Friday, August 24, 2012

An injection of entrepreneurial energy

The Start-Up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your CareerThe Start-Up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career by Reid Hoffman

As a genre, self-help can mean large type, lots of space between paragraphs and annoying ‘to do’ lists. But The Start-up of You is different. Its co-author is Reid Hoffman, a legend of Silicon Valley, founder of LinkedIn, co-founder of PayPal, and a big-time investor through the venture capital firm Greylock Partners. Unlike most self-help authors, Hoffman has demonstrably helped himself - to almost $2bn according to Forbes - and earned the respect of some of the world’s smartest businesspeople.

The book’s premise is simple enough: the culture of Silicon Valley start-ups is the model for how everyone should think about their working life.

So you must always be ready to try something new when circumstances change (‘pivot’ in the jargon); make use of your network of contacts, both intimate and distant; and be decisive in taking risks: “‘Keeping your options open’ is frequently more of a risk than committing to a plan of action.”

The writers insist that this approach applies not just to bright young things starting tech businesses but to all of us, because employment is less stable today and the skills we need are changing faster than ever.

It certainly feels like the pace of change is accelerating - but is it? Yes, say Hoffman and his co-author Ben Casnocha: big companies simply don’t last as long as they used to. In the 1920s and 1930s, top American businesses stayed in the S&P 500 index for an average of 65 years; by the 1990s the average time in the index was down to 10 years.

Making the case for businesses needing to stay in start-up mode, they paint a vivid picture of Detroit in the 1950s. It was home of the auto industry and the pride of the country, with the highest median income of any US city - the Silicon Valley of its day. But in the following decades the car-makers stopped listening to their customers and were overtaken by Japanese competitors who responded to the demand for smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. Today, Detroit has amongst the highest unemployment in the country and “about a third of the city - an area the size of San Francisco - is deserted”.

Could that happen to Silicon Valley? The authors believe the Valley will escape the same fate because start-up culture keeps tech companies on their toes. Easy to say now, of course.

Applying the lessons of industries to individuals, the book sheds light on the careers of Hoffman and the elite circle of tech leaders he moves in.

Take Sheryl Sandberg: today she’s Facebook’s chief operating officer and on the boards of Disney and Starbucks. But we learn that her childhood holidays were spent in developing countries where her father, a doctor, provided free surgery for the poor. As a result, her first job, for the World Bank, was working in India on public health projects.

Sandberg’s path from there to Facebook is presented as a case study in using your contacts and finding the right market for your skills. Most of us aren’t in a position to call Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, to seek advice on our next career move. And if we did get through we’d be unlikely to be offered, as Sandberg was, the job of vice president of global sales and operations at Google.

But maybe the principles are applicable to all. One, interestingly, is that successful people aren’t necessarily ‘following their dream’. Sandberg admits she didn’t have a plan for her career “because if I have a plan I’m limited to today’s options”.

Hoffman himself began in academia, and it was only after a few false starts that he came to the conclusion that his special skill was to “think simultaneously about individual psychology and social dynamics on a massive scale”. If it sounds an unlikely formula, Hoffman’s point is that you can only discover this kind of thing by trying different jobs, just as a start-up must switch resources in a new direction based on what it learns from earlier efforts - especially if they haven’t gone well.

When it comes to networking, as you might imagine, LinkedIn is part of the suggested formula. Hoffman says he gets 50 unsolicited pitches to invest in start-ups every day, but has never done so with anyone who didn’t come via a contact.

As with all self-help books, the value is not so much in the reading as what you do when you’ve read it. Most people will probably finish this one feeling a little braver about their future. You might be encouraged to make a call to a long-neglected contact, enquire about future openings or pursue a new interest that might one day turn into a saleable asset.

You can’t really bottle and sell the spirit of Silicon Valley, but this is a credible attempt. And the authors are practicing what they preach: you’ve always got try new things, right?

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