As the global pandemic leaves us frozen in place, it’s impossible to imagine a future that resembles the past. There will be no return to normalcy. Instead, we’ll need to create a new reality that’s resilient, anti-fragile and grounded in flexible, empathetic values as we re-enter the physical world with a new perspective. The traits of successful people can lead the way here.
COVID-19 has underscored the importance of individual contribution — to flatten the curve, to navigate the new normal and to build the future. The need to build infrastructure, institutions, products, processes and ultimately new possibilities for both work and life.
Who are the creators, founders, and forgers who will build the new world? What do they have in common?
This group will have a few traits of highly successful people—flexibility, perseverance, drive—but they’ll have more as well.
With the proliferation of open-source, no-code/creators tools and new professional networks, the builders who will thrive in the new world will not only ‘think different’, but will build differently as well.
Here are some characteristics of 6 types of successful people who will thrive and build in the new world:
- Expertise x2: The Designers who Code
- Flexibility: The Career Jumpers
- Practical knowledge: The Ambitious Advisors
- Creativity: The Creative Hackers
- Teachability: The Industry Academics
- Community Focus: The Community Builders
Things successful people do: learn double
When we combine technical excellence with opinionated design, we arrive at the designers who can code. Shipping an MVP and iterating based on user feedback is the default for startups; committing to a creative vision and marrying art with technical acumen and user-informed—but not dictated—features has created multiple $2B+ category leading companies: Figma and Notion, to name a couple.
In circumventing the debate of whether design-led companies can achieve both creative and technical excellence or whether designers should code, we can observe the transformative tools that are built when they can code.
The Designers Who Code
A design-led founder to the core, Ivan Zhao is building Notion for a “post-file, post-MS Office world”. The Notion team has adopted a design process that’s quick and iterative by identifying and leveraging qualities of successful people; specifically, double expertise. Notion only hires designers who can code: “All designers at Notion can [code]...we love solving problems holistically.”
In building tools for thought, Notion is helping people craft conceptual frameworks for life and work, solve harder problems collaboratively, and hack on ideas without writing code.
Informal polling suggests that the majority of designers push or write code at least sometimes. We’ll increasingly see technical designers found companies that bring design-thinking to new products; Rahul Vohra’s experience as a game designer informed the game-like experience of Superhuman email.
Technical designers bring aesthetics to computing and create products that draw people in and keep them engaged in a thoughtful and inherently more intuitive way.
Things successful people do: switch lanes
The best builders rarely stay in their lane. Instead, they find new opportunities to cross-pollinate their learning across different problems, roles, and industries. I call this triple threat mentality, it’s balancing multiple careers or creative projects that reflect multidimensional skills, interests and values.
When you look at the qualities of highly successful people, you’ll see this again and again.
The career jumpers collect and synthesize the expertise and skills they’ve gained across sectors into new insights, moving from law to biometrics or publishing to technology. Or Tech Twitter’s favorite: tech journalism to venture capital.
This week, Josh Constine announced he will be leaving TechCrunch to join SignalFire as Principal and Head of Content. He’ll be in good company as fellow journalists turned venture capitalists include:
The Career Jumpers
For readers outside of the Silicon Valley tech bubble, Peloton’s Robin Arzon, a head instructor who brings unapologetic swagger to her guided rides, continues to be my go-to example for the determined career jumper. She’s Peloton’s VP of Fitness Programming, an Adidas brand ambassador, and the author of Shut Up and Run.
Arzon began her career as a lawyer and spent seven years as a corporate litigator. She opted out of the partner track at her law firm and went all-in on a career in fitness. Her contributions to the Peloton brand are invaluable; the company’s S-1 filing reveals how crucial instructors have been in building Peloton into a fitness juggernaut with over 1.4 million members:
“If we are unable to attract and retain high-quality fitness instructors, we may not be able to generate interesting and attractive content for our classes.”
On a platform where riders get attached to their favorite instructors, Arzon’s unlikely career jump from law to fitness and her six year tenure at Peloton has no doubt had an impact on the company’s $8.1 Billion valuation.
Likewise, after finishing her Law and Business degree, Margaret Zhang saw opportunity beyond a traditional path. She dove deep into digital media in 2009 when she started her blog, now with over a million followers. Since then, she’s worked in the fashion industry as a multi-hyphenate:
Zhang co-founded BACKGROUND, a global consultancy with a focus on connecting Western and Chinese for luxury and lifestyle brands. She’s worked with companies like Chanel, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton. Cultural builders like Zhang––crafting content, capturing snapshots, filming stories––have the world’s ear and frequently use their platforms to creatively bring attention to issues like sustainability and environmentalism.
Another class of career jumpers includes the hourly hustlers: often gig workers who channel their tenacity and grit into quickly earning lucrative skills online and finding new ways to make money. For instance, this includes Uber drivers turned no-code website developers. These experiences lead to meaningful upward mobility that comes from being entirely self-taught.
The career jumpers are skilled in the art of the pivot and make strong founders because they display the traits of successful people. These builders are flexible and adapt quickly to new challenges. It’s easy to confuse their next move with starting from scratch. In reality, they’re simply plotting a continuation, treating their careers as a jungle gym rather than a ladder. They blend together the expertise and skills they garner along the way to craft innovative products and businesses.
Things successful people do: share expertise
Advisors, agencies and freelance executives have a unique upper-hand: access.
In creating a personal service offering and working across a number of companies, they have a front-row seat to the problems faced inside companies and an iterative playbook for ways to solve them. What differentiates the ambitious advisors from career consultants at major firms is their operating experience inside tech companies and their ability to smoothly transition between full time roles + advising on evenings and weekends to full-time advising. Some of them may even build a venture-scale software company using services to bootstrap their way to product market fit.
Before founding the Internet Archive and Alexa, Brewster Kahle worked at Thinking Machines which built and sold software. The company also provided consulting services that allowed them to work with publishing giants, like the Wall Street Journal and Encyclopedia Britannica. Kahle shared his experience in Founders at Work:
“We started what I think became the first web studio, or web services business. We worked with big players, whether they were newspapers or magazines, that wanted to publish on the Net. This allowed us to work with big boys very early on.”
The Ambitious Advisors
We continue to see ambitious people in tech consulting and advising companies. Prior to co-founding Oxide Computer Company, Jess Frazelle consulted on technical specialties like containers and Linux architecture.
A sought-after designer, Pablo Stanley:
- Has a full time role as a Design Lead at InVision
- Uses Superpeer to make extra money by offering 1:1 advice calls
- Started Blush to bring illustrations to everyone
In the case of emerging tech sectors like JamStack, we see a large percentage of founders come from an agency background where building web projects for clients leads to a unique insight on ways to improve the software development process for others. Stackbit and TakeShape are two recent venture-backed examples.
Things successful people do: stay creative
The creative hackers win friends, influence people, and break the internet. Their “successful people characteristics” are innovation and creativity. They find ways to bring products and experiences to life without writing code. Instead, they dream up big projects and forge partnerships to bring them to fruition or build with flexible no-code tools.
In the midst of the current pandemic, creative hackers are finding ways to end social isolation and bring people together online.
it is what it is.
The Creative Hackers
Ani Acopian, Suzy Shinn, and @Scott Buscemi teamed up with an unlikely partner to create scrubhub.tv, a parody hand washing video site, to raise money for non-profit organizations helping people affected by COVID-19. Those showing resilience and creativity in tough times are the makers we’ll continue to see break new ground.
In less than 12 hours:
- 200 startup offices and points of interest (Dropbox, Instagram, Webflow, Salesforce Tower) appeared
- The community "re-opened" their favorite local businesses: Boba Guys, local climbing gyms and favorite trendy date spots
- Notion announced a $50M round at $2B valuation
In the case of Stay at Home Valley, we didn’t quite break the internet although we did see Dreamforce-level traffic for two straight weeks in a single Figma file.
Things successful people do: learn on the job
Academia is losing its luster as a career track. Tenure is increasingly difficult to obtain, particularly for women who opt for marriage and kids. Subject matter experts passionate about their expertise are corralled into administrative duties that distract from making breakthroughs in their field. Those who stay often cite the same challenges:
- meager pay
- time-consuming grant applications
- institutional politics
Academics are finding new homes. Companies like DeepMind and OpenAI recruit research scientists with PhDs to solve complex challenges in artificial intelligence. We also see academics infiltrating marketing and growth teams at companies like Airbnb and Slack as data scientists or hopping aboard venture capital firms as research fellows or scientists-in-residence. Academics are in a unique position to merge their deep expertise with industry experience to become innovative founders.
Others in higher learning are taking their teaching experience and leveraging it into ideas for startups.
The Industry Academics
Melanie Perkins, the founder and CEO of Canva, created the design platform after combining the lessons from two phases in her career: teaching students how to use Adobe design tools and starting Fusion Books, a company that published yearbooks online.
Teaching design at The University of Western Australia helped her realize that photoshop was arduous to learn and prohibitively expensive, while starting her company was an education in the power of low-code tools and how to run a business. Perkins' following act, Canva, was most recently valued at $3.2 Billion and allows millions of people to design simply and inexpensively.
Things successful people do: build community
We need innovative products and services to shift the world towards progress. We also need movements. Community Builders create platforms that help other companies start their own businesses.
Tobias Lütke has built Shopify into a business that supports over 1 Million online storefronts. They’ve experienced rapid growth by empowering small and large business owners; Lütke revealed in 2019 that Shopify passed the $1 Billion dollar revenue mark with the highest growth rate of any SaaS company ever. Shopify isn’t just a platform for sellers; it’s also a platform for tech builders. Gorgias, a help desk for e-commerce stores, is the first customer service app built for Shopify and a venture-backed startup.
Community builders frequently angel invest in the next generation of companies in their category and bring a high level of transparency to educate founders and support individual creators.
The Community Builders
Ankur Nagpal, the Founder and CEO of Teachable, is an active angel investor who shares metrics, open-sources investor updates and continues to mentor Teachable employees even after they’ve moved onto their next big thing.
Matt Biilmann, the co-founder and CEO of Netlify, is another example of an active community builder who has invested in a number of developer tools including social network for software engineers Dev.to, CodeSandbox, and headless CMS TakeShape.
Community builders are natural company builders. They value thoughtful curation and quality; they eschew the attitude of growth at all costs. As founders, they’re natural evangelists who invest in user education and steadily increase revenue.
A preview of what’s to come
I started a modern VC fund to reimagine work alongside thoughtful founders building new opportunities for creators, designers, developers, and individuals who use technology to launch a new business or be better at work.
The vision for Worklife was developed alongside my early angel investments in Webflow, Dev.to, LunchClub, Girlboss and others. I’ve learned from community builders and invested in them from the very beginning.
What I love most about Worklife is our community of designers, developers and amazing authentic creators like:
- Serial creative founder Sophia Amoruso,
- Instagram poet Rupi Kaur,
- Streetwear founder Bobby Hundreds,
- Law student turned influencer and creative director Margaret Zhang
Plus, my investors who have built the world’s greatest platforms that started as entertainment and creative outlets and scaled into platforms for new classes of work like Spotify, Twitch, Zoom.
We ‘think different’ and ‘look different’ by design.