that your manager will proactively make sure you develop PR or SEM skills to prepare you to advance. So, people get stuck with the specialties and levels they are at after a while, and if those specialties become less important, they become less important over time. In a field like marketing, the skills needed at companies change very dramatically, as new marketing channels emerge over time, and as marketing channels mature, they tend to be less effective. Going back to school doesn’t help, as they tend to teach less skill-based functions, and certificates are mostly seen as a joke by employers.

Going T-Shaped

Fortunately, there are some ways to dodge these main issues, which are 1) not being able to predict the future on which skills are best to specialize in because the market moves too fast, and 2) not being able to add new skills over time to successfully manage more disciplines over time. Most advocate a position called being t-shaped ( good example here and example for search marketers here). The t-shaped model is great, but it misses some key features for career development I want to highlight.

1) One big bet vs. a few small bets

Becoming a t-shaped employee still requires placing a big bet on one area of depth and an 80/20 approach to close disciplines around that area of depth. There is still a large risk if that area of depth devolves in importance over time. The T-shape implies a static field and demand of skills that does not represent the labor market.

2) Individual contributor vs. manager

Management (and especially upper management) positions are not t-shaped. They are largely about strategy and goals. Having a ton of depth in a field like social media for a VP of Marketing is not especially useful as that person is expected to have someone that reports to him/her that has more depth. A senior manager needs to be able to spot opportunities to meet goals, and manage a diverse group of people to work together to reach those goals. Currently, many managers have a jarring experience where they begin to manage multiple disciplines and people not related to the depth that got them promoted.

3) Different T shapes work better at different companies

Sticking with the marketing examples, going deep in social media might be great for one company, but not very effective for others. Only knowing a little about other areas will likely make you not a great fit if social doesn’t move the needle. Ideally, you want your skills to work on a broad array of companies (though not too broad, like tech and industrial).

Solving the Problem

So how do you de-risk the choosing of a specialty and position yourself for more senior positions over time? That solution is to embrace skill optionality. What is skill optionality? It is maintaining exposure to different (especially emerging) areas of a field, and focusing, when necessary on specific niches, but not being stuck on one skill forever. Think of that t-shaped framework as a moving model where the component that is the stem of the T is gradually moving around as opportunities emerge in different fields and sharing depth with one or more other fields. So, instead of one long stem on SEO as in the Moz example above, it becomes a pi as SEO shares time with social media.

Skill optionality solves many problems for young or even experienced professionals. Young professionals gain exposure to many different fields, and are more likely to find one they excel at to either specialize in for the long-term or use as an initial depth from which to expand. For those with more experience, it breaks through the career ceiling of being just a subject matter expert, and protects one when certain expertises become less valuable. If you become experienced in four or five things, it is unlikely all five will become less important over time. Typically, as one skill becomes less important, another becomes more important. Skill optionality protects you from movements in the market related to skill needs.

I am not describing being a generalist, but just diversifying your portfolio of skills a little bit. I’ve seen a lot of blog posts that say every marketer in the future should know how to code, and use Photoshop, and know how to execute a laundry list of different marketing tactics. Chances are that’s too much for most people. How do you know if you’re going too general? Well, you should feel like the smartest person in the room on multiple subjects. If you’re a manager, it should that you or someone on your team is, and, if the latter, that you’re the next smartest after your team member. If you can’t claim a few broad areas as your domain, you’ve probably gone too far. In marketing, most companies win because they focus on a few channels, and become the best in the world at them. Skill optionality is not about executing in 30 areas, but knowing and adapting to which few maximally benefit your company/career, and being positioned to strategize as well as execute on those.

How to Execute

The next question you should be asking is how to execute this. I would like to make sure people understand that corporate America is not built for skill optionality; it is built for specialization. So, optimizing for this career path is fighting against the corporate ladder in every way early on in a career, but with maximum upside later on in a career. Some good strategies for young professionals is to shoot for positions that provide exposure to different areas in useful ways, like a web analyst who measures online marketing performance and therefore begins to understand different elements of online marketing. If that is not possible, another good strategy is to develop a specialty at a large company, and then move to a much smaller one where that skill is needed, but there is plenty of opportunity to develop new skills as no one else will be doing other things close to that specialty (or other things in the T one wants to develop). Some larger companies have rotational programs, which sound like a great way to get exposure to multiple areas, though, without having experienced these myself, I can’t say for sure.

The bottom line is that it’s important to pay attention to new opportunities to go broader in your skill set, and fight to get exposure to those opportunities. This will de-risk specialties that go out of favor in the market as well as better position you for management in the future. Even if you never want to manage, having multiple skill sets that you can adjust your depth on ensures you are always a viable candidate for many open positions, and will make you suitable for positions some companies desperately need.

Note: My examples are in marketing because that’s where I can get most concrete, but these examples can easily apply to engineers (via languages and elements of the stack), designers (with web, mobile, print, interactive, copy, coding, ui, ux), or just about any other discipline I can think of.

Why You Are Your Title at Your Current Job, and Why You Want to Be

The Start-up of You
I just finished reading Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha’s The Start-up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career. It’s a great read about operating your career like a startup. I generally think that Reid Hoffman’s is one of the smartest entrepreneurs out there, and I’m supremely impressed with what LinkedIn has done, and how they’ve done it. I do take issue with one suggestion of the book, which, while good-natured, can have the opposite effect of what it suggests.

Reid suggests that individuals create their own story highlighting their competitive advantage as business professionals, which I agree with. One way he suggests to do that though is to basically create your own title. So, instead of making your LinkedIn headline “Online & Interactive Marketing Director at GrubHub”, he suggests it read more like “Experienced Marketing Manager in Online Marketing and Product Strategy”. I disagree with this suggestion entirely. My reasons coalesce nicely with my Personal Branding’s Not About You post, so I’ll reiterate a couple of those points.

Tyler Durden

First, I’ll tackle the entrepreneur case. If you are currently running your own business, it should be your goal to get that brand in front of as many people as possible. That means your optimal title would not be “Entrepreneur & Blogger” but “Founder, MyAwesomeStartup.com”, just so people see that URL. Second, if you’re not an entrepreneur, one of the key competitive advantages an employee or potential employee can have is showing other potential employers that they can be dedicated to the company they work for. So, if I know someone works for a certain startup, and has a title on LinkedIn that doesn’t mention it but only mentions things about them specifically, I know their heart’s not in that startup. That makes me question whether their heart can be in any company, or are they just all about themselves.

Part of what you are selling if you are looking for a job is that you can become part of a whole, and the best way to demonstrate that is by showing you’ve done that before. Optimizing your LinkedIn to be less company specific shows the opposite, and raises some flags. Employers want to know that you can work well with a team and develop a passion for their brand and not just your own personal brand or your side projects. These days, with personal branding being all the rage, many people can’t do that, which makes it precisely one of the competitive advantages Reid suggests you harvest in your career.

Personal Branding’s Not About You

Being thrust into the social media revolution as a marketing professional, I was almost immediately confronted with the idea of the personal brand, the notion that you need to use these sites to brand yourself in a certain way so that you’re noticed for job opportunities, consultant work, or anything of that sort. Over the past two years I’ve come into a lot of contact with personal brands, and not only do I think people are misusing this concept, I think people are becoming less social because of it.

The first thing I’ve noticed is that everyone seems to think personal branding is about them being the next star. When we opened up our Community Manager position for example, we had a bunch of candidates apply that had thousands of followers on their Twitter accounts. We didn’t hire them. It was obvious they were good at representing and promoting themselves, but it didn’t show us at all how good they would be about representing and promoting us as a company. We hired someone who didn’t have a thousand followers, but who showed us that she could do what we want for the company. When you are trying to be a star, you are not going to spend the same amount of energy making the company you work for a star. If you’re a marketing professional, personal branding shouldn’t be about you, but about what you can do for a company looking to hire you, or a potential client looking to solicit your services.

The second thing I’ve noticed is the focus on the personal brand means that everyone has created their own brand, and is doing their own thing. Everyone is a consultant for their own company. Everyone has their own website, or their own blog, or their own startup project. People are more connected than ever on these social networks, but none of them are working together on anything. They’re all just working on their own personal brands and their own projects. Personal branding seems to have made everyone so selfish that no one is collaborating anymore, and because of it, no one is being successful. Ideas are brought to life when people work together to make them happen. Successful companies don’t run with just one employee.

Look at your personal brand. Does it say how you can help others? Does it say that you can be a team player?