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"Ask Gib": How did you decide that you are a builder, not a starter?"
Answer: Like building products, careers require experiments to see what works. I learned through trial & error that I'm better at building & scaling companies than I am at starting them from scratch.
Gib’s note: After a long summer break, I’m writing again. Each week, I answer a few questions, drawing from my experience as VP of Product at Netflix and Chief Product Officer at Chegg (the textbook rental and homework help company that went public in 2013). Today’s answer is essay #54.
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“Ask Gib” question: “How Did You Decide that You’re a Builder, Not a Starter?”
Are you a starter, builder, or super-scaler?
I’m a builder-- I look for startups with a proof of concept that are ready to scale and then help them grow. But I always wanted to start a company from scratch— until I learned that I’m not a starter— the hard way.
Starter, Builder, and Super-Scaler Defined
Here’s how I define each of these three stages for product leaders:
A starter enjoys building companies from zero to one. This person is comfortable with early startup risk and appreciates the limited resources. S/he tends to have a broad set of skills required for this “everybody grabs a shovel” stage.
A builder enjoys working in a startup with a proof of concept ready to scale. The challenge is to recruit and organize teams to build projects in parallel. Startup organizations divide and conquer and define roles in more focused, disciplined ways at this point in their growth. Now you have the resources to build more things in parallel, and you need both management and strategy discipline to help the company quickly scale.
A super-scaler enjoys working at large organizations to help them grow even bigger. These folks have increasingly specific skills and domain expertise. Super-scalers also seek a larger organizations’ ability to “dent the universe,” given that the company now has more resources and a broader societal footprint.
Which are you? Click on the survey link below to identify the one stage that best fits your skills and interests. (You can also see the results by clicking on the second link.)
Here are the survey results among my Twitter/LinkedIn/AskGib audience:
I was a surprised by the large number of self-reported “Builders” and my guess is that the “Starter” band is overstated — it’s a bit aspirational for most. Likewise, I think that the “Super-Scaler” band is more prevalent than folks admit.
Click here to see the up-to-date results.
My Career as a Builder
I’m not a super-scaler. I have a broad set of skills well-suited for earlier-stage companies and an allergy to the heavy-handed processes and politics that large companies propagate. At Netflix, I had taken one statistics course, which made my early-stage builder job feasible. Still, I would have needed a Ph.D. in statistics to help take Netflix to the next level of “super-scaling,” given the company’s increasing focus on big data and machine learning. That was one of the reasons I did not stay at Netflix and went to another startup, Chegg, a textbook rental and homework help service for students.
I joined Netflix in 2005 when it had one million members. When I went to Chegg in 2010, Netflix had twenty million members. This one to twenty million member stage is the sweet spot for me.
I joined Chegg, a fifty-person startup, in 2010. I implemented the first AB tests, hired teams to execute textbook rental and homework help in parallel, and upgraded the product organization. I also provided clear leadership and direction through my management, leadership, and strategy skills, along with an early definition of the company’s culture. In late 2013, I helped the company to go public. These five years were an excellent fit for my product leadership skills.
What About a Starter Role?
I learned mid-way in my career that just-born startups don’t match my skills. In 1994, I was a co-founder at Creative Wonders, but this was a startup with a safety net -- it was a joint venture between Electronic Arts & Disney/ABC. If the company failed, I could return to my job at Electronic Arts. At the start, Creative Wonders had twenty employees and a proof of concept, so it was an early builder role.
In 2002, we sold a startup, FamilyWonder.com, to Sega, and I took a sabbatical to launch a startup with my marketing partner, Louis Roitblat. Louis and I had ideas and an engineering team ready to go, plus early funding. But we kept talking ourselves out of our ideas -- I was unwilling to make the leap of faith required.
In hindsight, I didn’t tolerate the risk and ambiguity of early startups well. Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn, describes the act of a startup as “jumping off a cliff and assembling an airplane on the way down.” I was forever guilty of “analysis paralysis” and was unwilling to jump. My tendency to over-think, low-risk tolerance, and low tolerance for ambiguity makes me a better builder than a starter.
Starting in 2015, I learned a lot about startups as I taught an entrepreneurship course at Stanford. Each fall, one or two of the twelve startup teams I coached launched their company. The teams that moved from classroom projects to actual companies got to a point where they had to launch their startup— they could not NOT do it. Their motivation wasn’t financial or influenced by the perceived sexiness of Silicon Valley startups. They identified a real problem they felt compelled to solve. They had the passion, persistence, and skills required to jump off the cliff and build an airplane as they fell.
My Recent Builder Experiment
For the first three years after Chegg, I tried another experiment. I became the three-day/week product leader at three subsequent startups that had proof of concepts and were ready to scale. I took on an “Executive in Residence Product” role in a three day/week capacity for each startup for one year at a time. I took advantage of my abilities to bring discipline — via strategy, light management systems, culture, and hiring — to the messiness of scaling startups.
My job at each of these companies was to scale their product organization and help them to hire a full-time head of product. After one year, I would move on to the next startup. All three of these companies (Life360, Metromile, NerdWallet) went public. It takes a while, but if you figure out what you are good at and focus maniacally on that, you can do audacious things — like work for companies on a three-day/week basis.
Conclusion: Experiment with your career
So, what are you? I’m a Builder, but many of you are likely a combination of Starter/Builder or Builder/Super-Scaler. If you can identify which stage is best for you, you can set yourself up for success and avoid the pain that just-formed startups and super-scaling provoked for me.
Would I have done anything differently? As I look back, my startup experiment was too externally motivated. To have a successful Silicon Valley career, I thought that I needed to launch a startup from scratch. I knew I didn’t have the right skills and risk profile, but I felt compelled to try.
Like building products, you need to experiment to see what works. You can have a fuzzy vision or plan, but nothing beats trying different stages — starting, building, or super-scaling — to see what works.
Here’s one last chance to complete the “What Stage Are You?” survey and to see the results from your peers:
(Click here to see the survey results.)
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I hope you enjoyed this essay.
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PPS. I have responded to 60 questions so far! Once I answer a question, I archive it.