Builders Universe
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Builders Universe

How ‘learning by doing’ shaped my career in tech

Over the past few months, I’ve been developing Launchpad (Growth Academy) at Builders. I was having trouble finding the right candidate for our vacancy, as the growth professional hasn’t really emerged until recently, in the last few years. It made me think; how relevant is education in the rapid process of developing marketing jobs like a growth hacker? Is it better to follow a four-year educational program, or does a traineeship where you learn to immediately apply this knowledge hands-on have more value?

I started reflecting on my own experience. As you might know, I started doing business at a relatively young age. I was sixteen, and next to being in secondary school, I ran a creative agency and sold bespoke scarves and jewelry through my own webshop. Creating new things and doing business got me going. I wanted to gain more reach: how could I market my products more effectively? I decided to enroll in Fashion Management studies and — phew — made it through the selection process. Studying was what people did after they graduated, right? This was when the trouble started. I’m an independent thinker, stubborn at times. I wanted to take the reins in life, but at the same time, I was craving guidance. From the two routes I could take doing Fashion Management, I wanted to focus on management. The school, however, recommended I focus on fashion design. They saw a gap in my experience, where I wanted to focus more on the subject matter that already interested me. So for the first time in my young career, someone else tried to steer me into a direction that didn’t fit me.

Because the items in my webshop were in such high demand, I decided to keep focusing on business by myself. Now selling several products and software, I traveled to Asia to visit manufacturers and suppliers, try out different fabrics, experience the production process, and learn about import and export. When I arrived back in the Netherlands, waiting for my deliveries, it hit me again. That nagging feeling was in the back of my mind. When you’re young, you have to study. I started to look up follow-on education and quickly found my match: International Business studies. On the open day in Amsterdam, I wondered what I was about to learn during my four years here. I spoke to one of the professors.

“You will learn about import, export, etc.,” he said.
“Interesting,” I said, “have you done much business internationally?”
“No,” he said.
“But where did you get all this knowledge from, then?” I asked.
“We learn from renowned books,” the professor replied.

That was that. The ‘spark’ I’d felt before enrolling in this program was completely gone. Maybe studying wasn’t the right path, after all.

Before I was even twenty, I’d learned two things about studying. For one, I was being steered in a direction that didn’t match what I wanted to learn. And two: International Business was taught by professors who had learned their knowledge from a book while I’d been to Asia and observed the production process at multiple factories. I was confused about the norm in education. Who decided what kind of knowledge was useful to me? And better — who were the people teaching me? What were their backgrounds? And how would their skills help me when it became clear what I wanted to do?

The nagging in the back of my mind had disappeared. I ditched the idea that I was going to study.

Navigating the gap between education and work-life
Today, many years later, I still see this gap between education and work experience around me, everywhere. As I don’t base my decision to hire someone based on their education, I have quite a variety of people working alongside me. Some have done intensive business or technical studies and work in the field they were educated for. Some have years and years of self-taught business experience. There is no rule book for that, but experience counts. It’s quite simple; older people with more work experience are simply more advanced in what they do. They have learned by ‘doing,’ and as a result, they’re much more relaxed because they trust the process. It happened to me as well. I used to dive deep into a process and was very reactive; I thought I had to be incredibly quick, or opportunities would seep from my hands. Now, I think about important decisions much longer. I relax, sleep on it. Often, obstacles resolve themselves in the meantime.

Skills you need in the tech startup industry
All philosophy about the future aside, looking ahead is necessary when working in the tech startup industry. This field evolves so quickly; it’s hard to keep up. That’s why I believe the skill you need most is an inner drive to make things work. When you want to build a startup, you need to have experience running a business. Whether your business has succeeded or failed is less important. Your experience going after your goals is your main source of knowledge. Delivering products or services to other people is different from handing in a school assignment. It’s all about the dynamics between people and how you handle the emotions released while you’re under pressure.

As can be read in our Culture statement, our studio is built upon the idea of constant innovation. Great ideas can come from anyone. We keep challenging existing principles and rules to create something new. That’s why we aim to build an environment in which critical feedback is not only embraced but required. That’s the second skill I’d name — being brutally honest and taking the same from others, dealing with your response to criticism on your work, your ideas, your way of handling things. It’s a tough but one-way ticket to personal growth.

Five ways in which Builders helps introduce work experience
At Builders, we throw you into the deep end. Just kidding. As much as we value learning by doing and making your own mistakes, we think this can’t be done without providing our team with a safety net. A solid basis giving our people tools, example outlines and the headstart anyone would need to experience business building.

How?

  1. We have a venture playbook
    We want to make entrepreneurs even better entrepreneurs. Give them everything they need to accelerate, making sure they can focus on the things that really matter. I have years of experience building companies and always improve on my latest experience. I take those metrics and try to increase the ratio of success. We are constantly building new playbooks and looking at the data from previous building cycles. When people start working with us, they follow our proven stage-gate model.
  2. We coach & converse
    I’m very close with the people I work with and know what’s up. During the coaching conversations we have, we share knowledge and experiences. We try offering a different perspective. Furthermore, we ensure we go deeper into the level of personal matches within a team. Do people fit together? Are people’s energies complementary so the team can move forward?
  3. Our core team provides specific subject matter knowledge
    Everyone in our core team is working on one specific part. Growth marketing, product management, design, operations, talent, and recruitment. They are all subject matter experts, constantly developing themselves, staying on top of trends and innovations. This means others only have their own goal to focus on and won’t be sidetracked.
  4. We keep up with the latest trends.. but don’t exhaust our people
    Yes, our studio is built upon the idea of constant innovation, but we all work very goal-oriented. We have a clear focus and set company goals. Whether you reach that goal you’re responsible for left or right; you are free to do so. This gives everyone in our teams a lot of freedom. In addition to working towards a goal, we discuss the intentions. What is relevant and what isn’t? This way, you ensure someone thinks about the process. During your journey, you will not deviate from this process. You think about the approach beforehand, and you put side matters out of scope. This way, we make people think before they run.
  5. We bring in tons of positive energy
    Besides all the tools, processes, and conversations, we think working in an environment with a high dose of positive energy is key. Our team members want to move forward. We are constantly busy facilitating a positive vibe. It’s not all easy-breezy; we all experience flaws, and there is room for error, but you just try to be there for people. We are a safety net, a bit of security, making people more daring and giving them more space.

In a way, at Builders, we are educating, too. We do everything we can to contribute to making better entrepreneurs.

My own ‘education gap’ was necessary
When I think about that opportunity to enroll in International Business studies, I never regret not doing it. I stood there, and that specific person didn’t give the right answer to me at that moment. It was only a moment in time. Anyone else could have said something different to me and have made me wildly excited.

I am very happy with the slow learning curve I went through. This is just who I am. I am an entrepreneur, and I get energy from exploring things myself. Perhaps the doubt to study was always planted in my mind, somewhere because I have never enjoyed sitting in a classroom. I am not a person who only learns from a book. I would rather give myself 200% and be completely satisfied at the end of the day than listen to someone else and spend hours doing an assignment. The energy I get from building gives me so much joy.

I learned that my inner drive and how I respond to and give constructive feedback shaped my career. When I look back, I think you don’t learn that at school. Sometimes you have to be your cheeky self and go for it. Challenge yourself. Determine your path. So what is it that energizes you to jump out of bed? What is it that propels you forward?

Do let me know in the comments below.

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Sharon Klaver

Sharon Klaver

👸🏻🥂 Gets excited about spreadsheets and champagne as Founder, and Managing Director at builders.studio.