Entering StartUpLand: A book review by Bob Morris

Entering StartUpLand: An Essential Guide to Finding the Right Job
Jeffrey Bussgang
Harvard Business Review Prfess (October 2017)

What you need to know — from an expert — about exploring territory that is probably unfamiliar

I think the subtitle should identify this book as a guide to finding the “right fit” rather than the “right job” in order to acknowledge cultural considerations as well as core capabilities. This is a “must read” for those now considering whether or not to work for a startup as well as for those who have only recently done so. That said, I also believe that you don’t have to be involved with a startup to nourish your entrepreneurial inclinations. Innovation is a mindset and process, not a location.

To what does this book’s title refer? Ac cording to Jeffrey Bussgang, “My mission with this book is to be helpful to all of you who are intrigued by the possibility of joining a startup, to provide you with a framework that you can use to approach StartUpLand.” This of this book as a combination map and compass, window and mirror, blueprint and tool kit.

Who seems to fit much better with a startup than with a well-established organization? Bussgang shares this list of characteristics compiled by Erin Warren who is profiled in Chapter 4:

o Jazzed about doing something new
o Has the ability to be both strategic and execution oriented
o I comfortable with uncertainty and flexible enough to take on a series of undefined roles and tasks
o Biased toward action
o Analytical toward optimizing their own time/resources
o Has an aptitude for and interest in playing a broad role and evolving their career as the business morphs

To her list I presume to add these:

o Thinks and acts in terms of first-person [begin italics] plural [end italics] pronouns
o Doesn’t care who gets the credit for a success
o Doesn’t worry about getting dirt under their nails
o Thrives on challenges
o Views collaboration as a privilege

One of Bussgang’s most helpful suggestions, in my opinion, is to consider what a new relationship with a startup shares in common with a startup’s relationship with its competitive marketplace. For example, individuals (new hires) as well as startups must be flexible, open-minded, resilient, patient [begin italics] and [end italics] persistent, eager and enthusiastic, prudent, comfortable with ambiguity, and willing to relocate resources (especially time) whenever necessary.

It is worth noting that, with only a few exceptions, the entrepreneur who “plants an acorn” is not the best person to lead the organization as it becomes an “oak tree.” During research for his HBR article (February 2008 issue), “The Founder’s Dilemma,” Noam Wasserman discovered that “most founders surrendered management control long before their companies went public. By the time the ventures were three years old, 50% of founders were no longer the CEO; in year four, only 40% were still in the corner office; and fewer than 25% led their companies’ initial public offerings. Other researchers have subsequently found similar trends in various industries and in other time periods. We remember the handful of founder-CEOs in corporate America [e.g. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Oracle’s Larry Ellison, FedEx’s Fred Smith, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg] but they’re the exceptions to the rule.”

Richard Branson is credited with suggesting that an entrepreneur is someone who “jumps off a cliff and then builds an airplane on the way down.” Almost all of the entrepreneurs I have known over the years would say they would much prefer that experience to feeling buried alive in a job going nowhere, in a company that’s going nowhere.

As Bussgang would be the first to point out, being centrally involved with a startup is not for everyone…nor is working within a structured, somewhat confining workplace. More and more people prefer neither, opting for a vocational free agency. (That choice is not right for everyone either.) This book can be immensely valuable to everyone who reads it, whatever their current circumstances as well as those they would prefer.

I presume to offer one final point, suggested by Ernest Becker in his classic work, Denial of Death. He acknowledges that everyone dies a physical death eventually but there is another form of death that CAN be denied: That which occurs when we become wholly preoccupied with fulfilling others’ expectations of us.

This book was written for each person who reads it. Not for their family members and friends or for anyone else. I urge you to explore StartUpLand with Jeffrey Bussgang and meanwhile be grateful for what you learn but always keep Becker’s insight in mind.

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