Career Advice Mar 21 2012

How to Get Ahead Like Reid Hoffman

By joseph walker

Reid Hoffman knows a thing or two about career success. After working as a product manager at Apple, Hoffman became an early executive and board member at PayPal, the online payments company. The network he formed there, sometimes called the PayPal Mafia, includes serial entrepreneurs and investors Peter Thiel, Max Levchin and Keith Rabois. When PayPal was sold to eBayfor $1.5 billion in 2002, Hoffman became rich and began investing in start-ups and formed one of his own, LinkedIn.

Hoffman, 44 years old, went from millionaire to billionaire when LinkedIn went public last May, but he's still working. He spends most of his week as chairman of LinkedIn, where he works on product development and strategy. He's also a venture capitalist at Greylock Partners, where he has invested in Facebook and Groupon.

In his new book, "The Start-up of You", Hoffman and co-author Ben Casnocha reveal how career-focused employees can use the techniques of tech entrepreneurs to get ahead.

The premise of the book is that in the 21st century, there is no such thing as job security or having one company take care of you from college graduation until retirement. Employees need to think like they're running their own start-up and learn to adapt, be ready to pivot at any time and constantly be networking.

Hoffman spoke with FINS about the new career paradigm, how being a member of the PayPal Mafia has helped his own career, and why no one can afford to not take risks anymore.

JW: You write that technology and globalization have disrupted traditional industries and career paths. Do you think that's a good thing for America and its workers?

RH: It's a challenge, but also an opportunity. The opportunity is that there's more fluidity in the workplace in terms of people potentially changing jobs, changing companies and changing industries. The challenge is that this makes it more competitive.

If you say the only path up is this very narrow funnel in one company, and there are five people who could get promoted for a position, and just one gets picked, what happens to the other four? Do they just wait for years? Or can they find other ways to express their abilities?

The answer is that in a more open and transparent work force they can find a different job at the company or in a different company and generate more value for themselves and the economy.

JW: It could be argued that human beings crave stability and security. What if people don't want to live with the uncertainty and chaos of being their own start-up?

RH: It's somewhat unavoidable. Really interesting jobs that are valuable because they can generate a lot of money or because they are things a lot of people want to do, there will be competition for those. If you'd rather not, it's a good thing to learn how to do anyway. In our view of the modern world, if you don't find risk, risk will find you.

JW: You're connected to networking in two big ways: LinkedIn and the PayPal mafia. Can you talk to me about the PayPal Mafia and what influence those connections have had on your career?

RH: Part of how people adapt to the modern world, and both survive and thrive, is that they form a set of alliances around them with their network. PayPal is a good example of that for me. What the PayPal folks have helped me understand is what's going on in the consumer Internet industry, what there are opportunities to invest in, what are ideas or concepts to direct either my career or my investments, and vice versa.

If you're working within an industry, you've got to put yourself toward the center of important networks in those industries. PayPal is a central network within consumer Internet in Silicon Valley.

JW: You talk about embracing randomness in your career. How do you court serendipity?

RH: The principal way one courts serendipity is putting oneself, in the old colloquialism, where the action is. What that means is [to be at] the key junctures that are the amplifiers, the accelerants of the information flow in the industry you're playing.

If you were really interested in film and TV, you would not come to Silicon Valley. You'd go to Los Angeles or New York.

The key thing is to be connected and have allies with folks who can help you figure out what are the right moves to make, what are the right risks to take.

JW: You write about the importance of observing status when networking. Why is this important and what are common mistakes that people make?

RH: The thing we were trying to pay attention to with status is there's a lot of new books that say go off and introduce yourself and be really friendly and that's the way you make connections. One of the places where that can mislead you is simply going up and asking for time from someone who is powerful and important. It's often only irritating to that person. And it produces negative mutual results. When you're approaching someone who in fact has many more resources at their command, is much, much busier, and has their own set of problems, think about how you approach them, and try to establish a good connection, and make it mutual.

JW: As one of Silicon Valley's most visible entrepreneurs and investors, I imagine people cold call you a lot.

RH: All the time. What I tell people about reaching me or anyone else is to try and avoid cold calls. Try to get an introduction to somebody, where somebody says, "Oh, this person's really good." If I get an introduction from somebody that I trust, I always make contact. Maybe it's just 10 minutes on the phone, but I'll always try to see what I can do to help.

JW: You talk about riding the waves of hot business trends. What are some of the waves you see that might be worth riding in the coming years?

RH: Information technology and software is transforming almost every industry, some of them a lot and some of them in initially small ways. Look at the fact that computing is becoming ubiquitous--everyone has a smartphone, or will have a smartphone. It's a general application point that allows work, business intelligence, understanding what going on, that will affect the vast majority of industries.

Another example is transportation, which will get somewhat revolutionized, because if you have a map of where all the traffic is and can automatically reroute traffic accordingly, you can increase efficiency in gas consumption and cost.

You can pretty easily see the future now and that many vehicles will be autopiloted which will lead to all kinds of efficiency from how parking works to how the shipment of people and goods works.

JW: In the book, you write about people adopting a "permanent beta" mentality. What does that mean?

RH: You've got to learn that the world is changing, what ties a career path together and how to do a job effectively is changing, therefore you can't look at yourself as a finished product. You have to think of yourself as an evolving production, one that you can improve, and you can do that to adapt to the market and seize that opportunity.

Gmail was in beta for years. We're taking an issue from the consumer Internet and bringing it into people's lives. Think of yourself as a good product, but always in a cycle of development.

Write to Joseph Walker at Joseph.Walker@dowjones.com



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