Agile Opportunism – Entrepreneurial DNA

Entrepreneurs tend to view adversity as opportunity.

You’re Hired, You’re Fired.
My first job in Silicon Valley: I was hired as a lab technician at ESL to support the training department. I packed up my life in Michigan and spent five days driving to California to start work. (Driving across the U.S. is an adventure everyone ought to do. It makes you appreciate that the Silicon Valley technology-centric culture-bubble has little to do with the majority of Americans.) With my offer letter in-hand I reported to ESL’s Human Resources (HR) department. I was met by a very apologetic manager who said, “We’ve been trying to get a hold of you for the last week. The manager of the training department who hired you wasn’t authorized to do so – and he’s been fired. I am sorry there really isn’t a job for you.”

I was stunned. I had quit my job, given up my apartment, packed everything I owned in the back of my car, knew no one else in Silicon Valley and had about $200 in cash. This could be a bad day. I caught my breath and thought about it for a minute and said, “How about I go talk to the new training manager. Could I work here if he wanted to hire me?” Taking sympathy on me, the HR person made a few calls, and said, “Sure, but he doesn’t have the budget for a lab tech. He’s looking for a training instructor.”

You’re Hired Again
Three hours later and a few more meetings I discovered the training department was in shambles. The former manager had been fired because:

  1. ESL had a major military contract to deploy an intelligence gathering system to Korea
  2. they needed to train the Army Security Agency on maintenance of the system
  3. the 10 week training course (6-hours a day) hadn’t been written
  4. the class was supposed to start in 6 weeks.

As I talked to the head of training and his boss, I pointed out that the clock was ticking down for them, I knew the type of training military maintenance people need, and I had done some informal teaching in the Air Force. I made them a pretty good offer – hire me as a training instructor at the salary they were going to pay me as a lab technician. Out of desperation and a warm body right in front of them, they realized I was probably better than nothing. So I got hired for the second time at ESL, this time as a training instructor.

The good news is that I had just gotten my first promotion in Silicon Valley, and I hadn’t even started work.

The bad news is that I had 6 weeks to write a 10 week course on three 30-foot vans full of direction finding electronics plus a small airplane stuffed full of receivers. “And, oh by the way, can you write the manuals for the operators while you’re at it.” Since there was very little documentation my time was split between the design engineers who built the system and the test and deployment team getting the system ready to go overseas. As I poured over the system schematics, I figured out how to put together a course to teach system theory, operations and maintenance.

Are You Single?
After I was done teaching each the day, I continued to write the operations manuals and work with the test engineers. (I was living the dream – working 80 hour weeks and all the technology I could drink with a fire hose.) Two weeks before the class was over the head of the deployment team asked, “Steve are you single?” Yes. “Do you like to travel?” Sure. “Why don’t you come to Korea with us when we ship the system overseas.” Uh, I think I work for the training department. “Oh, don’t worry about that, we’ll get you temporarily assigned to us and then you can come back as a Test Engineer/Training Instructor and work on a much more interesting system.” More interesting than this? Sign me up.

You’re Not So Smart, You Just Show Up a Lot
While this was going on, my roommate (who I knew from Ann Arbor where he got his masters degree in computer science,) couldn’t figure out how I kept getting these increasingly more interesting jobs. His theory, he told me, was this: “You’re not so smart, you just show up a lot in a lot of places.” I wore it as a badge of honor.

But over the years I realized his comment was actually an astute observation about the mental mindset of an entrepreneur, and therein lies the purpose of this post.

Congratulations, You’re now in Charge of your Life
Growing up at home, our parents tell us what’s important and how to prioritize. In college we have a set of classes and grades needed to graduate. (Or in my case the military set the structure of what constituted success and failure.) In most cases until you’re in your early 20’s, someone else has planned a defined path of what you’re going to do next.

When you move out on your own, you don’t get a memo that says “Congratulations, you’re now in charge of your life.” Suddenly you are in charge of making up what you do next. You have to face dealing with uncertainly.

Most normal people (normal as defined as being someone other than an entrepreneur) seek to minimize uncertainty and risk and take a job with a defined career path like lawyer, teacher or fire fighter. A career path is a continuation of the direction you’ve gotten at home and school – do these things and you’ll get these rewards. (Even with a career path you’ll discover that you need to champion your own trajectory down that path. No one will tell you that you are in a dead end job. No one will say that it’s time to move on. No one will tell you that you are better qualified for something elsewhere. No one will say work less and go home and spend time with your partner and/or family.  And many end up near the end of their careers trapped, saying, “I wish I could have…, I think I should have…”)

Non-Linear Career Path
But entrepreneurs instinctually realize that the best advocate for their careers is themselves and that there is no such thing as a linear career path. They recognize they are going to have to follow their own internal compass and embrace the uncertainty as part of the journey.

In fact using uncertainty as your path is an advantage entrepreneurs share. Their journey will have them try more disconnected paths than someone on a traditional career track. And one day all the seemingly random data and experience they’ve acquired will end up as an insight in building something greater than the sum of the parts.

Steve Job’s 2005 Stanford commencement speech still says it best -
Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish.

Lessons Learned

  • Trust your instincts
  • Showing up a lot increases your odds
  • Trust that the dots in your career will connect
  • Have a passion for Doing something rather than Being a title on a business card.

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20 Responses

  1. “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” – Woody Allen

    A version of your story about showing up for a job that didn’t exist happened to me when I reported for work at a lab in eastern Washington state years ago. There is no doubt that mistakes create opportunities. Who knows what I’d been doing now if I hadn’t showed up?

  2. THANKS – MAKES ME FEEL BETTER

    21 months ago I left an awesome job at Oracle in Silicon Valley and relocated to India to be an entrepreneur. I’ve tried different things in India – sales training, software sales, advising entrepreneurs. It’s been a very, very difficult journey. I’m heading back to the US in the fall to pursue entrepreneurship in the US.

    Steve’s post makes me feel better because I feel hungry all the time, though I usually do not feel foolish!

  3. Wow – talk about “thinking on your feet” !!! – driving across the country to find out your job no longer exists – while this must have happened to many people before (different circumstances) you handled it with a most upbeat response (I probably would have crumbled to the ground, got back into my car and driven back). Good for you!!! Thank you for the example of how we should approach adversity.

    I really enjoy your posts – thank you for taking time to place your experiences up on the web.

    Thank you again.

    -gary

  4. I married my wife and had my first child at 23. My second just arrived two weeks ago so I don’t have the liberty of being foolish but I still refuse to take the linear path. I learned at an early age that there is little or no reward without risk. I refuse to be a “could have, would have, wish I” person. Thanks for your post, you continue to drive and inspire me.

  5. I think at some level you understood you would be starting your own company and were focused on getting a breadth of exposure to different functions, in particular different customer-facing functions. I think there is a choice, you can focus on climbing the corporate ladder or you can choose to get broad experience, in particular as many facets of customer facing experience, to prepare yourself for becoming an entrepreneur.

  6. My first start up in 1999 I was employee #10 or so and signed up for a Graphic Designer position. 2 weeks in they had outsourced my job, which lead to an awkward conversation.

    Manager: “Sorry man we outsourced your job, I guess this was already in the works before I hired you. How do you feel about coding?”

    Me: “Coding sounds like a great idea!” (please don’t fire me, I just moved out of my house for the first time, signed a lease, and have no idea what I’m doing)

  7. [...] Agile Opportunism – Entrepreneurial DNA « Steve Blank (tags: startup) [...]

  8. Hi Steve:

    I have become a recent regular reader of your blog. Thoroughly enjoy each one of your posts. This one particularly resonates with me.

    Keep up the good work

  9. There’s no better feeling than when you surprise yourself with how well things turn out.

    It’s as if the entrepreneurial attitude itself is your guide through the process — and that attitude is more in-tune with the potential positive outcomes in an uncertain environment than you yourself are.

    I’ve heard creative writers talk about how they felt like they were serving as a conduit for some outside force to create a great piece of literature. They surprised themselves with how good the final product was. I think the entrepreneurial lifestyle is, in a lot of ways, similar.

    Or at least, without that belief, I don’t think I’d make a very good entrepreneur.

  10. [...] Another amazingly inspirational post by Steve Blank.  Agile Opportunism – Entrepreneurial DNA. Opportunities are always there, you need to keep your eyes open and grab the opportunity when it [...]

  11. [...] a comment » “You’re Not So Smart, You Just Show Up a Lot” –  Steve Blank on essential [...]

  12. [...] Steve Blank, Agile Opportunism – Entrepreneurial DNA: … entrepreneurs instinctualy realize that the best advocate for their careers is themselves [...]

  13. Somehow I missed this fantastic tale Steve. The rollercoaster and opportunistic flow were incredible. The wonderful part from my perspective was that you intentionally set yourself up for a heavy workload, because your instincts told you it was the best move. Sharp, shoot from the hip, decision making, great stuff.

  14. [...] Steve’s post at the end of June, Agile Opportunism – Entrepreneurial DNA, he shares his early career experiences. He quit his old job and drove across country to Silicon [...]

  15. [...] 1978 when I joined my first company, information about how to start companies simply didn’t exist. No internet, no blogs, no books [...]

  16. Life moves way to fast to NOT take on a non-linear career path. Thanks Steve, Great insight. Great read. Inspiration strikes again!
    Frypan

  17. Thanks Steve, for the inspiration.

    “And one day all the seemingly random data and experience they’ve acquired will end up as an insight in building something greater than the sum of the parts.”

    Is there a good way to identify/document/infer from the major bullet points of failures? Quit my cushy corporate job in IL and drove across America more than a year ago now to do something meaningful. I haven’t yet connected all the dots, and I’m sure the patterns will be obvious when I’m all successful and look back on them to make a commencement speech at Stanford, but it’s just a goddamn hazy fog when you’re in the thick of it – in the middle of a graveyard of business experiments gone wrong! My lessons learnt for sure are not the rungs of a ladder, but it’d better be the base of a giant pyramid!

    Thanks for your post – it’s like stumbling upon a copy of Frost’s “Road not taken” when you’re lost in a forest.

  18. [...] Badly Want the Job When I got my first job in Silicon Valley it was through serendipity (my part) and desperation (on the part of my first employer.)  I [...]

  19. [...] Agile Opportunism – Entrepreneurial DNA « Steve Blank. Share this:StumbleUponDiggRedditLike this:LikeBe the first to like [...]

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