Don’t Waste your 20s at Google or McKinsey

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What should you be looking to get out of your career in your 20s? Should you be looking to make a lot of money? Should you be looking to get a brand name on your resume? The most important thing you should be looking to do – is to find your true professional calling. As the famous rags-to-riches entrepreneur Jim Rohn said:

“Time is our most valuable asset, yet we tend to waste it, kill it, and spend it rather than invest it.”

Investing your time in your 20s wisely enables you to spend the rest of your life doing what you love, not searching for what you might love. So the real question you should be asking yourself is: How do I learn the most (about myself and the things I’m interested in), in the shortest time period possible, so I know what I want to be when I grow up?

Lets start with what not to do – go work at a big tech company. Unfortunately, that’s not the easiest choice to make. Google and all the big tech companies recruit on campus. The perks seem attractive (free food and occasional visits by Hillary Clinton or Bono). The brand feels impressive. The pay is good. A lot of your friends likely work there so there is a certain social comfort level. It feels like a stepping-stone to other things. The trouble is that your learning curve is unbelievably slow. If you are an engineer, you likely work on a large project whose contribution is likely irrelevant to the outcome of the business. You’re going to have high variance in the quality of people you work with (because in a company of 50,000 people that is almost certainly going to be true). You’re going to ship production code relatively infrequently. If you are a product manager – you are not facing the most important challenge of a real product manager (building such a product so great that even a lack of distribution capability doesn’t inhibit its success). If you are a salesperson – it’s hard to know if you are being successful because of you or because of the brand you represent. Fundamentally, you’re in the slow-lane as far as learning curves go. The skills you do cultivate, navigating large organizations or dealing with politics, are ones that don’t push you to the intellectual or emotional edge. Ask yourself the question: will the prospects of the big tech company I join change if I join? The answer will be no. And therefore neither your impact nor your learning can be significant. As a result, you might leave a little richer but you really don’t know a whole lot more about yourself and you’re likely much further behind your friends at start-ups or growth companies.

Big service businesses like McKinsey or Goldman Sachs also seem like super interesting opportunities. They pay well. They offer you the opportunity to flit between different projects (Consulting) or different deals (Investment Banking). You get to travel the country or the world and you’re told that you will be interacting with senior executives at clients. Some of that is true. The trouble is, for 90+% of people who work at big services businesses – they are routes to other careers, not careers in and of themselves. That would be fine if the skills you learn there enable to you to learn a lot about yourself. But most of the ex-consultants and ex-bankers I know are about as uncertain about what they want to do in life as they were on the day they joined the big service company. Rather than clarity, the diversity of projects just creates confusion. While there may be some good critical thinking skills that you cultivate – remember that the fundamental job of a Consultant or Banker is to put together PowerPoint presentations and excel spreadsheets that give advice – rarely to implement anything. Your learning will be so concentrated in strategy (5% of life) that you will lose out on learning skills in the more important part (execution).

I spent two years at a big service company in my 20s (Investment Banking @Lazard) and three years of my 20s at a big tech company (Cisco). But I learned 10x more about myself and the path I wanted in life at a start-up named FirstMark Communications where I was a founding member of the team and spent 3+ years at between the ages of 23 and 26. FirstMark was insane – we built a broadband network to provide high-speed Internet access across Europe in the late 1990s. It was a classic telecom bubble story that involved raising $1bn of capital, hiring 600+ people, dealing with government regulators in 10 countries, interacting with Henry Kissinger, building out optical networks and going after a big mission to go wire the planet. There were a ton of things we screwed up at FirstMark and a bunch we got right. But it was a life changing experience for me.

I had accepted admission to business school before I got involved in starting FirstMark and having been both an engineer and an investment banker, I was pretty uncertain about what I wanted to do in life. I would have likely been even more confused after the Business School experience. Instead, I got involved in starting FirstMark and it was the defining experience of my 20s. It told me I wanted to be an entrepreneur and more importantly, it gave me the confidence to do it. I learned more about business and myself in the first month at FirstMark than at 2 years at Lazard or 3 years at Cisco. And while it was intense, stressful, volatile and crazy – I loved it. I had clarity – the rest of my life was going to be about entrepreneurial pursuits. Interestingly, many of my friends and colleagues at FirstMark did not. Some went back to Wall Street. Some went to go work at big technology or telecom businesses. Some went back to school. But they all found themselves and the professional path they wanted in life.

Going to work at a start-up or growth company in your 20s will put you on the fast-lane learning curve. It will be the best investment you can make because you’ll find yourself. The folks who have come into BloomReach in their 20s unclear about their passions, often emerge knowing who they are – becoming business development people or founders or product managers or people managers. They find their calling fast because the pace of the business requires it. You might be concerned about what happens if your start-up fails. Relax. You (probably) don’t have kids at home. You can always move into your friend’s crappy 1 bedroom apartment for a couple of months. And I promise you this – the most employable person in the tech industry is the highly motivated 25 year old (ideally with technical skills). So even if that start-up doesn’t work out, don’t worry – you’ll have plenty of other opportunities and a clear sense of yourself.

Image from The Takakura Trash Basket by Ikhlasul Amal licensed under CC by 2.0

The “60/40” School of Time Management

As the leader of a fast growing, chaotic, “everything-is-urgent” growth-stage start-up, time is my most critical asset.  Yet it’s remarkable how little thought has been put into the right approach to time management for key leaders. My suggestion: Spend 60% of time scheduled – divided into quarters: 1/4 each devoted to customers, external constituencies, product and people. Spend 40% on unscheduled activities.

Earlier in my career, I tried the extremes. I tried running from one fire to the next, answering 100% of emails and taking every meeting I could. Needless to say, I got a lot done, but I didn’t get the important stuff done. I then tried being super deliberate, not taking serendipitous meetings, leaving plenty of time for thinking and not worrying about responding to emails on a timely basis.  That didn’t work either – we were just too small for that.

Early Stage Start-Up Time Management

The early stage forces you to maniacally focus on the next milestone. For instance, you might not have a product if you don’t have a team, so you devote 80% of your time to recruiting. You might not have a team if you don’t have money, so you spend 80% of your time fundraising. You might not get to test product-market fit without shipping a product, so you focus 80% of your time trying to get the product out. You can’t scale without reference customers, so you focus 80% of your time ensuring that you get them. The great thing about early stage time management is focus – and because value is created with clearly defined milestones, time management can follow those milestones and evolve serially to reflect them.

Growth Stage Start-Up Time Management

Growth stage time-management is a whole other beast. The trouble is you are too small to purely focus on the strategic and run the business as a set of KPIs (Key Performance Indicators). You are too big to only be able to execute on one thread; in fact to assure hyper-growth, you have to excel at a collection of things, executing in parallel to achieve the next value threshold. A number of these things are short-term oriented; some are long-term oriented. The trouble is hyper-growth does not come from doing just one thing well (for example, build a great product and you may find the market has changed, or a competitor is racing ahead from a positioning perspective or you don’t have the right people on your sales team). It also does not come from being unfocused – which we all know is the kiss of death.

I have come up with a heuristic to try and manage my scheduled time, which I try to limit to 60 percent (yes days can be long). I divide that time this way:

  • 1/4 on Product and Engineering:  In a business like ours, we will not succeed if our product pipeline dries up and we stop being innovative.  The trouble with constant innovation as a source of growth is that each initiative is hugely time consuming and therefore requires a lot of “entrepreneurial energy.”  I try to ensure that I spend 1/4 of my months on product development – for mature and for new products (to be fair, I have a terrific co-founder who spends a lot more time on this, otherwise this % probably should be higher).
  • 1/4 on customers – new and existing:  I learn a lot from being on the road.  It motivates me; it challenges me and it puts me on the front lines with our sales and customer success teams.  Customers have a way of cutting to the chase – and it helps me prioritize what matters.
  • 1/4 on board, marketing and external:  I see a lot of CEOs spend a lot of time at networking events and conferences.  I see value in them.  Brand matters.  Perception matters.  Serendipitous meetings can lead to great things.  And job #1 for a CEO is to make sure the business never runs out of money.   On the other hand, I’m not interested in the glamour CEO position – the person who pontificates at conferences but really doesn’t understand the nitty-gritty of the business.
  • 1/4 on Team and People:  This is the bucket that most often gets ignored but of course may be the one that matters most in the long term.  It’s the one where you get to think deeply about culture, to recruit, to fire, to meet people 1:1 and to define organizational practices that have a non-linear impact on value.

I think its really important to have unscheduled time for all kinds of purposes and I try to make sure I get at least for 40% of my weeks/months for that.  I spend it on whatever matters at that moment.  Sometimes those are complex market-facing dynamics.  Sometimes, its key customer situations that I try to hold myself responsible for.  Sometimes its email.  Recently I decided to spend it on looking at a possible tuck-in acquisition for the company.  Some weeks I spend it helping to fly to close an end of quarter deal.  Sometimes its resolving complex people-related situations or just reflecting on the direction of the business.

I don’t try to stick to these percentages at the granularity of my weeks, but I do try to course correct if entire months go way off the heuristic.  To help me do this, I’m working with my Executive Assistant to map my allocation and help me stay on track.  As you can see from the mapping below – the percentages above are aspirational – I have a ways go to.  Overall, I feel pretty good about February.  I got my 40% “think time.”  I spent a lot of time on the road with customers, but the trade off was spending less time that I would have liked on products.  In January, we spent a lot of time on product planning and the ratios were flipped the other way.  In March, things got ugly – a ton of travel meant I was over the limit on scheduled time and interviewing consumed my “people” time.





























I don’t know if my 60/40 recipe is the right answer as we grow.  It certainly wouldn’t have been the right approach when we started BloomReach. But for today, it works.