Note: This was originally published in FORBES. See it here under Forbes Entrepreneurs.
One of billionaire investor and venture capitalist Peter Thiel’s major ideas is that “competition is for losers.” For example, he talks about how even though Googleprobably creates less value for humankind than the major airlines, the Silicon Valley company is able to capture significantly more of the revenue. Why? The airline industry has incredible amounts of competition and so each firm tries to one up the others, leading to a spiraling effect where margins are incredibly slim. On the other hand, a monopoly in online search, Google is consistently able to cash out huge profits.
Of course, in the article and in his book Zero to One, Peter Thiel is talking about building businesses and starting up. But the same concept applies to students and job seekers: competition really is for losers.
Let’s take the internship search for example. Especially during the spring semester, it seems like every single college student is on the lookout for internships.
After all, you want to be one of the “lucky few” chosen by a random recruiter to be part of a class of interns who works at Goldman or McKinsey or Google over the summer. And so you dress up in suits for on campus recruiting, you polish up your resume trying to impress someone you don’t even know, you write 10 cover letters trying to prove why you’re good enough to make Excel spreadsheets all day, you put your head down and relearn some accounting rules for the investment banking interviews or data structures for the coding interview, you try to summarize your life story in a single “tell me about yourself” question. You live in stress for a month while you await for what seems to be your short term destiny, and then when you don’t get an offer, you question whether you’re just not good enough.
Or if you do get an offer, you’re just an “intern” at the very bottom of the food chain.
What exactly is the point? To do something that you really don’t want to do, just for the sake of saying you did it?
The real goal of an internship is to gain practical experience in a non-contrived, real-world work environment. Sure, the name brand might carry a lot of weight and connections at major firms help. But what’s the point of competing against thousands of people to get that experience? As Facebook COO Sheryl Sandbergargues in her book Lean In, corporate America “is not a corporate ladder. It’s a jungle gym.”
Indeed, it seems like making it to the top (or even “getting in” as an intern) can be significantly easier via the non-traditional path.
Perhaps the best example of this is Keith Ferrazzi. In his book Never Eat Alone, Ferrazzi talks about how he had offers from prestigious consulting firms like McKinsey and Deloitte straight out of Harvard Business School. One day, he was at a Deloitte cocktail party and while all the MBAs were talking amongst themselves, Keith had the confidence to approach a group of seemingly important individuals on the other side of the floor; turns out that one of the individuals was the CEO of Deloitte, Pat Loconto. They both ended up clicking since Ferrazzi was able to figure out commonalities between the two. At one point, Pat himself reached out to Ferrazzi and asked him to take the offer; Ferrazzi slyly responded that he’ll take the offer on the condition that Pat agrees to have three dinners with him throughout the year. Pat agrees…. Within a short amount of time, Keith went straight up to be the CMO of Deloitte.
It’s worth repeating: it’s a jungle gym, not a corporate ladder.
Sure, Keith already had an offer from a major firm. But the exact same lesson applies to getting an initial job or internship offer.
Take for example Nandeet Mehta. A student at UCLA, Mehta wanted to break into venture capital. But rather than applying through the traditional method via his resume, he took a bit of an eccentric path. He would consistently go to technology/venture capital/startup events and have conversations with interesting people; one evening he just happened to meet the managing partner of a major venture capital firm in LA that had invested in many successful companies–one of which was Lyft. He established rapport and found commonalities to create a trust-based emotional connection, and then simply told the partner that he wanted to learn as much as he could about VC, and was willing to do whatever he could do to help the partner out. Ultimately, Mehta secured something a lot more valuable than a run-of-the-mill internship: he was able to shadow the partner for the summer.
According to Mehta, “almost any board meeting that he went to, I went to. Any paperwork that went through him went through me. Any employee conflict that went through him, went through me.” Using this technique, Mehta was able to get experience working in VC funds like Anthos Capital, Machine Shop Ventures, Space Angel Network, and Science Inc all during school. Through these experiences, Mehta has significantly more practical–not “busy work”–experience than most of his peers, even though he never went through a “formal internship.”
In my own experience, knowing that I wanted to garner as much experience building up and scaling businesses as I could, I decided to forgo the stress of pursuing traditional competitive summer opportunities after my freshman summer to work for a few months with a good friend of mine, Hussain Ahamed. His company MainTool is trying to make any normal watch smart. And in hindsight joining has been one of the best decisions I’ve made.
Since it was a small, 15-person company, I gained real experience doing real things: Negotiating contracts, creating a culture where different subgroups are connected, managing people (and realizing how massive of a challenge it is), Fundraising, partnering deals with major Swiss and German watchmakers, working deeply with people and not become critical when nothing is working, overcoming team conflicts, and recruiting engineers.
Ultimately, even though I was working stressful hours–normal startup life–in a country I’ve never been to, I was working for a cause I cared about. More importantly, I saw extreme personal growth in finding what I wanted and didn’t want in life, what I enjoyed and didn’t enjoy, and why I was motivated to do what I do.
And that’s precisely the of point of summers and college in general: to find yourself and do something you’re authentically interested in.
You don’t have to spend your precious non-renewable youth working for a company you really don’t care about . There are always non-traditional ways of “making it.” You don’t have to be one of the thousands vying for one position — especially when you can find a more effective experience by just emailing the CEO.