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What I’ve Learned Working for Successful Entrepreneurs Instead of Becoming One

Not everyone has to create their own startup, just join one.

I would be insane if I said that you have to work for a startup to create a successful one. However, for those of you who yearn to be apart of the startup community, there is a different path. Learn by joining, instead of immediately diving in.

Everyone wants to start a company, but everyone is not ready to start a company, and that’s okay. And the people who have already started really need your help.

You’ll learn more being in the environment than any talk, video, or blog post can provide you. When things can go wrong any day (and they will), just being in the same room as those solving the hard problems will give you incredible insights. You learn with significantly less risk and a possible reward.

While in college, I was sure my next step was to start a company. Instead, I chose to join a startup (directly from college), and it was the best decision I’ve ever made.

Just like everyone who’s ever started a company, I underestimated all that’s involved. Here is what I’ve observed:

You can learn from everyone

You can’t create a company alone. You will need help, advice, and employees. From what I’ve seen, great help, advice, and employees are surprisingly hard to come by. To be successful at finding great people, you should be looking at all times, even when you are not actively looking.

Most people —primarily developers because of the high demand — won’t work for you just for a job. Individuals are going to be more likely to work for someone they trust and have a relationship with, especially if you’re asking them to take a risk with you. They have to believe in your vision.

People, conversation, and networking are your greatest tools. Every sales deal, acquisition, or buy-out started with a conversation — probably at a bar or a golf course 🤷🏽‍♂️. Although very difficult, try not to turn down a conversation, lunch, or coffee. Sometimes, the unexpected conversations are the ones that turned into something great.

It’s important that you seek help from people wiser than you. It’s okay not to know everything; no one has it all figured out. I’ve noticed that having a large number and diverse set of mentors will offer you a wider perspective on any problem.

Best ideas win

Early on, I’ve observed that you have to create an environment where the best ideas win, no matter who has it — everyone is a rock star. This means creating an environment where everyone’s (I mean everyone’s) ideas are illuminated, valued, heard. A theology professor once told me:

“ You don’t come to ideas; ideas come to you.”

To win, you need the best ideas so let them come. To do this, everyone must lose their ego, and let the best solutions solve the hardest problems. No idea is stupid. The best ideas come from unexpected places; you just have to be open to them.

I’ve noticed that this has a huge impact on employee happiness. For me, I was scared to be the youngest, only black person in the company. However, after being in this ideal environment, I learned quickly that those differences gave me a unique perspective. A perspective that the founders valued and I felt valued. You should strive to give the people who work for you the same feeling.

Employees have goals too

Sorry, the people you hire will not have the same passion for your company as you will. You must properly design incentives to keep great people. One way to do this is to ensure that the job’s goals and the employees’ personal goals align. Thus, they’ll feel personally successful when they are successful in their position.

Make people feel like they work with you, not for you.

In early hiring conversations in the past, I was asked: “What would you like to achieve in this position? How can we help you be successful?”. People are going to care more about your success if you care about theirs.

The founders that I worked for knew that one day I dreamed of starting a company. They’ve supported me every step of the way. They answer every single one of my thousands of questions. Most importantly, I’m not limited to a 30 min “let’s connect” coffee. I’m always a couple of steps, a meeting, or a lunch away from getting my questions answered.


Side note: Notice how all of these centered around valuing others. IJS ❤️

I’m at peace with the fact I didn’t start a company out of college. By experiencing it, I learned crucial skills and experienced the “trenches” that will immense value in the future.

If you’re lucky, you’ll get to work with amazing people, learn what to do, and what not to do. I was lucky enough to work for Charlie Key and Brandon Cannaday for two different companies.

Brandon Cannaday and Charlie Key

These are only some of the things I’ve learned from some great founders. Best of all, this is only the tip of the iceberg; there is much more to learn.

In the beginning, I wasn’t ready. But one day, I will be.