Contributed by Daylon Soh
Internet businesses (or tech startups) are different from businesses having a presence on the internet or businesses that are enabled by technology. The former is a technology company first while the latter is not a technology company. That difference in thinking drives day to day business decisions and creates a competitive rift over time. Working in a tech startup as an employee allows one to think in orders of magnitude bigger than a peer working in an equivalent position in a traditional company or technology-enabled company.
Is that possible when you both put in the same amount of hours?
Consider the example of a technology-enabled retailer and an eCommerce retailer. If you work in customer support for the eCommerce retailer, your job is the equivalent of a retail assistant helping in-store customers. As an eCommerce customer support staff, you primarily interface with technology tools to make your job easier and to track support requests. These support tickets turn into feedback for product managers who promptly make necessary corrections to fix problems. An eCommerce company will also likely share their week-on-week revenue growth and key metrics with everyone while a retail assistant may get access to inventory sales and revenue at a single store level.
The difference here is the velocity of information exchange and feedback to action cycles, one reiterative cycle for an eCommerce business could take a week while the retailer might take as long as a month to introduce changes. It’s much faster and easier to change software code than to introduce new operational procedures. Over time, an eCommerce support staff will see much more of how their contribution affects the entire business than an in-store retail assistant over the same period of tenure.
When you’re not working in a fast-growing technology company, you’re most likely taking an intellectual pay cut. The problems you work on don’t scale exponentially and even if they do scale over time, your responsibilities are limited by a linear career growth trajectory. In the case of our 2 protagonists, when the eCommerce company starts selling to overseas customers the next year, the customer support staff encounters more varied challenges while the retail assistant may still be working on the same type of problems: an intellectual gap widens over time.
As the eCommerce company grows over time, instead of just hiring operational staff to manage all problems, software engineers are hired to automate parts of the business, data analysts are hired to model predictive demand and product designers are hired to lower purchase friction and increase habit activity loops. Revenue increases more in relativity to lowered operating expenses. The rise in productivity lead to an increase in average revenue per employee and the competitive rift widens between the eCommerce and traditional or technology-enabled retailer as the eCommerce retailer starts charging customers less and seeks to build products and services around their customers to become more entrenched in their lifestyle.
“All businesses need to be young forever. If your customer base ages with you, you’re Woolworth’s,” said Jeff Bezos, Founder, and CEO of Amazon.com
There are young .com companies that behave like a traditional company or have not fully unlocked its full economic potential as an internet/technology business. Likewise, there are more established companies that think and operate like a global tech startup that puts technology at its core to better serve customers. It might not seem immediately obvious at first but questioning the founder(s) and management team will help you assess which camp they belong to.
Do the founders and management team have a common sense of mission? Do they fix problems proactively or bury/avoid them unconsciously? Do they share information freely or hide information by default? Are the biggest problems they’re attempting to solve today still the same as 6 months ago?
“Startup” is a state of mind that describes the vitality of the company, technology is the common language spoken in these businesses that are considered disruptive. The best way to experience and understand this state of mind is to work in a tech startup or to start one.
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About Daylon Soh
Daylon works in the intersection between digital marketing, digital product design and digital product management helping startups and corporations build new digital products and ventures. He uses a mix of research methods, Agile practices and communication strategies to facilitate the innovation process with teams. He currently works for Unilever as a Digital Marketing Strategist and was most recently part of the Digital Product Design team of Aviva Digital Garage working as a SCRUM Product Owner. Daylon is also an Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP)® & PRINCE2® Certified Practitioner in Project Management and instructs adult learners at General Assembly.
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