Most young entrepreneurs today want to bypass the whole employment thing and go straight to being the boss. Like their heroes — Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Sergey Brin, et al — they imagine they can change the world without any on-the-job training.
The reality, of course, is that 99.99 percent of young entrepreneurs aren’t in the same league as those guys. And for people like that, there are a number of very good reasons for pressing pause on the entrepreneurial dream, at least for a few years, to gain the invaluable experience of actually working at a Silicon Valley company.
Over the course of my career, I’ve held leadership positions at seven different startups, six of which had successful exits. Here’s my advice to the next generation of startup founders.
Don’t jump into entrepreneurship right away. Your first step should be to join a growing company in Silicon Valley. This is where you can build your network, gain leadership experience, and really learn how the startup model works. Yes, entrepreneurship is your ultimate goal. But beforehand, take some time to map out how you’re going to get there.
If you’re an engineer, for instance, try to use this time to gain business experience, especially product experience in which you’re responsible for profit and loss. With P&L responsibilities, you’re acting as the mini-CEO of a particular product line. You’re measured according to imperatives like meeting revenue goals and hitting product release deadlines. This is very much like running your own small company.
Of course, to reach this position and get this kind of experience, you have to be savvy. You have to network within the company and be bold enough to ask questions and make suggestions. Share your perspective in company meetings and make it known you have an interest in product management. Maybe even shadow a project manager for a few days, provide intelligent input, and prove you’re a good fit for a role in the product group.
Get a mentor. This is hugely important. A mentor can help you grow inside the company and, if you have real potential, guide you more quickly into a management role, where you’ll gain vital experience for your future career as an entrepreneur. A mentor can help identify skills you have or will need to develop to ensure your eventual success. And a mentor has a network, which you can leverage.
How do you find a mentor? First, look for a senior person with whom you have something in common. Maybe you went to the same school, maybe you both have a passion for rock climbing. Look for connections that already exist and build the relationship from there. Don’t be shy, don’t think you’re asking too much of this person. The mentor-mentee relationship is often win-win. You gain invaluable coaching and possibly even an early investor in the startup you’ll eventually launch. Your mentor gains the obvious rewards of backing you if you succeed.
Understand customers before you launch. Working for a Silicon Valley company can provide you with hugely important knowledge of what customers want and don’t want. First, get as close to customers as you can and see how they’re interfacing with the product. Make a point of attending customer user-group events or customer advisory board meetings to hear what they’re saying firsthand. Learn what new product features or improvements customers are asking for and why.
This is important because, in the Valley, many entrepreneurs still innovate for the sake of innovating, without doing the necessary market research and validating that the market actually needs what they’re making. By interacting with customers of the company you work for, you’ll have an opportunity to get inside their heads and bounce ideas off them before you start your own venture. Because you’ve done this customer research, your startup is much more likely to succeed.
Scout your startup team. It’s really hard, if not impossible, to do it all by yourself in the startup world. Working at a Silicon Valley company before you launch your own enterprise can help you assemble the team you need. Even Mark Zuckerberg brought in Sheryl Sandberg to help run Facebook in the early days.
Working for a company will expose you to many different types of people. You’ll get to see how they perform in a business environment. While you’re learning what you’re good at, you can observe what others are good at and find people who complement you. If you’re a diehard coder, maybe you’re not the best person to engage with customers. That means you’ll have to find a business partner who is. This is your chance to gather your startup team before you strike out on your own.
Figure out if you’re a tech person or a company builder. Of course, you could be both. But in my experience some people are simply in love with technology, while others are passionate about building a business. If you enjoy developing products divorced from details like whether the market needs them or whether salespeople can sell them, you’re better off working at company than starting your own. But if you’re interested in figuring out what people really want, understanding if you can reach them cost-effectively and building a sales channel to deliver your product, then starting a company is probably the right move for you.
Silicon Valley is trending toward younger and younger entrepreneurs. But for every adolescent CEO who quit college to found a company, there are many more successful entrepreneurs who have spent time learning on the job. And I would argue that those founders with at least several years of business experience are in a better position to understand themselves, the market, and what it takes to succeed.
Mark Weiner is chief marketing officer at Centrify and has over 20 years of leadership and market creation experience in the cloud, data center and networking sectors. Prior to Centrify, he served as VP/SVP of marketing at StorSimple (acquired by Microsoft), Virtela Technology (acquired by NTT), NetScaler (acquired by Citrix), and Redback Networks, as well as led marketing for multiple business units at Cisco. He is also an adjunct faculty member at Santa Clara University.