This guest post was written by Roy Bahat. He is the head of Bloomberg Beta, a new investment fund. He is also chairman of OUYA. Previously, he was president of IGN Entertainment and worked in the office of New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.
A long time ago, careers looked like this:
When I was in school, I knew the world had changed since then. But I still thought careers were supposed to look like this:
But then I noticed something. Some of the people I most respect didn’t have jobs, really. At least not in the way I once thought of it — a single paycheck from a single employer to which they devoted all their time. One friend was a management consultant, but building an apartment building (an apartment building!) in his spare time. My brother was drawing cartoons while working as a teacher at a museum. I took a board seat in a company that wasn’t the one I was working at. My boss started a non-profit which eventually became his full-time job.
I found myself juggling one thing that was being born, another that was dying, sometimes with a full time job, sometimes without one. There were a couple of bouts of what I called unemployment (what my then-girlfriend-now-wife called “consulting”) during which I wrote a business plan to help someone raise money, couldn’t figure out my own startup, and had 100 interviews (literally, I kept a list) before I got a job. Then once I had a job, many of those projects lived and evolved.
Instead of having a linear succession of jobs, many people now have a portfolio of activities.
Sure, sometimes it happens to take the form of concentrating your work on one thing. There are many people who focus on one thing to the exclusion of all else for years on end — and I admire that. But often, it isn’t like that. Focus isn’t a requirement, it’s a choice. Sometimes it’s gigs, and helping out, and side projects, and consulting and… we have no idea how to talk about this. Try to describe that path on your LinkedIn profile — good luck. Try to tell someone what you do without endless “ands” — good luck. So maybe careers look like this poor guy (an amalgam of a few people I know):
Ultimately, our professional story should be about the skills and experiences we accumulate that matter to us, not about the titles we held. The jobs, the organizations, are all just shorthand for what’s important — what we know, what we can do, who we know (and who knows us), and what we believe.
Sure, many people happen to have a full-time job that is their focus — I do, now, and it happens to be great. But that is only one form, not the norm.
This is particularly relevant for entrepreneurs, because new ventures seldom unfold in a predictable “ready for LinkedIn update” way. Sometimes they are side projects that gradually become more (Github). Sometimes they are full-time unpaid obsessions of a founder’s for a long time, with no corporation to show for it until unexpectedly late (Facebook). My affiliation with OUYA, where I’m chairman, started modestly and became much more.
At Bloomberg Beta, we have backed founders who we know have jobs other than the startup we are investing in — and that’s fine. So long as we share an understanding of how much time they are devoting, and have transparency into all their other roles so we know there are no conflicts, we think having multiple interests is healthy. Focus and exploration live in balance with each other, you can’t have one without the other.
Over time, taking the “career as portfolio” view also means we’ll need to grow our muscles for identifying and avoiding conflicts. Some companies let their employees angel invest or advise startups, which I think is wonderful — it puts the employee into the flow of ideas, helps them see things differently, introduces them to new people. But if it’s secret, then all kinds of issues can come up — did you advise a company that just did a deal with your employer? Did you invest in a company that decided six months later to compete with your employer? Did your employer just create a copycat product of a startup where you are on the board? The antidote is just to admit it: disclose all your affiliations, and then the risk of running into trouble goes down dramatically, and you can seek the advice of others.
Put differently, our careers are now a mess — and maybe that’s OK.