Taking Small Risks at Work

Originally published by Yitaek Hwang ’16 on the Leverege Blog. 

One of Venture for America’s credos states that “There is no courage without risk.” For many college graduates, joining a small startup carries an inherent risk. This is especially true for many VFA partner companies, located outside the traditional startup hubs like Silicon Valley and New York. But the stories of VFA have been so well publicized by NYT articles on Banza and the documentary Generation Startup, I want to offer a different take on taking a risk at work.

Adding Value When You Don’t Know What to Do

As Calum McClelland shared in his piece about joining a new team, the biggest adjustment transitioning from college to working at Leverege was actively seeking out ways to add value to the company. This was compounded by the fact that I was taking on a new role and learning new technologies that I hadn’t learned in college.

At Duke University, I studied computer architecture and image processing. Coming from a hardware background, I didn’t know how to contribute right away at a software company. It would take time for me to get up to speed on programming and building products for our Internet of Things platform.

While other VFA fellows were already making tangible and visible contributions with the skills they’ve learned in school, I was bit lost as to how I could help the company. Aside from spending time learning a new programming language, it wasn’t obvious how I could be useful.

Thankfully, VFA prepared us for situations like these during training camp.

Subtle Takeaways from Training Camp

Training Camp is a five-week program intended to teach each fellow the skills necessary to start thinking like an entrepreneur. While the experience is different for every fellow, personally I found most value from listening to testimonies and life stories from embattled entrepreneurs.

The most relevant piece of advice came from Melissa Withers, the Managing Director at Betaspring. To summarize, she mentioned that writing an internal newsletter helped her team stay up to date on what was going on both within and outside her old company. So I took this advice and began writing a newsletter about the latest news on the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, and everything tech-related.

Fast-forward three months, now the newsletter has over 4.5k subscribers and gaining an additional 500 a week. It forces me to stay current with the latest technology, but more importantly, it drives traffic and potential customers to Leverege and our IoT-for-All publication. Although my original intent was to report on the latest advances for our development team, now it’s also functioning as a piece of content marketing.

Going Forward 

Writing a newsletter may not seem like a huge risk, but from an engineer who was accustomed to writing dry lab reports, it pushed me to translate complicated tech concepts into something more accessible to the general audience. The Internet of Things, and the tech industry in general, often suffers from being “built by engineers, for engineers”. I could have easily fallen victim to this, and the newsletter could have been a waste of time for everyone.

In the short time that I’ve worked at Leverege, risks haven’t been defined by grand steps I’ve taken to change things fundamentally, but by small steps to proactively add value. This is applicable to anyone making a transition in roles or joining a small startup. You don’t always have to take big risks. Sometimes even small ones turn out to be good ones.

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