Life After Exit: What do you do after selling your company?
How I’m planning my career after 10 years in startups, social enterprises and climate change.
- Section 1: The Back Story
- Section 2: The Career Plan
- Section 3: The 2018 Action Plan
- Progress Report: 2018Q1
The Back Story
How I got here
In September 2017, I sold the company that I founded and ran for the last 5 years. As I started to share the news with people that had been involved in my startup life, I was met with pretty much the same response across the board: “so what are you going to do next?”.
At first, this was a no-brainer: the plan was to work with the acquiring company, integrate our teams and products, and quickly scale up the businesses and impact in China and APAC. But i guess life, especially startup life, rarely goes according to plan.
And so I found myself faced with the question again: “what’s next?”
To my surprise, people assumed that I would have an answer, some exciting new idea I was dying to start. But I didn’t. In fact, I had no idea what I wanted to do next. The best answers I could give were about what I didn’t want to do, based on the mistakes I had made in the past.
Just take me back to the start
So I tried to think back to what guided me to make career choices in the past. Since highschool, it had always been about social impact, and I always had some kind of hypothesis on how I could best deliver it. For example, my decision to pursue an undergraduate degree in International Business was inspired by the Grameen Bank, a star of the social enterprise circle at the time, which to me suggested a huge (but perhaps latent) potential for the hybrid social-business model to deliver impact.
During university, the climate change movement sweeps across Asia, I believe in large part from Al Gore’s campaigning, and I start to think that there is nothing more impactful than working to prevent the extinction of humanity. Upon graduation, I work with 350.org to launch climate change mitigation campaigns in China. After seeing 30,000 students launch projects in over 200 cities, my paradigm shifted again. Students in China clearly had the potential to create huge social impact — they just lacked resources and opportunities. That’s when ultimately led me to start Launchpilots, a platform connecting university student leaders to sponsorships to launch projects on campus.
Now flash back to 2018. The reason why I couldn’t answer “what’s next” was because I did not have a new hypothesis on where or how I could create the most impact. It gradually became apparent to me that I had been so heads down working on building Launchpilots, that I had more or less disconnected with the rest of the world. I lost touch with the key issues and people outside of my direct work. How could I answer “what’s next?” when I had no idea of “what’s out there”?
Figuring out how to figure it out
I started to reconnect and reflect. I listened to a lot of podcasts to reacquaint myself with issues of the day and the current discourse around them. I shared many a meal with the mentors and colleagues that I had met throughout the years. I wanted to know how other people thought about their careers, social impact and how they brought these two elements together. I read deeper into the topics that piqued my interest, especially around ethics, economic sustainability and human behaviour. I also started to think about my experiences in a more systematic manner, looking at what type of work I enjoy, what I don’t, what I’m good at and what I’m not (helpful resource: the “Good Time Journal”). Then I began to look for frameworks to help me piece it all together. There are lots of career planning resources out there, but since my focus was social impact, I landed on this one.
Now, if you’ve come here looking for a framework for career planning, then I won’t repeat the content and instead, suggest that you try out this career-decision tool or, if you’re a bit further along (i.e. you know more or less what you want to pursue, just need more help on how), then try this career planning tool. Or, if you want some nice research-backed reading on how To plan a career to maximize social impact: here’s the complete guide.
On the other hand, if you’re more interested in seeing my results from the entire “reconnect and reflect” process (including using the tools mentioned above), and the framework that I’ve put together for the next few years of my career, please read on…
Jah Ying’s Impact-Maximizing Career Plan
Help high-impact products and / or organizations scale
By building efficient and sustainable Operations
Why operations as a career?
- Personal aptitude and interest in operations function
Having founded and sold my company, I have a pretty broad spectrum of general business / organization-running skills. I am, however, particularly interested in typical Operations-related work like process optimization, systems design, talent management, culture and internal communications. It helps that I’ve received some third-party validation of this from the investors that have worked with me, and a number of CEOs who have tried to recruit me for this function!
- Massive opportunities for impact by scaling up existing effective models (vs building from scratch). Even at scale, there could be huge impact through harm-prevention in large organizations, e.g. Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook.
- Following on from that thought, it seems that many CEOs lack operations capacity, especially at the growth stage. Both anecdotally and within my personal network, there seems to be an obvious need for visionary CEOs to be paired with effective operators to build scalable and sustainable organizations.
- A general talent deficit in Operations, especially at the strategic / leadership level
- Apparently abundant demand for scaling effective solutions in China and Asia, where I have both experience and great personal interest
Why not start another thing?
- Because I don’t have anything I’m particularly passionate about at the moment.
- Because I’m not particularly drawn to (serial) entrepreneurship. I started my company because I really wanted to solve a problem, and a company happened to be the vehicle of choice (we actually started out as an NGO).
- Given #2, it seems way more valuable for someone with my background to support the visionary entrepreneur rather than trying to start something from scratch.
- I also seem to enjoy the 1 to 100 more than the 0 to 1. May need a few more data points to confirm though.
What do I need?
What I have already going:
- The entrepreneurs toolkit: a bit of experience in every business function.
- Fascination with efficiency and optimization
- A natural predisposition towards open communication, developing talent, building culture and managing people
What do I need / want to build:
- Experience working with other founders and CEOs — I am currently working (consulting, advising) with several mission-driven founders that I really like and /or have products I really believe in. This has confirmed that I do enjoy being the “left-hand man” and has allowed me to understand what kind of support CEOs want / need, especially in early / growth stages.
- My talent network — I think this is especially crucial for growth-stage organizations as recruitment is generally a huge need.
- Deeper knowledge in the more technical / administrative functions, e.g. finance, HR
- Experience in successively larger organizations, and perhaps different geographies
- Greater exposure to impactful organizations and connections with their leaders / decision-makers, especially in other geographies
Nice-to-haves that I work on:
- Exposure to best practices in data-driven growth and tracking systems
- Implementing customer-centric design /product development process
- Understanding of behaviourial psychology / economics (because systems only work if they fit with human behaviour)
- Technical skills for optimization (e.g. Python, SQL)
How did I come up with these things?
Some self-reflection, but mostly talking to friends and mentors who have either been a COO or worked with / hired COOs in the past.
What am I looking for?
A strategic operational role in an organziation with:
- 20+ full time team members
- A mission-driven CEO / founder that I respect and admire. Respect is more about their beliefs and moral conduct — this is key to allowing us to work together every day. Admiration is more about their skills and demeanour — this is where I get to learn from him/her. For me, mission-driven is both about their desire to create impact and their ability to lead and inspire action with their vision — this is what leads me to believe that the organization will be able to scale!
- A product /service that either: 1) I love (is currently using or would use myself) or 2) is extremely impactful (e.g. high social return for amount invested). The two of course are not mutually exclusive. The reason that it has to be at least one or the other is because I need to be driven to work. For a product I love, I’ll be emotionally driven, not to mention I’ll be full of ideas from my own usage of the product. For an impactful organization, I’ll be driven morally and intellectually.
Why not focus on impact now?
This is primarily influenced by a recommendation in the 80,000 hours career guide. Basically, they believe that people in the first 1–10 years of their career should focus on building career capital — I’ve identified the Operations function / COO role as the career I think I should pursue to allow for the greatest impact further down the line. Since I’m at my 8th year, I think a blend of impact and career capital-building is ideal, but I’m still allowing myself some leeway if an opportunity arises with an organization whose product / service I really love.
Additionally, I’m already “earning to give”, donating a percentage of my monthly income to GiveDirectly (an extremely effective charity). If I were to choose to work with an organizatio that isn’t focussed on maximizing social impact, then I would definitely be looking at maximizing my earning to give potential.
By Q1 2018
- Ensure that the transition of my startup to the acquirer has been fully completed
- Explore the operation-related job opportunities in the Effective Altruism (EA) space, especially the positions recommended to me by 80,000 hours. Continue to read about EA, especially priority causes. If the opportunity arises, try working with EA organizations or on priority causes (e.g. Founder’s Pledge, AI) on a voluntary or part-time basis.
- Continue to support impact-driven founders on a part-time basis, especially if 1) I have resources that can help them grow without requiring a lot of time input from my side, 2) they want me to work on a project where I would hone my operational skills.
By Q2 2018
- Have conversations with EA organizations and leaders. (Potentially attend EA Global event in SF).
- Write about life operations. Expand talent network, potentially by supporting accelerators as a mentor or entrepreneur-in-residence.
- Reach out to 10 organizations with products and services that I love to see if there are opportunities to help them scale in an operations role
- Potentially attend EA Global event in London
- Be able to sketch out a 1-year and 3-year career plan
- Commit to a long-term operations role at one organization