Thoughts on Career

A reply to a friend on ‘being Elon’.

“Self discovery is definitely the single greatest influence on Career success” — Me

I myself was on the path to be Africa’s Elon Musk. 😈

But along the line (after executing a bit) I realized I had gotten this shit all wrong. The best startups never really get created with that mindset. Sometimes society puts so much pressure on us when we see shit like Forbes30under30 and want to be a part of it badly. While that may be a worthy goal for some, a great idea is the basic foundation of such achievements, as opposed to ambition. So having great ideas is important. The issue is, you can think up seemingly sounding great ideas across the verticals you want to fuck shit up in, and just be on the path to becoming a great rockstar entrepreneur. That’s naive in a way. Because it is proven empirically, that stuff never starts that way.

Upon failing (woefully), I started taking ‘statistical’ analysis of how the biggest and baddest startups/companies started, and I noticed an interesting pattern — they all started with a problem hanging around the founder.

So how then can one improve (& radically) increase her chances of success on the path to being Elon?

With a fair amount of pessimism (bear in mind I’m optimistic af), SpaceX or Tesla can’t be started by someone who hasn’t (a) had a vibrant career in that vertical or (b) founded one or two startups with ~$10m revenue till date.

This is for some reasons:

  • Vibrant career because you get to understand the intricacies of the field, immerse yourself with so much depth that you apply your entrepreneurial instincts to ‘coincidentally’ find loopholes and proffer solutions with a later startup. &
  • ~$10m revenue because that’s what it usually takes to have built a startup around a (proven) really great idea & more importantly, actually have the skills/gut to grow it to that level. Ideally, $10m revenue for me, is proof you’ve made something people want with paying customers.

One thing would be to work on a bunch of side projects. It’s no coincidence Y Combinator’s motto is ‘Make something people want’. There’s nothing you can do/be as a startup founder if people don’t want that shit. So you just think it’d be cool to have something that’s missing in your life, then you build it for yourself and maybe your friends, & before you know it 100m people around the world just like you are hanging around ready to use & pay for that product. One too many folks ask me why I ask people to learn to design or code (or both) ASAP. It’s because software is (clearly) eating the world, you never know where the next AirBnB is in your life until you start having that hacker mentality- to build stuff that you want and to fix shit that’s broken.

The other would be to learn these skills and get in a young startup you believe so much in. I always advise folks around me to try get a job (onsite or remote) outside the country [1], to improve the quality of skilled tech workers in your network, both for ability and diversity. As you do this, you’d be sure to create side projects with your folks there and here at home. Why work at a young startup creating good stuff? Because nothing beats hands-on experience, working at a company where your input actively grows it before your eyes. That way you get to be closely involved with user feedback, experience & support — which are the raw elements you’d use to ship impactful features.

What happens after these? With your side projects, the chances of you striking a gold mine on one or two increases over 90%, in comparison to being driven by ambition. What’s more cool is a lot of people start to connect with you locally or abroad, and one might just be your next cofounder for an idea you or her come up with.

Also, by working at a young startup, you get a fair amount of equity. With your current ‘entrepreneurial instincts’ (with just a little bit of refining), you could be able to choose a startup with great potential to work with. If you make a bad choice two things happen: (1) you get better at vetting startups & (2) you just might be the person founding the next unicorn startup to solve the problems that killed them (if they were dorky/cocky enough not to listen to your suggestions).

With these, you achieve much fulfillment, enjoy life and be great.

It is worth noting that Elon Musk had a done all the things I mentioned, in order for SpaceX, Tesla, Hyperloop, Neuralink, The Boring Company & OpenAI to exist today. He worked on and merged with Confinity, which then they became PayPal, sold to E-Bay in 2002. He used that cash as a launchpad for what he is today. Earlier in his life, he also created games as a side project and even sold for a few dollars!

So after you either create a side project that makes you a shitload of money, or join a startup that you can vest equity/stock options after a while (& not to forget the immense wealth of experience+network gained doing these), you’d have transcended those ‘entrepreneurial instincts’ to ‘entrepreneurial ability’. By then you’d be mature enough to simply pick an idea across a vertical, live ahead of the future and have great skills vetting and bringing that idea to life. That my friend, would be your Tesla moment. That would be the moment when you go to Russia to purchase rockets. That would be when you enter god-mode, and be Elon (if you need to).

Starting small and lean isn’t a concept I fully understood. People always communicated starting small from points of weakness, rather than it being the right thing to do. Starting small can only be the right thing to do when you start building stuff. Google started because the founders had the skill to just build a better and faster search engine they wanted for themselves, by creating PageRank. They most likely never knew it would be what it is today, until they struck the AdWords/AdSense gold mine. Facebook only started as a platform for communities. Zuck probably didn’t even know he could make revenue of advertising. AirBnB started in somewhat similar fashion too.

Why ultimately, is it important for you to build things people want? It’s because, the key to the success of your startup would lie in the user’s hands. You just spend all your time talking to your users, and they’d tell you the problems they want you to solve for them. AirBnB is very different today than it started years ago, largely because of user requests/feedback. Snapchat stories would probably never exist, if not for user requests.

So, learn to design or code to develop your hacker mentality, groom your entrepreneurial instincts by following this framework, and build stuff that solve your problems and your friends’ problems. Very soon, you’d have made something a lot of people want & then, they’d tell you how they want you to convert what you’ve made into something they would pay for. Maybe then you’d have the money (& network) to be Elon. You can do all those before 30 and still nicely enter Forbes30under30 (if that matters).


[1] This is questionable. Nigeria is a great place with a lot of promising startups. But IMHO, we haven’t necessarily replicated the ethos we see in Silicon Valley & other advanced tech ecosystems. We’d win by gaining exposure and using that accumulated experience to build impeccable products at home. Either way, I may be slightly biased as this perspective is being challenged everyday, with newer world-class developers springing up from the Nigerian tech community.