The Start-up of You

"The key is to manage your career as if it were a start-up business: a living, breathing, growing start-up of you."

- The Start-up of You, front-cover flap

Reid Hoffman (co-founder and chairman of LinkedIn) and Ben Casnocha share a little secret in their book, The Start-up of You: The workforce escalator is crowded.

Not so long ago that wasn’t the case. After graduation, you made your way onto the escalator from the bottom step, and slowly rode your way to the top, attaining new career heights the longer you were on for the ride. But with the death of the traditional career path, the escalator’s overcrowded and many are left feeling exasperated and directionless.

But it’s far from hopeless for those who look at themselves as a start-up. “The business strategies employed by highly successful start-ups and the career strategies employed by highly successful individuals are strikingly similar,” write the authors (page 20).

All human beings are entrepreneurs. Get investing in yourself.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

The Evolution of You

"So which is it? Should you follow a plan or stay flexible? Should you listen to your heart or listen to the market? The answer is both."
- The Start-up of You, page 51

Starbucks and Flickr. They’re two of the biggest start-up successes in recent memory. But did you know that they were both very different companies when they started out? Initially Starbucks sold coffee beans and the equipment to brew it. Flickr wasn’t even called Flickr. It was called Gaming Neverending, where photo sharing was just one component. But it was that one component that took off. Recognizing that this feature filled a marketplace need, the entrepreneurs at the helm made photo sharing their singular focus, and Flickr is the result.  Starbucks did the same, when they realized their quality beans and unique culture was their real market advantage.

But for every Starbucks or Flickr who successfully (and almost seamlessly) evolved from Plan A to an unexpected Plan B, there are countless more examples of once successful companies who failed to evolve… and became extinct. One of the most obvious examples in recent years is Blockbuster. Blockbuster “just about laughed us out of their office” when a growing start-up met with them about teaming up in order to solve some of their distribution problems (page 20). That start-up was Netflix and the year was 1999. 11 years later, in 2010, Netflix made a profit of 160 million dollars, while Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy because they “failed to adapt to the Internet era” (page 20).

Just as start-ups have to be adaptive, so do individual careers. Reid and Casnocha offer Sheryl Sandberg as an example. Sandberg grew up not taking her Western privileges for granted and graduated from school with the expectation that she would find a job directly helping others. And for awhile she was, working at the World Bank and later working on American policy. But her career took her to Google and most recently to Facebook where she is now the social media giant’s COO. Sandberg isn’t helping others in such an obvious way, but when you look at the role social media (and Facebook in particular) has played in the Egyptian uprising, she’s still providing others with the tools to better their lives.

The point is that no matter what you may think, the plan that you create for your career is bound to evolve… so long as you’re open to the journey, no matter where it may take you. The two following Insights will make it easier for you to shift your thinking now, in order adapt your career later. Because chances are you will have to.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Retain Your Identity

"…have a professional identity that you can carry with you as you shift jobs. You own yourself. It’s the start-up of you."
- The Start-up of You, page 64

We’re all our own commodities, and the faster we realize that, the better. Screen legend Elizabeth Taylor learned it when she was thirteen. When she wasn’t fired after telling off Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM, for speaking distrustfully to her mother (“You and your studio can both go to hell!”), Taylor realized that she had some intrinsic value to Mayer; that it was the stars who packed the audiences into the darkened theatres.  After all, had she been a janitor and spoken to Mayer that way she likely would have been let go on the spot. Taylor was irreplaceable, and would harness this power later while negotiating the first million dollar salary for a single film (Cleopatra, 1963) and creating the most successful celebrity fragrance of all time (White Diamonds). Preserving your sense of self, and knowing what you’re worth as a commodity, is important.

For many of us this awareness is difficult however, and we find it challenging to look past the job we have now. Casnocha and Reid offer a satire from the Onion as an example: “[After Obama became the president elect in November 2008] medical personnel had to be dispatched to help Obama campaign workers found lying on park benches and wandering city streets aimlessly, their lives devoid of meaning after election victory” (page 64). A satirical exaggeration? Certainly! But I think we can all see the truth in it.

Coincidentally, just this week I was Skyping with a friend and asked him what he could see himself doing if he didn’t hold the job he has now. He listed a number of possibilities, which showed to me that he knew his worth as a commodity in the work force.

The authors of The Start-up of Youmake some great suggestions on how to retain your own identity (brand!) while working for someone else. Establish a blog and build up a portfolio of work that is separate from your paid job. Go a step further and commission some stylish business cards in your name, with your personal e-mail address and phone number on it, and maybe even include the address of that new blog on it!

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Learn Something New—On Your Own

"Unfortunately, for far too many, focused learning ends at college graduation. …. But as much as you can, prioritize plans that offer the best chance at learning about yourself and the world. Not only will you make more money in the long run, but your career journey will be more fulfilling."
- The Start-up of You, page 60

Education should not stop when you receive your university diploma, or be limited to on-the-job learning. Unless you’re very fortunate, gone are the days when companies would offer their employees extensive training in order to broaden their knowledge and foster their talent. The responsibility is squarely on your shoulders to invest in yourself and your future.

Not to mention the fact that we’re living in an age of rapidly changing technology. If you don’t keep up with it, you’re putting yourself in a very precarious situation where you could easily be eclipsed by the competition.

The good news is that it’s easy to not only keep up, but also expand your knowledge (transferable skills) in order to more effortlessly change careers (should such a move be in your future).

“Writing skills, general management experience, technical and computer skills, people smarts, and international experience or language skills are examples of high option value—that is, they are transferable to a wide range of possible Plan B’s. Once you’ve figured out which transferable skills to invest in, make a concrete action plan you can stick to, whether by signing up for a course or conference, or simply by pledging to spend one hour each week self-learning” (page 78).

For me, I’ve pledged to learn PhotoShop. Do I think I’ll ever be at the level to create a print ad? Probably not, but investing in this skill is something that will benefit me down the road, and will also provide me with a creative outlet.


It’s no secret that the workforce has changed drastically, and at Actionable Books it’s one of our missions to remind our audience of this. Sure, the escalator may be crowded, but with The Start-up of You, Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha have provided us all with tools to ensure you land a prime spot near the top.

So, the big question is, how do you plan to invest in you?

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Andy Budgell

ABOUT Andy Budgell

Andy is the Managing Editor at Actionable Books. A graduate of the University of Waterloo's English Rhetoric and Literature program, Andy brings a love of words to Actionable, and complements the team with his distinct writing ability, amazing customer service, and a passion for film.
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