Hey, big baller b-school 2nd year — working at a start-up is not a stepping stone in your career

Last night I got an e-mail from a friend and classmate asking if I would spend some time with his friend who is graduating this spring from a top 3 b-school. He said she is:

…moving from consulting to a start up and would like to know how to best position herself in order to build the necessary skill set and make the transition to VC in the longer term (sales & ops, biz dev, sales etc).

start-ups are not stepping stones

I really don’t know what to say to this. People who start-up suffer, they grind, they obsesses, they push against the way the world is because they believe they can change it– for the better. You cannot survive this if you are not driven by passion and you will not do well if you are focused on what is next rather than what is now. Working at a start-up can open lots of doors — if you crush it. But if you view it as a stepping stone in your perfectly planned, career management optimized life plan — you will fail. Doors will close.

When I hear this type of multi-step plan I want to be helpful, but I struggle. I think the most successful people find ways to always pursue the opportunity they are most passionate about at that moment. Life is too short to spend years “learning the necessary skillset” to do what you actually want to do. You can be successful at a job if your motivation is to build the necessary skill set to make the transition to something else. If you want to be a VC, or anything else, then do that. Don’t waste a start-up’s time and money by optimizing for your future instead of the future of the company.

When I joined AND 1, I saw the opportunity to work on sneakers, a life long passion, and to play hoops at lunch, another life long passion. When I joined the footwear department, it was a department of 2 (me and a co-founder of the company) and I spent my first week organizing a storage closet and making photo-copies of design sketches. I loved it. I loved looking at the sketches and I loved being in a closet full of shoes. I also loved playing ball at lunch everyday and talking trash with a bunch of other young, smart people working their asses off to be part of the number one basketball company in the world.

I had no idea what I would do next and I didn’t care. We ended up at close to $200M in revenue and I played my part, but I never could have been part of this journey if I was motivated by anything other than love of the game.

When I left to build a fitness gaming company, I knew it would be hard (maybe impossible) but I was compelled. I could not help myself. I needed to work on the idea because I could not think of anything else. If I had thought starting that company would have helped me get a job in VC, we never would have pivoted from triathlon training software to home fitness games; We would have quit when we couldn’t get developer kits from Microsoft for X-box; We would have closed the doors when NIKE chose to work with Sony (instead of with us) on a fitness game; We would have given up when the gaming retailers said no and we never would have gotten Nordstrom or the fitness video buyers as Best Buy and Wal-Mart to say yes. If anyone on our team had been looking forward to their next job, we never would have raised money, built the product, sold over 100k copies and helped a bunch of people discover a personalized, interactive, goal-oriented home fitness experience…we would have just failed…sooner.

If you are a second year MBA and you are going to McKinsey or Goldman, great. You have a job. Enjoy. If not, spend the break getting back in touch with your heart and forgetting the strategic idea of necessary skill sets and career trajectory. Come back in the spring understanding the career safety net that lives in the risk mitigating degree you just spent 24 months earning and be ready to pursue a passion – be ready to jump.

When you want to talk about that, how to do it, where to start, I bet you will find lots of MBA alumni, including me, ready and willing to help. If you are still trying to figure out the stepping stone game to the end game that you can’t define because it is 5 years out…maybe talk to career management instead…