Some years ago the advice was to try join a rocket ship at all costs. Get on, hang on, and the success of the company will lift you to new heights. Perhaps this best encompasses the past decade of startup lore – get off the treadmill of corporate work you are on and step aboard the rocket ship of awesomeness that awaits within a high growth startup environment. I don’t entirely disagree, and this can be good advice for some, but I think another trend is emerging. I believe we are on the precipice of quiet giants. Because if there is one thing we have learned about rocket ships are they they are highly combustible. The fact that many “rocket ships” are built and launched without the same rigor and planning as the actual space program is alarming.
I really don’t like the term “unicorn” to describe growing companies of any scale. As I have written about before, I think imaginary mythical creatures that aren’t real in the first place are a terrible way of describing reality. The only animal I like to talk about as it relates to startups is the T-Rex, and fond of reminding folks they must-go-faster.
It turns out that grinding away, pushing the rock up the hill a little more each day, and building something truly meaningful and valuable is hard and takes time. Surrounding yourself with people that understand patience, are humble, and want to make the right kind of difference are what makes me excited about the people and companies quietly making an impact.
There are companies out there today, outside the limelight and headlines that are building real businesses. This is not anti venture scale – far from it. Rather this is looking at the underlying fundamentals of a company and what it is building as a path to personal and professional success. Just take the recent acquisition of Plaid by Visa. I am obviously biased as part of the NYC startup ecosystem, but to me this is a story of what is to come. A real business, with real customers, real revenue and a flywheel that makes sense to the fintech innovation ecosystem. I don’t think anyone looks at this deal and scratches their head.
I feel very lucky to speak with many folks looking for what’s next; a job, a career, an investment and similar new paths. Whether a tech exec well into their career that had a previous employer implode, a MBA candidate looking to do something new, or a college student exploring – I have the following framework built for finding quiet giants. This also helps me get my own thoughts down about what is most important and what resonates with me – as I always have with blogging.
Is the institution made of the highest caliber people you can possibly work with? This can come to life outside of a competition winning startup fair, and simply be more about a focus or category they care deeply about. I have seen interesting problems being solved by brilliant people, well outside the radar of TechCrunch. I have seen mentors and advisors that don’t list the companies or people anywhere and do it for the sake of actually helping. I have seen teams recognize the achievements of peers without trophies, but with raises, promotions, and opportunities. A true company of people that understands and respects the talent they have working with them.
Figuring out if this is the right team to work with and for over the next X years can be tough. The best screening process I have to figure it out is to simply spend more time than you think required with each person you are going to work with. The interview process is not long enough and the power dynamic is flawed. Spending time with someone in a series of meetings can get to the root of who they are. If possible, try to have a meal with them. Getting to the deeper conversations and questions takes time. Everyone seems to have their elevator pitch down of themselves, their company, and what they are doing. Typically during the 3rd+ conversation the varnish starts to come off and you can really understand who they are. Its not about catching people in a lie, its more about hearing their real narrative without the rehearsed parts they rarely break from in an interview.
If you can find the quiet giants within and organization that you can learn from and truly respect – join them.
There are brilliant teams working on complex problems, generating huge amounts of usage or revenue, that need your help. They are far from press releases and award shows. They are working on the future of humanity through cancer research, end of life planning, and other taboo conversational topics. If you can come away everyday excited about the next day with people you are changing the world with, it’s worth it to join them. The problem of perception being reality with the press is real and cutting through the noise can be tough. Impact > Headlines.
The easiest way to cut through the noise of reaching these people is to write about the work they are doing. If you were to summarize the greatest threads or opportunities to a division or product of a LargeCo. I can almost guarantee your thoughts will get a response and make their way through the company Slack. Stand out from the crowd by sharing your thoughts on their work. Join them.
I talk a lot about “building the machine that builds the business” and this is true for all quiet giants. Disruption sounds great on paper but is truly messy in the process. Finding a business that is generating revenue from customers who would be upset if the product didn’t exist is hard to do. If you find a company doing this, and can repeat and scale the process – join them.
This has almost nothing to do with funds raised, valuation, or headlines gathered. This has everything to do with the engineering talent working on a problem, the NPS score from customers, and the paying clients that are excited to tell a friend about what they are doing. Anyone can spend their way into installs and usage – its almost impossible to manufacture word of mouth.
Look for the businesses that are quietly taking $1 and turning it into $2. What is the system that is makings things work. As I love saying two things can fix all problems; usage and revenue. If you have both you are great, one you are fine, and none you are dead. If you find a flywheel that is working, join them.
I am biased working on Company Ventures where we are working on one of the best places to attract and retain early stage talent in NYC – but its worth mentioning because this is the 6th year it has been around scaling GrandCentralTech.com. I often have people come to visit who have *maybe* heard of GCT through the years, but can’t believe the scale and magnitude of what we are doing – all under the radar of most. This to me is a great example of a quiet giant that is in a great position to make a difference.
What about the future of remote work? Being around the people you respect and can get deep work done makes a difference. As the world turns towards remote work, I believe the pendulum will be swinging in the other direction. The middle ground is going to be senior folks that work remotely and coming back together every quarter in person in interesting ways. Proximity matters when solving hard problems and the water cooler effect is real. I am talking my own book a bit, but having those around you lean on – especially during the first 10 people – is essential in my book. As the world looks to “go remote” look for culture that embracing humans being together every so often and make sure it works for you.
If you can be in an environment that fills your life meter every day, gives you places to socialize and do deep work, and fulfills the needs of what you are building – join them.
Finally, I will say that there are multiple companies, people, and places in pockets of NY that are quietly making a difference – I can’t wait for the world to see that mythical creatures were never real in the first place, and the teams making a difference never cared about their labels or how you classify them in the first place. They set out to achieve something seemingly impossible, and in the end got it done through hard work and execution.
Finally, its good to remember that with all the haters and “armchair founders” out there telling you its impossible – I am reminded of one of my favorite scenes from Interstellar and the quote that comes out of it “It’s not possible! No, it’s necessary…”
While others are watching proverbial trains derail from lofty valuations and throwing snark, and others are thinking about how to get buzz – the quiet giants are executing. To everyone happy to spew how impossible their idea may be, the best operators they are making their ideas inevitable.Tags: Eric Friedman, Operators, Quiet Giants