Thursday, October 10, 2013

Want to be an entrepreneur (or Ph.D.)? Start by bagging groceries

In both my academic and entrepreneurial endeavors, I am constantly trying to identify the traits that make a a successful self-starter -- a critical skill in unstructured environments such as a research lab or a startup. A common heuristic that most people use when trying to hire talent is past success. Showing someone one you have been moderately successful in the past gives them some confidence you will replicate that success in the future. For instance, many professors wouldn't take on student researchers until they complete a course with them and score a high grade. However, I found this heuristic to be suboptimal. Instead, what I focus on is a candidate's ability be the best at something [1].

This is somewhat counter-intuitive [2], especially for startups where you are advised to find someone who can wear multiple hats within a rapidly growing organization. However, in certain domains, the most successful people are those that can become experts at one thing. Because if you can prove that you are an expert at something, the odds are extremely high that, in the proper conditions, you could become an expert at something else in the future.

Think about it. The best graduate students are those who by the time they graduate they are the #1 expert on a certain topic -- more of an expert than their advisor or colleagues [3]. The most successful entrepreneurs are those that become intimately knowledgeable about their market, customers, and larger trends. More so than their investors, competitors, and board members.

When I was an undergrad in NYC, I worked as a bagger at a local supermarket. I had a co-worker named Muhammed. He was a short and stocky middle-aged man and wore one of those lower-back-supporitng belts, possibly because he lifted weighted when he was younger. The belt doubled as a pouch to store all sorts of fun stuff (it was his Batman belt of sorts). Muhammed was a longtime employee who used the same joke with every customer at checkout: "Since you're my favorite, I'll give you a free receipt - don't tell anyone!" While you might not look up to a "longtime" cashier, Muhammed was an expert at saving customers money. Anytime a customer checked something out (even when he was not working at the register) he would immediately identify items that were on sale and would whip out a coupon for that item from his Bat Belt. That's the kind of skill that is extremely hard to find. If I ever wanted to hire Muhammed, my main challenge would be to put him in a role that brought him the same amount of joy as "couponing" did.

So what does does it take to become an expert [4]: humility, resourcefulness, and focus (work harder and more thoughtfully than anyone else). But these will have to wait for another post.


[1] You may argue that this theory doesn't account for confounding factors such as innate intelligence, communication skills, etc. True, but once you are in certain positions these traits become less of a factor in such control environments (e.g. most college students meet a minimum baseline, the same for people that want to work for startups.)

[2] Versatility is highly regarded in the startup world, yet that is mostly true only for founders who need to do a good enough job at multiple responsibilities to be able to attract the customers, talent, and investors. For instance you might not be a graphic designer but as a founder you must do a 7/10 job in design to impress talented designers to get on board. The key here is that you need to be good enough in your versatility (i.e. 7/10)

[3] Students tend to get psyched out when they hear this. The key to becoming an expert is to realize that it doesn't have to be something sexy such as cognitive neuroscience -- in fact most Ph.D.'s are experts are the most obscure, and sometimes defunct, subjects. In fact, you can define your expertise so narrowly that you will be the sole expert on that topic.

[4] Identifying expertise sometimes requires extra work as people don't always walk around claiming they're an expert at something. So sometimes I try to chat applicants up about their hobbies and see if they get deep into them or they just jump around. In my opinion, it doesn't matter if you're an expert at Pokemon or Machine Learning because it shows me that, when motivated, you are able to focus and go to great lengths to master a subject. If that's the case, my job now is to put the applicant in an environment where they feel supported and motivated to become an expert at something.