3 Answers to 3 Questions

How did you decide whether you were a starter, builder or super-scaler? How do you decide which company you want to join? Do you ever consider trading off professional development for life balance?

How did you decide whether you were a starter, builder, or super-scaler?

Short answer: I experimented to see what works best for me. (I’m a builder.)

There are three stages of company growth, and one person is rarely good at all three:

  1. A Starter enjoys building companies from zero to one. This person is comfortable with early startup risk and ambiguity and appreciates the limited resources available. S/he tends to have a general set of skills required for this “everybody grab a shovel” stage of a company.

  2. A Builder enjoys working in a startup with a proof of concept that’s ready to scale. The challenge of this stage is to recruit and organize discrete teams to build multiple projects in parallel. During this time, startups “divide and conquer” and define roles in more focused, disciplined ways. More resources mean you can build more stuff, which builders love to do.

  3. A Super-Scaler enjoys working at a large organization to help it grow even bigger and to excel. These individuals have increasingly specific skills and domain expertise. They also enjoy large organizations' ability to “dent the universe,” given they have more resources and a broader footprint.

I enjoy the builder stage. I am adept at recruiting and developing teams and bring discipline to the chaos of fast-growing startups. I also have a fairly general set of skills.

Testing the “starter” hypothesis

I assumed that I would start a company from scratch before I ended my career. While I co-founded a startup, Creative Wonders, in 1995, this was really a joint venture between EA and Disney — we had 30 employees at the “start.”

In 2003, I had time, funding, and a teammate in Louis Roitblat, a “battle buddy” who had been my marketing partner at past startups. We had several good ideas but kept talking ourselves out of them. That’s when I realized I wasn’t a starter — I was unwilling to commit to the ambiguity and risk of starting a company.

The super-scaler hypothesis

At the other end of the spectrum, I joined Netflix when it had a strong proof of concept, and I helped it grow. But after five years, it was clear that I wasn’t the right person to “super-scale” the company. I had taken one statistics class in business school, but at that time, Netflix needed a consumer scientist — someone with a Ph.D. in statistics who could execute machine learning at scale. So I moved on to become the Chief Product Officer at Chegg, a textbook rental startup with a clear proof of concept. After five years and a successful IPO, I moved onto three-day/week head of product roles at Life360, Metromile, and NerdWallet.

Like me, I think you need to experiment to discover which of these three stages works best for you.


Q: How do you determine which companies you want to join? Any suggestions on what entry-level PMs should consider?

Short answer: Develop a hypothesis about what you want your next job to be, then explore it via side projects, then full-time roles. For entry-level PMs, there’s a balance between the opportunity that small companies provide v. the formal training that larger companies enable.

In 1990, during the summer between my two years of business school, I worked in the competitive intelligence group at IBM in New York. My job was to predict the future of DOS v. OS2 v. Windows v. Apple. At night I researched potential companies to join once I graduated.

My career hypothesis

My job search started with a simple hypothesis: I would enjoy becoming a product manager for a startup focused on entertainment, education, or productivity tools. While at business school, I tested that hypothesis by building prototypes for potential software startups.

In my second year at Tuck (Dartmouth), my team won the entrepreneurship prize. Based on this success, I focused my search on Silicon Valley startups, including Microsoft, The Learning Company, Broderbund, Claris (Apple), and Electronic Arts. During my summer at IBM, I researched this list and put Electronic Arts near the top. I enjoyed gaming and thought EA had high potential based on the growth of new TV-based game systems from Nintendo and Sega. EA also had a “Producer College” for product managers. It felt like a good fit, so I accepted a job offer at EA in 1991.

Finding a great job

My next big job search was in 2005 when I landed a job at Netflix. I wrote about this search in detail here: “How to Find a Great Job.” Like business school, I had a strong hypothesis about the types of jobs and companies I would enjoy and did lots of research to identify the best fit for me, including soliciting advice from my personal board of directors.

Notes for entry-level PMs

There’s a balancing act between the amount of opportunity and responsibility you can take on at smaller companies v. the formal training that larger companies enable for early-stage product managers. Smaller companies provide a lot of responsibility for folks early in their career but have only informal, on-the-job training. To find more formal training — like Google’s APM program — you’ll need to explore larger companies that can afford to invest in training.

Generally, look for companies that offer job internships for entry-level positions — this is a sign that they are committed to early-stage career growth. (We offered summer internships at Chegg, but Netflix did not — we were more focused on hiring “well-formed adults.”)

One last factor: look for companies that will grow fast, as growth creates opportunity. Fast-growing companies are full of “battlefront promotions” where employees are promoted quickly as they expand into new categories. That’s the main reason I grew from Director to VP to SVP in four years once I left EA and joined Creative Wonders, The Learning Company, and Mattel.

What’s your career hypothesis?

Forming a hypothesis about the type of role and company you seek, then researching each company's prospects can lead to being in the right place at the right time, which is how I explain most of my career success.


Q: Product is taxing mentally & physically. Did you ever consider trading off professional fulfillment for personal life balance?

Short answer: Yes. I took multiple breaks from my career and made conscious decisions to work more/less a few times.

Coming out of business school, my wife, Kristen, told me she wanted to work at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle, so I interviewed at Microsoft. I had just finished my second day of interviews when Kristen called to tell me that she had changed her mind and wanted to live in San Francisco. It was a phone call that set the stage for decades of juggling in our two-career household.

During the call, she got worked up, started projecting all of her fears about the future, then blurted, “But who’s going to feed the kids?”

My response: “Kristen, we don’t have any kids.”

I let Microsoft know that I was no longer interested, and I focused my job search on the San Francisco Bay area.

The parking lot test

I went directly from Microsoft's parking lot to the EA parking lot at the same time the next evening. The difference was staggering. The Microsoft lot was full; the EA lot was nearly empty. When I pointed out this difference to my interviewer, Diane Flynn, she told me, “We have exceptional teamwork, and everyone knows and plays their position. We don’t have to work all the time.” This said a lot to me about the opportunity for me to combine work, play, and family in balanced ways. I said “yes” to an offer from EA.

Intentional decisions to work more, or less

A few years later, my startup, Creative Wonders, was bought by The Learning Company. I sensed a growth opportunity but needed to talk about it with my wife first. I let her know that if I worked really hard for the next year— including weekends— there would be many career opportunities. She sensed my enthusiasm and said, “OK,” which led to a frantic year of handing off kids in airports as we both traveled a lot. But that effort led to three years of progressive promotions for me.

I also made conscious decisions to work less. In 2002, we sold FamilyWonder to Sega of Japan, which began a year-long sabbatical for me. I tutored at both kids’ schools, handled all the “life maintenance” at our house, and did lots of surfing, skiing, and triathlons. I enjoyed it so much I took a second year off.

But when I re-entered the workforce, I paid the price. I had to fight my way back onto the playing field and lost two years of learning to peers who had been maniacally focused on making their transition into dot.com life. I enjoyed the break but had to accept that there was a cost to working less than my peers.

Netflix’s well-formed adults

In 2005, when I interviewed at Netflix, I was struck by the number of well-formed adults juggling kids and jobs. The company was much more like EA than Microsoft. During my interviews, I discovered that Leslie Kilgore, the head of marketing, left work each night at 5 pm to eat dinner with her kids. Reed Hastings, the CEO, did not want to engage in business partnerships because “those relationships require travel, and travel is the biggest threat to work/life balance.” Netflix also pioneered the concept of “unlimited vacation” — a response to the rapidly blurring lines between work and play as Blackberries began to dominate our lives. You answered emails while watching your child’s soccer game— were you working or playing?

Conclusions

Here’s what I have learned about work-life balance:

  • Make conscious decisions about how hard you want to work.

  • You can work smart, but other companies and individuals will work smart, plus hard, and have an advantage. You can’t have it all.

  • Stay focused on the things you value. For me, it was a combination of work, family, and free time for athletic pursuits.

  • Don’t spend time comparing yourself to others or “keeping up with the Joneses.” It leads to inevitable unhappiness.

  • Keep your life simple. After 30 years, my wife and I still live in our “starter house.” This gives us the economic freedom to do what we want — not what is required to pay a mortgage.

  • Evaluate how your potential employers navigate the concept of work-life balance. Does their parking lot look like Microsoft’s or EA’s?

I currently work half-time. While I have metrics for my work (NPS, number of free/paid talks), I also ski my age in days each winter and do half of that each year backpacking. It’s an intentional balance that we earned after three decades of madly juggling a two-career household.

And, yes, we always managed to feed the kids.

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