How to unleash your passion when you least expect it

Several months ago, my company scheduled an “urgent” work meeting. If you’d asked me that morning, I would have guessed it was to stuff our faces with the special-delivery breakfast that would kick off December Week. It had been a wild 2016 at work, and we’d been aggressively hiring. The last thing I expected was to get laid off.

After more than a decade in Boston, my new life in San Francisco had started to stabilize. Jamie Goldsholl pushed me to sign up for my first triathlon, which I completed in September. Nikhil Abraham knows a thing or two about teaching people to code, so he encouraged me to battle through Udacity’s “full stack web developer” nanodegree, which I completed in December, thanks in no small part to some guidance from killer engineers like Kashif Malik, Trevor Joynson, and Christian O. Although I had spent the year becoming fitter, happier — more productive — I, along with about 20% of my startup, would start 2017 unemployed. You can read more about that on Techcrunch, and I’m still amazed that Ingrid Lunden managed to break the news so quickly. The affected employees hadn’t done anything wrong. We were either recent hires, mid-senior level, or perhaps most fatally, both.

The same afternoon that I heard the downsize news, I took the opportunity to finally play ping pong with a soon-to-be ex-coworker over in finance. Even though I had often said we should finally hit around one of these days, I never really took time. As I left the bright, plush office behind, I looked forward to my holiday flights out of SF just 4 days later, and I started thinking about what had drawn me to startups and Product Management in the first place. In short, I love building software that solves real problems. Now that I was part of a group that faced a layoff, I couldn’t help but wonder: could software help? If so, how?

The general problem space is clear: a group of startup vets have unexpectedly and abruptly lost their jobs. Can we break up the set of related problems into more specific areas? From the perspective of SF tech workers who get laid off, which of the following are pressing problems? Could any have better solutions?

  • Income
  • Insurance
  • Job Search
  • Training
  • Re-location

As I started to map problems to potential solutions, I interviewed a number of former coworkers who had also been laid off, and I asked them “what would be helpful?” While speaking with junior and senior colleagues specializing in a range of functions from engineering to marketing and recruiting, I started to see trends in their various perspectives. When it came to layoff-related loans, insurance, training, or re-location, nobody seemed interested.

But, when discussing the job search, everyone hated existing processes, and ideas emerged. A friend who runs a boutique staffing firm weighed in that a “committed W-2 workforce feels out of date.” Given that diversification is a proven investment strategy, would laid-off tech candidates be interested in working with multiple startups?

“Would be pretty awesome to split time 80/20. Would look like a consulting firm. Think Upwork for high-caliber tech and strategy, where in-person costs more. A lot of startups don’t want to hire someone full-time, and would really benefit from a person to temporarily to do high-caliber work. They may want 100% of someone, but not be able to afford it.”
“For me? Perhaps. Depends on role. An engineer could easily do two roles. I know one who picked up a side gig for a 3 week stint (while holding a different full-time job).”
“Only moderately interesting to me. As an individual (engineer), would be more interesting for infrastructure work than product work, since infrastructure work can be self-paced. If it were with a scrum team, could be compelling to do projects for startups for 3–4 months at a time, provided that insurance and other benefits were constant.”

But, one of the challenges that you’ll face as a researcher when asking people about their preferences is that respondents don’t always realize what solutions would serve them best. If RIM had asked BlackBerry owners what they wanted back in 2006, they likely would have heard “more buttons”, when the best answer as we all know now ended up being an oversize touch-screen. I doubt many BlackBerry owners would have told RIM to invent the iPhone — and (gasp!), give up BBM. When exploring unknown solutions to defined problems, it’s critical to stay open minded, generate a long list of ideas, and validate the best ones by observing real-world data.

Could I quickly and easily test some kind of split-time employment solution for techies? Of course. It only takes an hour to set up a Launchrock landing page and “create” a hypothetical solution. So, I “invented an offering” where tech startups can scale their workforce up and down using part-time talent. I sent the Launchrock landing page around to both candidates and employers, and I was surprised to learn that nobody seemed to care. Candidates seemed more inclined to find full-time positions, and startups generally wanted fully dedicated employees. No success? No sweat. Learning is a core part of any effective “lean startup” process.

Moving on to other ideas, I began to observe how my former coworkers were looking for new positions. One quote from a former coworker really stood out:

“The only way to get (interview) movement is to network. Cold applying has netted nothing. Resume, all this other crap, it feels stupid. If there was a talent center for high calibre professionals, everyone would benefit. And, the (government) unemployment system doesn’t work for us.”

Could I quickly and easily test some kind of social network that would connect people who have been laid off with recruiters who are hiring? Of course. I made a Facebook group and found it wasn’t effective because the professionals who needed to connect don’t make new connections, recruit, or search for work on Facebook. I created a LinkedIn group but found that most tech candidates who had been laid off didn’t want to discuss anything to do with downsizing anywhere on LinkedIn . A clean slate, custom-purpose social network might work, but those are complicated to develop. Right? Wrong.

Matt Moore pointed me towards an app called Mightybell from Gina Bianchini that lets you build your own social network — for free! That’s right, you can start your own social network in a matter of seconds. What a time to be alive! I quickly built an “online community for SF tech workers who have been laid off” and was pleasantly surprised when dozens of recruiters signed up. This seemed to validate that recruiters want access to these candidates. But, candidates weren’t jumping at the opportunity. They didn’t think it would be worth their time, and were generally more likely to just keep networking as usual rather than join a single-purpose social network. When sharing this experience with Gaurav Jain, he astutely noted:

“Sourcing candidates is the hardest. If you can build a scalable model there, you’ve got something.”

Armed with knowledge from two “failed” ideas, I realized that I’d once solved a similar problem in a different space. Back in college, I didn’t make the Varsity ice hockey team, so I took the 15–20 other recreational athletes who also didn’t make the cut, and I founded the Tufts Hockey Club, which went on to become one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. A few years later at Bullhorn, I helped to build software for the staffing industry.

Combining these experiences, it became clear that people who get laid off from VC-backed SF startups are no shlubs. They’re among the best engineers, product managers, marketers, data analysts, and business development professionals in the world. They happened to catch an unlucky break, and they also happen to have become, unexpectedly, a special type of candidate that recruiters covet. Techies who get laid off are local, skilled, and experienced. Perhaps most uniquely, they’re open to new opportunities right now, for a limited time.

Since candidates often need personal referrals to stand out from hundreds or even thousands of applicants, wouldn’t laid-off candidates be better off if they could quickly and easily get referrals to many great companies? Would a faster interview-to-hire process be worth tens of thousands of dollars for each of these candidates?

Since hiring managers often struggle to find strong local candidates, would they be better off if they could easily find out when talented candidates become available, so they can contact those that might be a good fit?

Tying this all together, if you’re looking for a proven process that helps you to unleash your passion, here are four steps I recommend:

  1. Write down what really excites you
  2. Note problems that really frustrate you
  3. Test solutions quickly and cheaply
  4. Persist until you’re helping other people
How to unleash your passion, via Layoff-Aid

I used this exact process when starting Layoff-Aid:

  1. What excites me? Building software that solves real problems
  2. What frustrates me? Slow job-search processes for laid-off tech talent
  3. What solutions can I test quickly? Agilely on Launchrock (inactive), Onupwa on Mightybell (inactive)
  4. Am I helping other people? Yes! With (coming soon)

Forget where you think your career is supposed to take you. Note what excites you. Think about problems you face as opportunities to come up with new solutions. Your first ones probably won’t work out, but if you embrace failure as part of your learning process, you’ll eventually find good ideas after burning through some bad ones first. Challenge what people tell you they want, and find ways to observe their preferences with real world data. If you keep at it, you may just unleash your passion when you least expect it.

What the heck is Layoff-Aid, anyway? If you’re interested in previewing our private beta, reach out to me directly. Otherwise, I’ll introduce it in my next post here on Medium, on Facebook, and on Twitter. Follow along!