Last week, I attended an event featuring three Democratic US Congressmen and one Democratic US Congresswoman. The event celebrated the launch of “Future Forum,” a way for Congress to connect with Millennials to work on issues that matter to young hard-working Americans. Amidst an assembly of New York tech entrepreneurs, the event, held at District CoWork (a co-working space), opened with a cocktail hour.
I signed in, popped on my name tag, headed straight to the bar, grabbed a glass of wine, and was shimmying over to a person I wanted to speak with when the unthinkable happened: My sleeve brushed against someone else’s wine glass, set atop a table , and SPLAT, the glass tumbled to the floor, shattering into a thousand pieces.
Within seconds, a hundred faces turned to stare at me. I immediately started to clean up the mess I made. Then, I noticed a man helping me. He’d grabbed a plate and started to pick up large shards of glass with his bare hands. I noticed the man’s lapel pin, denoting him as a Congressman. This was Rep. Steve Israel, a fellow Long Islander, who I’d never previously met.
What started off as us working together to expediently clean up the mess I made quickly turned into a conversation. He asked me about my work at Skillbridge, and I explained to him what we are trying to build. We ended up speaking for a while, and when the conversation concluded, he said to me, “Here’s my business card. Give me a call when you’re down in Washington.” Steve Israel’s act of humility — he didn’t have to help me clean anything up — may be why he is in Congress today.
This incident immediately jogged my memory back to a similar one from 2011: I was taken out to dinner by the CBS news crew who were covering Amanda Knox’s trial in Italy. Who saddles up next to me at the table? None other than Peter Van Sant, the news anchor and 48 Hours host. Peter’s an ace: he’s won four Emmy Awards, three Edward R. Murrow Awards, two Overseas Press Club Awards, and more.
A dozen people at our table split a couple of bottles of red wine. And then, after a toast, I put my glass back down on the table, directly on the spot where, under the tablecloth, two tables of unequal heights met. Boom! The red wine spilled all over Peter.
Yet Peter Van Sant faced the red wine with humility. Despite his deeply stained white shirt, he insisted it wasn’t a big deal at all. A precursor to my more recent incident with Congressman Israel, Peter and I ended up talking and laughing all night long.
The lesson is that broken glasses and spilled red wine can be the world’s best icebreakers — and they give larger than life people opportunities to show that they’re human too.
Practical note: An episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm taught me that, immediately applying club soda and salt to red wine will remove all stains.
Entrepreneurship has definitely become cooler and cooler in the minds of Millennials during the past 10 years: Facebook was founded in 2004. That gave the Millennial Everyman hope that he too could start a multi-billion dollar business and retain ownership of it to the end. Then, the 2008 stock market crash and the subsequent recession erased the traditional job opportunities that Millennials and others had grown entitled to.
I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2007, majoring in English and History. Why? Because I was told by countless professors and mentors to “study what I loved.” In retrospect, I should have probably focused on Marketing or Computer Science in tandem with one of my two humanities choices, but c’est la vie, those days are behind me.
Today, Millennials are unemployed in record numbers, and many see “entrepreneurship” as the only way out of unemployment. Plus, entrepreneurs wear t-shirts, shorts, and flip-flops to work year-round, and don’t have to answer to anyone… But let’s get this straight: Being an entrepreneur is hard work. It is far more difficult to run your own company than it is to be a cog in a wheel at a large corporation. There are many late nights, sleepless nights of nervousness, and you never know where you will be in six months time. Plus, working on weekends isn’t the exception, it’s the norm. That’s stressful, and it’s not for everyone, despite what some pro-entrepreneurship organizations would have you believe.
Before I started SkillBridge, I had worked at 3 funded startups and started 2 of my own businesses. Both businesses “failed” in the sense that they never were acquired by anyone else, but they were both incredible learning opportunities and earned me a bit of money along the way. However, as I wrote on LinkedIn, you are NOT wasting your 20s working at a large company. My article says, “Many of my most intelligent friends from the University of Pennsylvania and other fine institutions started their careers at Google, McKinsey, or other large tech or consulting firms. Some of them are still there — and those who stuck around seem quite happy. For example, my good friend Josh Steinberg works for Google and now lives in Tokyo, his dream city, and has traveled all around the world, on Google’s dime. My other good friend Anastasia Leng founded Hatch.co after working at Google for 5 years. Neither of them would change a thing about their 20s. They were able to pay off their student loans, travel, and live excellent lives.”
Alas, there is also a grammar problem in the world: You don’t have a “startup” if you are not seeking to scale your business. You simply have a small business, and that is an excellent accomplishment. No, your nut butter stand may never achieve the scale of Nutella, but it’s very cool that you can derive income from it.
There are so many “pre-revenue” entrepreneurs out there, who are great at selling themselves, but once you dig a bit deeper realize they’re all fluff. Putting up a LaunchRock page for your idea doesn’t make you an entrepreneur: Go build something, and then tell people you’re an entrepreneur. Go assemble a world-class team, and then say you’re an entrepreneur. Go make enough profit to live off of, and then call yourself an entrepreneur.
Too many people out there are selling this entrepreneurial dream but not detailing the amount of work involved to create it. Sorry kids, there are probably 100 people out there with the same killer app idea that you have, yet having the idea is only the beginning. Strategy and execution are everything.
I wouldn’t change anything about the path that I chose, because I value adventure and not knowing what is around the next corner. However, there have been times when I’ve been ready to turn in the towel. Unless you can tolerate high levels of uncertainty, you won’t go far as an entrepreneur.
The article’s author Raj De Datta writes, “Going to work at a start-up or growth company in your 20s will put you on the fast-lane learning curve. It will be the best investment you can make because you’ll find yourself.” Your 20s, are, of course, a period of 10 years. I am now 28 years old, and have spent approximately half of my time thus far working for others, and the other half working for myself. While I may be happier overall when pursuing entrepreneurial activities, I am very thankful for the many learning experiences I had at big companies.
The article’s author, Raj De Datta has worked at a couple of larger firms, Cisco in the tech space, and at the investment bank Lazard. Perhaps he chose not to learn while working there, or he didn’t want to advance up the corporate ladders of those institutions.
I am more and more dismayed when I see wantrapreneurs striking out with poorly thought out ideas, wasting their parents hard-earned money, or having zero idea how to run a business because they have never worked at a successful one.
I am quite thankful for the time I spent at William Morris Endeavor (only Endeavor when I worked there), Mother Jones magazine (a large non-profit, technically), Seamless.com (now merged with GrubHub), and Quirky.com — all far larger companies than SkillBridge is today. At larger companies you learn to deal with people: Sure, not every person will be the best. But it is your job to learn to work with them, come hell or high water — so that you, your team, and the larger company can succeed. These experiences have certainly benefited me as an entrepreneur: My customer service skills are now superb because of my experiences dealing with colleagues and customers over the years.
As for De Datta’s argument that Google or McKinsey aren’t ideal places to work, that is complete and utter nonsense. My most intelligent friends from the University of Pennsylvania and other fine institutions started their careers at Google, McKinsey, or other large tech or consulting firms. Some of them are still there — and those who stuck around seem quite happy. For example, my good friend Josh Steinberg heads professional services for Google in Tokyo, his dream city, and has traveled all around the world, on Google’s dime. My other good friend Anastasia Leng founded Hatch.co after working at Google for five years. Neither of them would change a thing about their 20s. They were able to pay off their student loans, travel, and live excellent lives that will prepare them well for the future.
It is no secret that at SkillBridge, we recruit individuals to become our consultants who have at least three years experience working at large, name brand corporations. This is not an accident: We know that Google, McKinsey, and other top-tier firms have vetted their candidates well. We know that it is challenging to work at these places and that Google and McKinsey employees solve real-world problems every single day. Therefore, we know that Google, McKinsey, Bain, and BCG produce the cream of the crop. Why wouldn’t we want these top-notch people to work for us at SkillBridge?
Plus, not everyone is an entrepreneur; Not everyone wants the stress of starting a new company. And not everyone can afford to take the risk to work without payment for a long time, as many entrepreneurs do. Many people would rather spend time with their kids or spouse rather than working at a startup.
More than 90% of startups fail, despite what some Millennial-focused publications may have you believe. There is nothing wrong with wanting the stability, benefits, and perks that come with working at a large corporation. If you have to pay back student loans, few more sensible options exist.
There are dozens of valid reasons why someone would want to work at Google, McKinsey, or another top firm. Heck, many people treat a stint at McKinsey, Bain, or BCG as a free ride to graduate school in which you are being paid to work. The training that you will get at these firms is incomaparable, and can lead to life-long benefits — being able to bill out at $150 or more per hour at SkillBridge being just one of them.
So, to Raj De Datta — who may have just written that article as a recruiting tool for his startup: Stop spreading your gospel, as it is inherently false. And to everyone who did work at a large corporation in your 20s, I don’t need to tell you this, but you made a smart choice.
At SkillBridge, we are working at the heart of the freelance economy: For nearly a year, we have provided white-collar workers with freelance business consulting jobs that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to find. We have enabled individual consultants to win, as they no longer need to be associated with a firm to work at jobs that are of high-quality and well-paid.
There are many other amazing companies out there that are using freelancers to help people. Together, we’re all focused on disintermediating old school companies and dysfunctional/bureaucratic organizations so that individuals can directly connect with the people and services they want. Whether you work at a small business or a large one, your life is going to become much more efficient in the coming years.
Without further ado, here’s SkillBridge’s Ultimate Guide To The Modern Freelance Economy, and please let us know in the comments section if you have more examples, as this will be a regularly updated list:
Hire Great Engineers:
TopTal – Founded 2010. Connects start-ups, businesses, and organizations to a growing network of the best developers in the world.
AirPair – Founded 2013. Connects companies to Software Developers they can book and pay 1 hour at a time.
Use Peer to Peer Taxi-Like Services:
Lyft – Founded 2007, as Zimride. A mobile app for friendly, affordable rides at the tap of a button.
Uber – Founded 2009. Connects you with a driver at the tap of a button.
Summon (formerly Instacab) – Founded 2012. Mobile application that matches customers needing transportation with a taxi driver or a community driver who is willing to provide a ride.
Hailo – Founded 2010. Free smartphone app that puts people two taps away from a licensed taxi, and lets cabbies get more passengers when they want them.
Sidecar – Founded 2012. Smartphone app matches everyday people in their own car with people nearby for shared rides.
UpCounsel – Founded 2012. The easiest way to get legal services.
LawDingo – Founded 2012. Talk to lawyers. Find lawyers online.
And yes, in 2013, business consulting also became a freelance economy sub-genre whenSkillBridge was born (originally spelled SkylBridge, ha!). We’re proud to be a part of it, and we look forward to connecting you with the world’s best business consultants.
I recently read Sten Tamkivi’s post on TechCrunch that states some reasons why Americans, in Silicon Valley specifically, should be investing in European startups. Tamkivi’s post was echoed by similar sentiments in a post by Union Square Ventures’ Fred Wilson. While there are here are 5 major tech hubs in the US (SF, NYC, Boston, LA, Austin) and a similar number in Europe (Berlin, London, Paris, Stockholm, and Helsinki/Tallinn), I do not equate these groups with each other, for reasons I will outline below. And while I admire both Tamkivi and Wilson, they are both wrong in this instance.
1. Europeans Don’t Want To Put In The Work: In general, and I know this is a stereotype based on my time living in Denmark, Amsterdam, and London, Europeans are just not as hungry for success as Americans. In America, we are often ostracized by Europeans for not having a positive work-life balance. Well, any entrepreneur will tell you, that it’s really difficult to build a company when you’re only working for 7.5 hours per day. (I won’t take low blows on Greece and Spain here, as in America, we have Kentucky and West Virginia to grapple with…) That said, Germans do have a tendency to work hard, as do the Brits (due to the Protestant work ethic I learned about in high school).
2. In Europe, There Is Too Much Regulation: In Europe, everything is slow. Blame the bureaucracy. Blame the welfare state. Blame the aforementioned work ethic, but I found that it took months to do things that would be done in America in days. It’s so simple to hop on a web site and start a Delaware Corporation. (I know, lawyers are still better when starting a business, but it really is easy to do on your own.) Even when you look at the whole micro-entrepreneur food truck boom in America, it happened very quickly. In Europe, there are more food regulations than you can possibly imagine (though the food is certainly tasty over there). Europe’s more complex regulatory system, given how varied countries in the EU are, might be what tears that union apart.
3. Language: In Amurrrrica, we generally speak one language. English. It’s simple. You call your developer in San Francisco and he speaks the same tongue as your sales guy in New York and your CEO in Austin. In Europe, there are so many languages spoken that to attract a substantial and scalable user base for your product, you would have to have it translated into many different tongues.
4. Europeans Stay In School Forever: How many times have you met an Italian dude who’s working on his 3rd Masters Degree at La Sapienza in Rome and still lives with his parents even though he’s 37? Or a Danish guy who is doing his Post-Doctoral research despite being 42 years old? In America, we are surely educated, but in Europe, people are over-educated. I have attended both public and private universities in America, as well as public and private universities in Europe: In America, everything moves more quickly. You have more hours of class per week, and you learn a heckuva lot more. In Europe, how are people going to be starting companies when they finally finish school but also have a family to support? That’s why there are fewer European Mark Zuckerbergs or Evan Spiegels.
5. Security And Privacy: Tamkivi writes that “security and privacy” are great reasons to start companies in Europe. Find me an entrepreneur who doesn’t want to collect people’s data. Data = dollars. Harsh personal privacy laws, while good for consumers, mean less money for most entrepreneurs. There goes the incentive to start a business.
6. “400 Million Customers,” But Many Don’t Spend: Europeans are far more frugal than Americans. In America, we love junk. We love the latest and the greatest. We love to fill our closets with 85 pairs of the latest wears. In Europe, people buy things once, spend decent money on their purchases, and then don’t buy them again for years. Personally, I really like this about Europeans, but if I were a European entrepreneur, it would make me wary. Yes, they may have invented Hermes and Ferraris, but how many Europeans can really afford to buy a Hermes bag and a Ferrari?
7. Europe Is Old: Europe is the oldest continent ever. Medicine and technological breakthroughs will keep these folks living until they’re close to 100. Of those “400 million” consumers, most of them aren’t ideal customers. It’s too bad the healthcare sector is publicly funded in most European societies, as in this area I see room for innovation.
8. Global Skills = Nonsense: Yes, I agree that Europeans travel more frequently than Americans and are thus exposed to different ideas. However, some Americans (like, ahem, me) have traveled frequently and can also be exposed to these ideas. To think that Europeans have better soft skills than those from other places is nonsense. Yes, foreign exchange programs like Erasmus have become ubiquitous in Europe, and this is amazing, but Americans are also now studying abroad at higher rates than ever before. While Americans should surely learn more languages than just English, English has become the de facto business and consumer language of the world.
9. Grants: When you compare how films are funded in America vs. how films are funded in Europe, they are very different from one another. European countries have film commissions that deliver grants to filmmakers. Filmmakers apply for the grants and then wait months or years to learn whether they have been selected. In America, films are made by means of capitalism and Kickstarter: You hustle your brains off or you don’t get your film made. (Kickstarter, however, may further democratize European film production.) That said, my friends Torsten Mueller and Frederik Fischer received money for their startup Tame.it from “the German Ministry of Technology and Economics, the business development and promotion bank of the Federal Land Berlin and from a successful Crowdinvesting campaign on Companisto.de.” In America, our government may give money to occasional startups in the energy/defense sectors, but they sure as heck ain’t giving it to a Twitter context search engine. Plus, Americans are way more likely to use our disposable income for crowdfunding. (That said, in America, we still have nonsense laws that prevent the common man from crowdfunding in exchange for equity, which they have eliminated in Europe.)
In Europe, there’s a higher expectation that the government and regulation will solve problems. Perhaps it’s the inner-Ayn Rand libertarian in many Americans, but we have greater faith in the private sector than in the public sector. In Europe, there is also a more incremental, rather than disruptive, approach to progress. That said, don’t forget that the Dark Ages lasted for nearly 1,000 years.
This isn’t meant to knock European companies. I have many European startup founder friends, and I admire the work they do. I am also a fan of European companies like Skype and Spotify. That said, these companies had to come to America to truly make it.
I don’t think the future of Silicon Valley investors is across the pond. Tamkivi writes, “Yes, stuff is happening in Boston and New York, but not so much that a once-a-month trip can’t cover most of it.” Quite frankly, this is an idiotic statement, as New York specifically has seen its technology sector grow rapidly during the past few years. (I’m surprised that Mr. NYC VC Fred Wilson didn’t call Tamkivi out on this falsehood.) So yes, while Europe is certainly the place to go for wind energy startups (Denmark), architecture firms (the Netherlands), and a whole host of random startups from London to Sweden to Finland to Berlin, my bet is still on America.
Reinvention is one of America’s most overused terms.
But reinvention defines some of the best things that have come out of America in the past decade. Yes, celebrities have reinvented themselves: Betty White, Jon Stewart, and Ellen DeGeneres, to name a few. But the rest of us, plebeians, also have the ability to reinvent ourselves, and it has never been so easy.
The most inspirational and functional guide for personal reinvention is certainly James Altschuler’s Ultimate Cheat Sheet For Reinventing Yourself that he published in Tech Crunch in October. His words are inspiring and the message is clear: A lot of hard work combined with laser focus and you can become one of the best in whatever your chosen field is.
Lately, I’ve been feeling the burden of tech, as it seems like America truly has start-up fever. When even our prisons are hosting start-up accelerators — and this isn’t to say that prisons aren’t strong markets themselves for start-ups — we either are in the midst of a very serious start-up bubble, or are enabling anyone to live the American dream (or some mix of the two.)
But what if you didn’t want to create a tech start-up? What if you wanted to get your hands dirty in something like product manufacturing? What does that really take?
My friend Michael Paratore quit his job at a law firm to become, in his words, a “peddler.” Yes, being a peddler doesn’t sound as lucrative as legal work, but Michael wanted to seize his opportunity that came when he accompanied his wife Michelle on a trip to India.
Paratore once found himself wandering around Bombay’s backstreets. It was there that he met a shoe peddler who would change his life. Michael discovered what he describes as the world’s most comfortable shoes, and he decided that he should manufacture and sell them in America — and around the world.
And now, one year after his journey began, Michael’s dream has come true.
His Mohinder’s Kickstarter launched, and I happily bought a pair for $50, knowing that they’ll probably the first ethically made pair of footwear I’ve ever owned. Mohinder’s will also likely help the Indian village cooperative comprised of second and third generation shoe-making artisans who manufacture his products. (The cooperative was set up by an Indian NGO that uses a micro-credit style model to ensure artisans are paid fairly and can “break the cycle of poverty” while helping the artisans build valuable business and entrepreneurial skills.)
Whether you need a few hundred grand to create the “first open sensor for health and fitness” on IndieGoGo, or $34,000 to create a funky and eco-friendly YogoMat (I’m still waiting for mine because of production problems), the internet democracy has enabled entrepreneurs to reinvent themselves. I don’t know if the guy who invented the open sensor was a garbage man, a science teacher, or had a PhD in physics before he launched his crowdfunding campaign. I don’t know if the guy who invented the YogoMat has ever done yoga in his life! C’est la vie. I, and millions of others, are helping people to reinvent themselves every single day.
We should all feel lucky that we live in a society where reinvention is completely acceptable. A hundred years ago, you wouldn’t find many people — unless they had just committed some sort of heinous crime — attempting to reinvent themselves. Now, it’s as easy as putting in some hard work and putting up your wares on a crowdfunding site.
If there’s an interest, then, BAM! You’re in business.
Yes, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m late to the party. Very, very late. It was only this week that I sat down with Netflix and happened to stumble upon Undercover Boss. And I think I can safely say that this show is the stuff of genius and should be required viewing for all business school and marketing students.
Here’s the premise of the show: A boss, typically a CEO or other ultra-important figure, goes undercover and has to do the job of approximately five employees who work under him (or her), often at the very lowest levels of the business.
Webster’s dictionary defines empathy as “the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions.” Unfortunately, most CEOs don’t have such feelings. Why would they? They’re typically dealing with “top-level” assignments and they have neither the time nor the inclination to wonder what’s going on at the lowest levels of their organization. Enter Undercover Boss.
I watched three episodes that each struck me for different reasons:
1. Hooters. Yes, Hooters, the restaurant/bar known for its wings and the beautiful women who typically serve its customers. Though Coby G. Brooks is no longer the president and CEO of the company, he was during this episode of Undercover Boss. In the show, we learn that Brooks never aspired to work for the company that his father co-founded and led, but upon his brother’s and father’s deaths, he was named their successor. To watch Brooks fail at working as a busboy, to watch him learn that women view the company as sexist, and to watch him be utterly embarrassed as a manager mistreats his employees makes for excellent viewing and learning. It is clear that Brooks empathized with his employees and at the end he sets out to make real changes within this company based on his experiences.
2. Kevin Sheehan is a New Yorker turned CEO of Norwegian Cruise Lines. On this show, it is clear that Sheehan is trying to learn about the ins and outs of his company. He becomes frustrated when a Brooklynite who’s spent his whole life at sea tells him that his paint job needs lots of work. It’s also clear that Sheehan can’t dance nearly as well as one of his associate cruise directors directs him to. And most certainly, Kevin lacks the coordination to work as a cruise-ship waiter. But Kevin takes all of these things that he is unable to do in stride. His greatest lesson comes from watching his employees assemble an ice rink on top of one of his ships. When nobody uses this skating rink, Sheehan wonders why his ships are even equipped with these silly things that waste lots of manpower and resources, with very little upside. He learns from these experiences and takes action.
3. Finally, one of the most interesting episodes of this show features Mark Mallory, the mayor of Cincinnati. It takes a whole lot of cojones for the mayor of a major American city to be willing to go undercover on national television. Mallory (equipped with some dreadlocks and a goatee) first rides around with the one man in his city whose job is to collect all of the dead animals that have been killed on the city’s streets. Then, he works as a repairman at a shop that repairs all of the city’s vehicles. He also walks around with a parking meter attendant and observes how tough it is for a community recreation center employee who has way too many kids under her watch due to budget cuts. Mallory asserts that he will make simple changes that benefit everyone. He adds GPS to the vehicle that the pest-control officer rides in. He links the parking-meter attendant’s device with those of the police department to better monitor stolen vehicles. He makes sure that the city’s repairmen are recognized at a city event. And he ensures that the recreation center won’t be cut from the budget and expands a program that teaches adolescents how to work at real jobs.
This is the first television show that I have ever watched that has made a real-world difference in people’s lives. I realized while watching Undercover Boss that sometimes it may take a camera and a look under the microscope to make this happen. So to
any CEOs reading this: If you decide to go on Undercover Boss, your company will come out stronger, and the general public will have a far greater respect for your brand. It is worth any risks to go on this show, because you will learn so much. I know I did, just by watching.