See your Career as a Product - Erik Torenberg's Thoughts

Every great product should have a moat, and careers are no different. I previously wrote about personal moats, today I want to further flesh out the “Career as a Product” metaphor.

When building products, you first want to focus on having a solid product that’s 10x better than the competition. Only after you have that do you begin doubling down on marketing, PR, and other growth tactics — the common advice is to nail retention before focusing on growth.

Similarly with careers, you want to Get So Good They Can’t Ignore You (10x better product) before doubling down on networking (marketing & PR).

Part of being so good at something is that it brings with it it’s own form of defensibility: in careers, that’s legibility and durability — as time goes on, does your work look more impressive or less? Having founded Netscape looks more impressive as time has passed, to name one example.

Other product tropes also apply to careers: Capitalize on unfair advantages, insights, or relationships. Disrupt orthogonally, often from below—try not to compete head on. When you’re younger, take more market risk; when you’re more experienced, take execution risk.

However, certain mistakes product builders make also carry over to careers — namely, focusing on acquisition instead of retention (focusing on networking instead of relationships & reputation). Or working in a space that doesn’t get more valuable over time (e.g working in a dying industry), or building another “me-too” product without differentiation (not taking enough career risk).

Other mistakes too: Choosing overly-regulated markets (e.g. career paths without much mobility or meritocracy), listening to people that aren’t your direct customers (e.g. people justifying their own safe paths by telling you to pursue similarly safe paths), or not shipping or iterating quickly enough (staying at a job because you think you have to).

Every great product should have “loops” built in, and careers are no different.

Loops come from the literature of growth and marketing (as well as Kevin Kwok’s excellent twitter feed). The basic idea is that the best companies not only understand their “funnels” (where their users are coming from and convert down the stack), but also their loops (the process by which one cohort of users not only retains but leads to an additional cohort of users).

Loops, in other words, are what lead to sustainable, compounding, growth. Building a funnel without a loop means you have to keep pushing to get output, and, at some point, that becomes unsustainable, especially if your funnel is disrupted.

Let’s apply this idea of “loops” in the context of how people make career decisions and build career capital over time.

Applying loops in the context of career:

The main question to ask when evaluating career decisions is:

“What are the things you can do today which make it easier to obtain your desired resources and career opportunities tomorrow, in a way that’s defensible and compounds overtime?”

Understanding how to build a personal moat is hard (and takes a long time), so people affiliate with brands as shorthand: Harvard, Goldman Sachs, etc.

As I mentioned in my piece on taking asymmetric risks, IMO the biggest career mistake young people make is that they’re afraid to look dumb, so they follow safe paths to cap their downside, not realizing that they cap their upside too as a result. And said paths are often tournament-style competitions, perhaps not as safe as one would think.

As information symmetry increases, however, the value of a brand decreases. In a world with perfect information symmetry, your Harvard degree is only worth the intrinsic value of the skills/networks/etc you developed there.

I posit there are four different types of career loops, or assets:

  • Specialized Knowledge / Skills (“Get So Good They Can’t Ignore You”)
  • Financial Capital ($)
  • Brand / Legibility (ability for your skills/assets to be widely recognizable)
  • Unique Network Access/Strength

These loops are reinforcing — having one of each affords you more of the other.

But not all loops are equal. You can be rich, for example, but not respected. People will use you for your money, but your influence will be limited to your access to capital.

You can have a big brand (and, thus, distribution), but still not be respected. People will use you for your distribution, but your role will be limited to the eyeballs you can summon. Once you’ve served your purpose, you are no longer needed.

You can have good network access (be well-liked by a lot of people) and still not be respected. People will use you for your network, but your influence will only be limited to who else you’ll route them to.

Once you’ve served your purpose as a router, your time is done. And, worse, unlike with financial capital (e.g investing), you don’t capture any value. If you look at your network as a marketplace, your marketplace has 100% “leakage.”

Let me explain. It’s one thing to be widely networked. Another thing to be strategically networked. And yet another to have created networks that compound over time (e.g Thiel Fellowship, Paul Graham and YC).

It is yet (yet!) another thing to be well *respected* among these strategic networks — as in, they not only like you, they deeply respect you and would, say, let you invest in their company at better terms, pay you for your expertise, or some other metaphorical equivalent.

Types of Loops

Respect — this is a loop that most enables other loops. I didn’t put it as one of the four because you can’t go after it directly — it’s a byproduct of something else. Indeed, I’d posit that respect is best earned from gaining (and deploying) specialized knowledge & skills.

Knowledge and skills is another great loop to attract the other loops. Want financial capital? Knowledge and skills gives you opportunities to build companies that no one is building, or invest in companies that others aren’t.

Unique network access and strength? Knowledge and skills allows you to build this as well.

To further illustrate the power of specialized knowledge and skills: People can spend their whole lives building relationships with someone only to, when it matters, not have the influence they need. If you can get what you need after meeting with that same person for 5 minutes, you’ve truly gotten “so good they can’t ignore you.”

Brand? Specialized knowledge and skills makes brand legibility much easier too. Just give a talk, write a post, or go on a podcast and boom — your expertise is widely known, cemented on the internet and disseminated widely. Specialized knowledge and skills are so rare that the statement “if you build it, they will come” is actually partly true in this unique case.

It's not that the other assets aren’t really important. They are. They’re just easier to get once you have specialized knowledge. To be sure, however, you don’t want a lack of these other career assets to be constraints:

You’ll need the “minimum viable money” to keep going and not have to take a job that doesn’t increase your specialized knowledge & skills. You’ll want the “minimum viable network”, to know the right people to help, and the “minimum viable legibility (reputation)” to get them to care.

However, most people make a directionally different mistake. When it comes to network building, most people make the mistake of focusing on brand awareness, instead of expertise. They focus too much on the “legible” side of things, rather than knowledge and skills.

In 99% of cases, people don’t need to grow your network as much as they need to elevate how highly their existing network thinks about them — by developing rare & valuable knowledge & skills. (Note: by “growing your network” I mean attending events or tons of 1 on 1’s with people in an industry who are unlikely to be a collaborator of yours. However, do find your tribe of collaborators and go deep with a handful, involving them in the value building process — developing skills, building something together, etc.)

In other words, their bottleneck usually isn’t that someone won’t get coffee with them. It’s that when they do, it’s not worth their time (otherwise they likely would have done it already!).

You want to refine the knowledge and skills loop so that when you do get coffee with that person, they’ll get value out of it, and they’ll want to do it again, and they’ll refer you to others. Best case scenario: they start reaching out to you to build a relationship. People feel they don’t have a network because they aren’t actively networking. But, remember, networks are heat-seeking missiles for value. Provide the value, and the network is there.

Separately, prematurely building a wide network can have adverse effects on some people as well. Consider “The Networker’s Dilemma”: People are too well networked and are thus, again, afraid to take risks and look dumb. Or they’re just spending too much time trying to maintain an existing network that they don’t focus on value creation. Optimizing on building your network before having a rare & valuable skill/knowledge base is like focusing on growth before product-market fit. Nail the product first.

The best examples are people who’ve spent time building skills & expertise, and then can build the network instantly, versus the people who build their network first, and then try to bolt skills / expertise on top. It can be done, but it’s harder.

In other words, focusing on knowledge & skills enables you to most quickly gain the other loops — capital, network, and legibility. Knowledge and skills will advance all the other loops and bring you more optionality, autonomy, and durability. It doesn’t work as well the other way around — there are no shortcuts; you have to put in the time.

h/t Anuj Abrol


Read of the week: An Anxious Age by Joseph Bottum. We may think we’ve transcended religion, but we haven’t. The book explains how, and it was written before the resurgence on what Tom Holland calls “Christianity without Christ” really took off. The book is Martin Gurrilevel prescient.

Listen of the week: The entire Coleman Hughes podcast. Also I was impressed to see that Ezra Klein went on Ben Shapiro’s podcast (a while ago). I enjoy when people who utterly disagree with each other can have a civil and productive conversation. We’re missing that now.

Watch of the week: Heat vs Lakers was an epic series. Duncan Robinson apparently was considering journalism internships two years ago because he thought his career was over. Then, undrafted, he made the Miami Heat team. Now he’s starting in the NBA finals. Love to see it.

Cosign of the week: Mario Gabrielle is an emerging fascinating writer in technology across a number of different subjects. Also—and this is just a coincidence!—he just released a well-written profile of me.

Until next week,