January 20, 2015

Don’t Ask What Seat. Just Get On.

Don’t Ask What Seat. Just Get On.

Over the last few years I’ve had a lot of tall dark roasts chatting with B-school students, burned out consultants, bored corporate managers, and struggling entrepreneurs about advice for what to do next in their careers. Not that I have all (or even many) of the answers to their questions, but I’ve worked in a variety of different environments, and am happy to share my two cents.

The conversation usually starts out with them saying something like “I’m tired of doing all these consulting projects and not being involved in the execution of my recommendations” or “I like my job, but my company moves really slowly, and there are so many layers above me that I never get credit for my work.” Add in a few grumbles about travel, crappy culture, suburban commutes, and micromanaging bosses, and you have 90% of the complaints I hear.

Regardless of the complaint, my advice is always the same — find a really high growth company — a rocket ship. There’s no hard and fast rule as to what makes something a rocket ship, it just has to be growing really fast. For a startup company, that could be 10x annual growth, for a $100M company probably more like 2x. Either way you get the same effect — there is a palpable feeling of we’re doing something that works, this is awesome. From my experience, getting involved in a high growth company is more important than a specific role, industry, manager, or adding a brand name to your resume. While all of those things matter at the margin, they usually have a way of working themselves out if you join a rocket ship.

I know I’m not the first person to give this advice, and Eric Schmidt famously said to Sheryl Sandberg, “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat. Just get on.” That said, I’m adding to the volumes already written on the topic to share the key benefits from my unique experience on a rocket ship. The rocket I joined was Redbox. I started in early 2007 when DVDs were at the peak of their popularity, Blockbuster had 4,000 stores, and Netflix was one of the USPS’s biggest customers. During my first 4 years with Redbox the company doubled revenue each year, growing from a $140M “disruptor” to the dominant player in DVD rental with revenue over $2B. The growth was tremendous, certainly not without it’s challenges, but always exciting and fulfilling.

From that experience, three things really stood out in my mind as the key benefits to joining a rocket ship.

Amazingly positive energy throughout the company

People were excited to come to work each day. Folks across the organization saw their hard work equate to success. We were in one of the unique situations were the company set aggressive goals, budgeted for crazy growth, and consistently beat every expectation. Our all-company meetings were more celebration than result reporting. This energy was also fueled by external feedback. As we grew and got better as a company, the positive customer feedback rolled in, with NPS scores routinely above 80%. It was an amazing combination of economic and customer success that made it just an awesome place to be. It was easy to sell to customers, partners, and potential recruits because we felt great about where we worked and we believed in what we were doing.

Entrepreneurial culture

With a rocket ship there’s always more work to do than people to do it, which can be both good and bad. The bad is that work/life may get a little out of balance, but I believe the good, development of an entrepreneurial culture, significantly outweighs the bad. When organizations are understaffed due to fast growth and an abundance of opportunity, meaningful responsibility gets pushed to all levels, and managers simply don’t have enough time to micro-manage. The whole organization becomes a group of mini-entrepreneurs with ownership over projects, budgets, P&Ls, or KPIs. This drives engagement, increases performance, and allowed Redbox to think, move, and (as needed) act like a company 1/100th its size.

Tremendous opportunity for top performers

When a company is a rocket ship, teams grow, new functions are created, special projects pop up, and there are opportunities everywhere. This is the perfect environment for high performers. Folks at Redbox had the opportunity to grow in any number of ways — promotions, new roles, new projects, new mentors, etc. Promotion cycles were fast and evaluations weren’t weighed down by internal politics. The best folks rose to the top and were rewarded with exceptional opportunities and exposure. On the flip side, those that weren’t a good fit often didn’t last long.

The combination of the three characteristics above made Redbox a great place to work, and from what I’ve seen interacting with a few other rocket ships over the years, they’re found in almost all high growth organizations. Rocket ships are not just a great place to work, but also a great training ground. And the results in Chicago speak for themselves, at least a half dozen startups in the area are run by former Redbox folks, with a number of others doing amazing things as well.

So, join a rocket ship, or as Marc Andreessen said “Or, start your own company. If your startup fails, try another one. If that one fails, get back into a high-growth company to reset your resume and get more skills and experiences. Then start another company. Repeat as necessary until you change the world.”