That First Step is a Doozy by

There are many stories about CEOs who stumbled badly out of the gate- at their very first job.  Stories of how they underperformed at storied firms like P&G or GE are rampant.

In a new generation of success stories, we’ll hear more about first-failures from people who have started companies – after stumbling badly at their first job (or startup).  Bryan Burkhart joins this chorus with a self-reflective piece on the commencement speech that could have been, a Not-to-do list for graduates, published in the New York Times, Small Business section.  In it, he tells the story of his first job, at Trilogy, down in Austin Texas.  He gives some great advice for graduates – advice that I hope incoming BP3 hires and interns will take to heart, even if they don’t agree with the precise wording or method of communication.

Maybe I relate to his story because I was there, though I didn’t work with Bryan directly.  Maybe I relate to it because I saw others go through this same development process- failing to deliver the goods at the first stop (Trilogy) and then succeeding brilliantly at the second or third effort (whether it was a job or a startup).  I have no idea how they perceived folks like me, or other “more senior” folks at the company, but it was pretty awesome to see how Bryan looks back on it now:

While the software seemed esoteric — who understands what product configuration software does and why another company would spend millions of dollars for it? — Joe’s success was tangible. He was on the covers of business magazines and was ranked as one of Fortune’s 40 richest under 40 in 2001. He was the type of entrepreneur from whom I could have learned a tremendous amount.

But I didn’t think there was anything I needed to learn.

Some percentage of people were bound to come out of school, or into Trilogy, with this mindset.  The job market was hot.  Trilogy was recruiting from the very best schools, and had a rigorous interview process.  And then Trilogy treated recruits like royalty on the way into the firm.  But it didn’t stop there, it continued for months with Trilogy University – where new recruits were alternately pampered with benefits (“The Internship” on steroids), and driven relentlessly (all-nighters were de rigueur).  There were bound to be some folks that felt that they already knew what they needed to know.

My time at Trilogy was a missed opportunity. [..] After just over a year at the company, I decided to leave. Thankfully, I started to figure out what it took to achieve success. It was Jason’s focus and do-whatever-it-takes attitude that caused me to re-evaluate my own disposition. Once I did, I realized that I needed to start afresh.

His reflections are pretty spot on.  I saw some other folks go through this “realization” at Trilogy who, quite frankly, kicked butt at their next company.  They’re founders of startups, CEOs of companies, CTOs, VPs of Sales, etc.  That Trilogy Mafia that Bryan referred to.  Think what Trilogy could have been if we had, collectively, figured out how to tap into the raw talent that these people represent.

Reading the comments on the New York Times piece, it is pretty clear that some people really take offense at Bryan’s article, which I think is like a Rorschach test for the folks commenting, with a little too much invested in their own personal story.  There are the folks who think “hard work” isn’t the key to success.  Well maybe not, but is “not working hard” a great recipe for success?  And the folks who think they knew it all when they graduated from college… sure you did.  With the benefit of hindsight and maturity some of these comments are laughable.

I’ve also seen time and time again that some people respond really constructively to a kick in the butt, or a punch in the mouth (figuratively speaking of course).  In sports, it’s the guys who need a good dressing-down to get motivated – or a defeat at their nemesis’ hands to motivate them to get better.  In work life, more than once I’ve seen someone get a really tough face-to-face feedback, or a tough performance review – or get fired or laid off – only to bounce back and become a star performer.

Of course, everyone is presented with different challenges – for some it is lack of confidence – for others, too much confidence.  And the remedies required may be different – some respond to more encouragement, some to the kick in the butt.  But we all have a lot to learn when we graduate from college.

If you think you know it all at 22, how can you possibly learn everything you’re going to learn by the time you’re 42?  And no matter how good you are at writing code, you are going to find people who are better, through the benefit of years of experience.  And people who know specific things you don’t know about running a business, or writing software, or shipping product.   Don’t waste that first opportunity to learn from others.

The world is a big place, keep an open mind, work hard, and be humble.  Great advice with a personal story from Bryan, and great advice for people joining BP3 out of college.