Started from the Bottom Now We’re Here: Maslow and Careers

By Mike Tarullo, VP of Corporate Development

(originally published on Huffington Post)

Maslow's_hierarchy_of_needsWhen I was 22 and graduating from college, there were a couple paths to take.

The first path was to follow my dreams, a dangerous idea because the dreams of a 22-year-old are pretty underdeveloped. Yet, this is what our baby boomer parents often tell us to do. David Brooks does the subject a great deal of justice in an op ed in which he explains, “Most successful young people don’t look inside and then plan a life. They look outside and find a problem, which summons their life.” Young people are often guilty of deciding on our passions in a vacuum and it’s no wonder with the cacophony of “follow your dreams” reinforcement we receive.

To me, it’s sort of how great novelists aren’t very often great until their midlife, when they’ve seen enough of the world and its inhabitants to write about them with art and perspective. The dreams of my collegiate career and that of many others are only slightly more substantial than being a football player or an astronaut. The novel I would write at 22 would have protagonists with the depth of the Hardy Boys; in a couple decades I could produce something more nuanced (hopefully).

Many promising young people I interact with tell me they’re hell-bent on doing something that’s good for the environment, or that they want to revolutionize education, or work in health and wellness. These are useful callings, but in many young people they are passions born from analysis, not experience. They have been told to do something that they love, and have selected something from a fairly limited worldview that seems lovable. What most young people do is look at the outputs of an industry and say, “that one,” rather than look at what one’s day to day would actually look like. There is a remarkable lack of transparency across all career paths as to what you actually do all day, and when it’s demystified, working to save education or the environment might not be as stimulating or high potential as one thinks.

The second path was to follow my peers. There are places with brightly-lit roads to guide you there, undeniably attractive promises of advancement, prestigious firms, piles of cash, and whatnot. Many people take this bottom-up path, viewing your career as a series of steps to climb. It’s a much more practical path than the first, and rather a strong start out of the gate in some respects, though it occasionally leaves one wanting in the self-actualization department. Often, these young people promise themselves that they’ll be successful first, and do something they love later. However, if you’re over 30, you might have noticed that the majority of your friends are still doing some permutation of what they decided to all those years ago – unfortunately, the same incentives that draw you to that brightly lit road are fairly good at keeping you on it. I, seemingly blind to everything around me, was not offered any of these incentives, and thus “resisted” the siren’s call.

There’s nothing wrong with this second path; it’s definitely the most stable choice, and has generally good returns for the first four tiers of Maslow’s Hierarchy (the 3rd tier might be an independent variable, but that’s a blog post for someone else). For many people, it’s a great choice, and the presence of a clear target (e.g. your boss’s job) makes it easier to achieve.

These two paths seem different, but they have something in common. Both treat your career as something you create, linear steps that can be considered in advance and charted for optimal efficiency. However, careers in your 20?s aren’t that deterministic anymore. Stable jobs aren’t so stable, brightly-lit tracks are subject to culling of the herd at each level (law, banking, etc. are necessarily pyramids), and opportunities come from the periphery as often as the direction you’re pointing (source: that often-quoted “7 career changes in your lifetime” statistic, which even if its actually only 3 or so, is still a boatload of career changes).

So if the bottom-up, step-by-step approach isn’t for you, what approach should you take to your first couple jobs? I think there’s a third path: follow the headroom. The common thread I’ve found among people who are happy in their early-career jobs are that they’re challenged and encouraged to grow. If every time you evaluate an opportunity, you strip away the externalities, like perceived prestige, “mission,” industry, or even money (to an extent), what you’ll be left with is what you actually think of the opportunity. It’s a challenging intellectual exercise, but I think it’s worth it. Prestige, mission, industry, and money are ways to get you to focus on something other than what you’ll actually be doing every day.

The most important things in a workplace for a young person? Finding a team that you’ll be excited to work with every day, and a boss that will give you the headroom to grow and expand your capabilities. Who cares what industry, or what the name of the company is, or even what they’re paying you at first? Too many of us, I think. That’s why people wind up trying to switch jobs all the time – maybe if they had more prestige, or $20k more, or worked in education instead of engineering. These are externalities. They cannot save you from yourself, and they won’t motivate you to do good work.

I’m hoping this is happening for me: I’m working in talent/staffing, a field in which I definitely had no interest at age 22. I got there by doing a couple dead-end jobs in politics and marketing that sounded cooler, and had cooler clients. Unsatisfied, I bailed to the unsexiest company I found, which paid me half my previous salary, but where the founder seemed like he would give me the most opportunity to grow. A couple much more interesting years later, I took the same approach to getting the job I have now: strip away the externalities, look for headroom.

The top of Maslow’s pyramid looks an awful lot like an ideal job, to me: creativity, problem solving, spontaneity, morality. If you’re really engaged in creative problem solving that makes you feel good, the following will happen:

  1. Esteem – people will respect you for being a good problem solver.
  2. Belonging – your self-confidence and happiness brings you the right kind of friends and significant other.
  3. Safety – you’re good at what you do because it engages you; you’ll get rewarded for it.

So you see, I don’t think we need to abandon the idea of doing what we love, just re-imagine what it means to find our way there. When it comes to careers, Maslow might have it backwards.


Businesses take time to build

After over a decade working in startups, Andrew Yang has learned many important lessons about what it takes to build a business. But according to him, what entrepreneurs really need to found a successful organization is patience and willingness to dedicate time to the idea.

In his recent article in the Huffington Post, Andrew discusses how in business, there’s no such thing as an ‘overnight success’, and how hands-on experience is the only way to understand what to expect when building a company. For more from Andrew Yang, you can check out his other Huffington Post articles here.

By Andrew Yang, CEO and Founder of Venture for America

One of my mentors once said to me, “It takes at least four or five years to see if a company is going to work. Generally more. If you’re really fast, maybe you can get a sense of where things are going by the end of Year Three.”

This surprised me at the time. But I’ve come to realize that he was right.

There have been many recent accounts of companies becoming immediate successes, particularly in the Internet space. But for most businesses, ‘overnight success’ is an outlier. Generally, a company makes progress incrementally, and the overnight success was years in the making.

Even for the rare product or software app that does become a rapid hit, it often took the programmers or product developers or designers time to build up the necessary expertise. In many cases, they might have worked on some earlier product that no one ever heard of, learned from it, and came back to build something great. Rovio was around for six years and underwent layoffs before the ‘instant’ success of Angry Birds, for example.*

Think about what goes into a company. First, the founders are on the drawing board developing the concept, testing ideas and preparing the offering. Sometimes this takes months in itself. They have to spend a considerable amount of time gathering resources (people, capital, know-how, sourcing, vendors, infrastructure). Then, the company has to land its first customers who kick the tires and make suggestions.

Sometimes these initial customers aren’t paying. The feedback the founders get at each stage can take months to incorporate. A company can set off in one direction, figures out that it’s not the right way to go, and then go in an entirely new direction. Over time, the product or service improves, and the company gets better at executing and delivering.

Eventually, the initial customers are happy enough that they tell their friends, and word of mouth slowly spreads.** Vendors begin assuming you’re going to pay them. The company may even start generating enough revenue so that it can invest in sales and business development, perhaps migrating to multiple locations or new distribution channels.

All of the above typically describes a painstaking, multi-year process. Most businesses require a complex network of relationships to function (e.g., staff, investors, suppliers, vendors, partners, customers), and these relationships take time to build. In many instances, you have to be around for a few years to receive consistent recognition. And it often takes time for staff, and founders, to become effective in their roles.

Experienced entrepreneurs have a number of advantages where pace is concerned. First, they know roughly how long it will take to get something done if they’ve done it before. Second, they can move faster because many of the necessary relationships are already in place (e.g., they can call people they’ve worked with, use the same lawyer/accountant/P.R. firm, draw on earlier investors, reach out to past customers, etc.). Third, they can proceed more decisively because of greater confidence in their judgment, both internally and externally.

Still, if you’re building a new business, you should expect it to take time, as in several years at least. If you’re not prepared to fully invest yourself in the business for 3 -5 years, you might not want to start down the road, particularly if you’re planning on having other people rely upon you. Prepare yourself for the long haul, and maybe you’ll surprise yourself if it develops faster than you think.

* There’s a story about a woman asking Picasso for a drawing. He drew a quick sketch on a napkin, and said to her, “That will be $5,000.” She exclaimed, “But that only took you one minute!” Picasso replied, “No. It has taken me my whole life to draw that sketch.” The one-minute sketch is generally years in the making.

** Despite the advent of social media, most things gain traction and spread at a deliberate pace. Even if someone likes your service, it’s generally not going to be a priority for him or her to go around telling his/her friends about it or liking your service on Facebook. Think about your own behavior – When’s the last time you went around telling everyone you know about something you liked, even if you genuinely enjoyed it? People should do this more often. Spread the word about something you like today!

Come See Andrew Yang at SXSW: “How to Build Entrepreneurship Communities”

We’re pleased to announce that our founder, Andrew Yang, will head to SXSWi this year to sit on a panel called “How to Build Entrepreneurship Communities.” The panel will include other expert community builders Brad Feld, Paige Craig, Nick Seguin, Mark Nager, and Mark Davis. If you have a good question that you want the moderator (Shane Reiser) to ask Andrew or the other panelists, add it in the comments section and we’ll make sure Shane gets it on the list!

Here are the details for the panel:

What: How to Build Entrepreneurship Communities

Where: Hilton Austin Downtown, Salon D (500 East 4th Street)

When: Sunday, March 11th 3:30 PM- 4:30 PM CDT

You can RSVP and see who else is going on Plancast here.

“Generation Z” and Encouraging Entrepreneurship in North Carolina

Check out this interesting article in the Raleigh News & Observer about the challenges facing current college seniors, members of the newly-christened Generation Z.  From exploring hacker culture at Duke University, to discussing how to keep graduating talent in North Carolina, to a few words from VFA Founder Andrew Yang on what opportunities these new challenges present, reporter Tori Stillwell explores entrepreneurship in the Triangle.  


A View From the Heights- Venture for America

Check out the latest blog post from VFA Executive Board member, Alison Lindland. Alison writes about beginning her career after graduating from Vassar in 2000 and the path she took to becoming a full-time entrepreneur. She is currently the Director of Business Development and Marketing at Kohort.

Read her blog post here!

The Iliad and the IPO: The case for entrepreneurship-and how Columbia College neglects it

Columbia University senior, Derek Turner, writes about his views on entrepreneurship and why it may just offer benefits that other fields don’t. Read Derek’s article here:

The Eye: The Iliad and the IPO: The case for entrepreneurship-and how Columbia College neglects it

Carpe Diem: Venture for America

By Guest Blogger- Gen Furukawa, Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell

College campuses have an abundance of interesting references to ancient Roman history, through the architectural styles, the study of Roman philosophy, even the mottoes that define the schools (my alma mater is In deo speramus). Yet even after studying Latin for seven years, as an undergraduate student I failed to understand the true meaning of a simple phrase: Carpe Diem. Seize the day. Sure, I knew that I would eventually Seize the Day, but only after working “at a real job” for a few years.

I saw any delay in employment after graduation as a chasm between me and my peers. I can’t turn back time, but I can get a second chance. I am now in business school, which has provided me the chance to hit the figurative “Reset” button. I promised myself that I would maximize all privileges that came with my student status to “become an entrepreneur.”

After graduating from Brown University in 2004, I got swept up with the galloping herd of newly minted graduates and believed that I needed a job ASAP in order to validate my college degree. So I obligingly paid my dues in a corporate job, plotted out my career trajectory, and quickly saw with frightening clarity how my future could play out for the next thirty years if I didn’t veer off the corporate path. I loved watching the action at Dunder Mifflin, but didn’t want to spend my life in The Office.

So I realized from my first days as a business school student at The Johnson School at Cornell that the experience would be a sprint from start to finish. The ultimate goal: start a business before I graduate. As an undergrad, I missed the opportunity to explore the wealth of resources readily available to entrepreneurial students, and I wanted a sip of the startup kool-aid too. Despite warnings of a Cornell contagion called FOMO (an acronym for “Fear of Missing Out”), I was going to do everything I could that included “Entrepreneurship” in the title.

Business school has helped me solidify a foundation (at least academically) to start a business when that time does come. And I have weaved my way into the epicenter of the startup community at Cornell, which is pulsing with entrepreneurial energies everywhere. I have immersed myself in the community in a number of ways: MBA Fellow for Entrepreneuership@Cornell, where we are building a mobile app to help students, alumni, and faculty network and engage with fellow Cornell entrepreneurs; eLab Fellow, where I mentor and help undergraduate entrepreneurs at Cornell’s incubator; a VP of the Entrepreneurship Club, where I organize weekly University-wide events and treks to NYC; and Teaching Assistant for several entrepreneurship-related classes. These are all fulfilling activities that have exposed me to the dynamic nature of entrepreneurs that I love.

Venture for America is the first innovative program that captures this vibrant entrepreneurial spirit of college campuses and translates it into a program that helps recent graduates create immediate value in their organization and impacts communities, cities, and America in a very tangible way. I wish that something like this existed when I was an ambitious undergrad looking for a small nudge in the right direction. Venture for America combines the vision for a better world that resounds so loudly with many young Americans, and infuses the self-empowering nature of entrepreneurship. The result: the realization that we can shape our own future. Now. Carpe Diem!

For anyone who can attend, come learn more about Venture for America when Founder & President Andrew Yang visits Cornell on Tuesday, November 15th. Event details can he found here:

Contact Gen at gwf36 [at] or on Twitter @genfurukawa

VFA Board of Directors member Darren MacDonald in The Daily Californian

Check out the opinion piece by Venture for America Board of Directors member Darren MacDonald in UC Berkeley’s The Daily Californian.

 Read the article on The Daily Californian’s website here: Exploring a new path to entrepreneurship

Starting a Business on the Side

I’ve met dozens of people over the years who were working on something ‘on the side.’ As in, they had a full-time job or were full-time students but were thinking about starting a company.*

In the vast majority of cases, the company never comes to pass. There are a few reasons for this. First is that getting a business off the ground is not quick or easy. In many cases, the individual in question has a demanding full-time job that goes well past 9 to 5 (e.g. a lawyer/banker/consultant). They’re often forced to simply recharge during their scarce downtime, leaving little time or energy left over for starting the next big thing.

Second, there’s a structural limit to how much you can get done for a new business while holding down a full-time job or keeping your grades up. Here’s a list of things you can reasonably do on the side as you’re working full-time:

  • 1. Research your idea (e.g. figure out the market, talk to prospective customers about what they would like, see who your competitors are, etc.)
  • 2. Legal incorporation and Trademark protection (if necessary, most companies don’t need a Trademark)
  • 3. Claim a URL and build a website or have it built
  • 4. Get a bank account and credit card (generally have to use personal credit)
  • 5. Initiate a Facebook page, a blog, and a twitter account
  • 6. Develop branding (e.g. getting a logo designed, printing business cards)
  • 7. Talk it up to your network, try to find interested parties as co-founders, staff, investors, advisors
  • 8. Build financial projections and draft a business plan if necessary
  • 9. Personal financial planning (e.g. cut back on expenses, budget for start-up costs, etc.)
  • 10. Mock-up a prototype and presentation for potential investors or customers

If all of this sounds like a lot already, you’re right; getting the above done while holding down a job or carrying a full courseload requires a significant investment of time. Most people really don’t want to spend their spare time and money on running down vendors, building projections, etc. If you do dedicate yourself to getting these things done, it’s a good sign that you’re serious (or you really don’t like your job/classes).

Even with all of the above done, much of the heavy lifting generally requires that you quit your job and devote yourself full-time to the business. The big lifts include:

  • 1. Raising money. Investors typically don’t want to invest in an idea as much as they want to invest in a team. As in, a team that is currently working. If the company founder isn’t willing to bet his or her full-time on the business, then it’s difficult for an investor to believe that the team is going to be successful.
  • 2. Developing the product. For the most part, product development is a full-time endeavor. Even if you’re hiring someone to build the product, managing them to specifications is a task in itself. Sometimes you’ll need to travel to find the right partners, suppliers, etc.
  • 3. Building a team. You can hire vendors without being at it full-time, but it’s hard to get high-quality people to join you when you’re still holding down the day job. It’s tough for a team to come together if the founder is absent most of the time.
  • 4. Getting customers. Customers want commitment too. They want to know that you’ll be there for them. They can smell it if you’re moonlighting, and it’s not something that inspires buy-in.

What I’ve seen in the vast majority of cases is that the individual in question entertains the idea for a business on the side as a way to make the days pass but, perhaps wisely, never takes the step of committing to it fully. The business remains more or less on the drawing board.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Starting a business is not for everyone, and most people would be better served by staying in their current job or getting a new one. The failure rate for new businesses is very high. And people do learn a few lessons from exploring their idea (mainly that starting a business is hard).

If you quit your job or school and put your heart and soul full-time into starting a company, it may succeed or it may not.** But if you never fully commit, the business is almost certain to fall short of its goals (or not exist). Starting a company is a lot like trying to lead a charge to take a hill. If you run up the hill with everything you’ve got, it’s the best chance you’ve got to get others to follow you and reach the top.

If you find yourself working on a business on the side, occasionally ask yourself how serious you are. Are you willing to give it 100% if certain things fall into place? Would you really quit your job and go for it? Knowing how much risk you would or wouldn’t tolerate can help guide your actions moving forward.

*We’re not talking about a side business you can do in addition to your job (e.g.. tutoring, selling things on eBay, etc.) Side businesses are a great way to learn, try things out, and make a bit of money without much risk. And sometimes they lead to great opportunities.

**When a young person asks me about trying to start a company, I generally try to be encouraging. I figure that even if the company doesn’t work out, he or she will learn a ton from the process and be better equipped for the next time. Entrepreneurship is like a lot of other things where you get better at it with experience. It’s a rare founder who hits it out of the park the first time. It’s not a terrible idea to get a stumble out of the way early (while of course trying your best to remain upright).