Pete Huang

Unique opportunities in tech for business people

For the general business person coming out of, oh I don’t know, a McKinsey of the world and attempting to move to operating tech roles, a rough stack ranking of roles from most to least desirable looks something like the following:

  • Product manager
  • Business operations
  • Product marketing
  • Any “strategy” role
  • Corporate development / corporate finance
  • Business development
  • Advertising
  • General management / operations
  • Sales
  • etc.

More think-y, less do-y.

However, today’s (as in December 2018) startup and tech landscape lends some unique learning opportunities that seem to represent a new wave of learning opportunities that may not come again.

Uber, Lyft

This is the top-of-mind slugfest in the industry - it blends two-sided acquisition, local and community organizing, large-scale brand-building, and a fight for unit economics.

In particular, I wonder how Dara Khosrowshahi’s approach to leading Uber has affected strategy in any of these areas. Where has Uber or Lyft engaged the local community in a different manner than the other? What does Uber do today to change and manage its public perception? What’s behind Lyft’s slower market expansion, and why?

UIPath, Automation Anywhere, Blue Prism

These three companies are locked in a sprint for the robotic process automation (RPA) market. It’s taken a while for the market to catch up with these players: UIPath, for example, was started 13 years ago in 2005, but raised their Series A in 2017.

They’re also in full sprint mode: UIPath raised another $388 million in their Series B and C in the year and a half following their Series A.

RPA is a simple concept, but it’s easy to understand why it’s taken off. RPA basically records your screen and the actions that you take on it. This helps you automate repetitive motions, reduce human error, and accelerate output.

As enterprises have entered a full-on sprint towards “digital transformation”, they’re realizing that their old systems are lagging so far behind the foundation that’s needed for today’s cutting-edge development tools and technologies.

Luckily, RPA is an easy thing to bolt onto the old systems that don’t have developer-friendly APIs to enable developers to automate the system. If you can’t rebuild the system to be more effective, and your system won’t let you automate it easily, a nice consolation is the ability to pretend to be a human clicking things, which is the most flexible part of the equation no less.

I’d go work at these companies to learn about IT go-to-market strategy in the fiercely competitive space (akin to the former Cloudera vs. Hortonworks battle in Hadoop) and pick up leadership in a technical sales capacity, especially sales operations and sales engineering.

However, if I were a young person, I wouldn’t work here on the core product, nor as a sales rep.

Bird, Lime, Skip, Spin, Scoot, Uber’s Jump Bikes

It’s Uber vs. Lyft, but like 5 years behind. The same topics, but given how scooters and bikes are farther behind the curve, the potential options and strategies to see out vary more wildly.

I’m excited to see how this category tackles the space with clear references to their spiritual predecessors (and in Bird and Scoot’s cases, direct experiences in that battle).

I’d go work at these companies to learn about launching in new cities, general management and taking operational leadership in a company with such drastic change.

Grubhub, Postmates, DoorDash, Uber Eats, Instacart

Food and grocery delivery is now a pure sales and marketing effort in a three-way marketplace.

It’s bound to be an exciting time to work on acquisition of all types: drivers, restaurants, riders. The cool part is that you’re not sitting back and crunching numbers all day, though that would be required in some capacity. I’d think of these as great opportunities to actually get your hands dirty deploying marketing budget against advertising and act sharply accountable for the metrics behind it.

Sonder, Lyric, WanderJaunt

These three companies, and their surrounding category, are both working on reinventing hospitality, a problem space that combines real estate, logistics, and consumer marketing.

In general, I find hospitality and entertainment (hotels, casinos, restaurant groups) to be overlooked industries, but mostly because the unique learning opportunities likely exist only at the most senior levels. Plus, they’re highly networked communities that may take some time to break into.

These startups are ways to get exposed to these problems in startup environments. They’re essentially property management properties: they lease properties in certain cities, refresh each property’s design into a consistent theme across their portfolio, and rent out nights.

I’d go work at these as a general manager for a city: the process of going from nothing to a fully functional staff, process and set of properties sounds unforgettable.

Nutanix, Cohesity, ThoughtSpot

I’m highlighting these companies here not because of the business model, but because of the people.

Nutanix had three cofounders in 2009: Dheeraj Pandey, Mohit Aron, and Ajeet Singh. They were later joined by Sudheesh Nair in leadership in 2011.

Pandey is still at Nutanix, which went public in 2016 and is now sitting at 4,600 employees.

Aron went to start Cohesity in 2013. They’re now at 800 employees.

Singh went to start ThoughtSpot in 2012. Nair joined him in 2018. They’re now at around 400 employees.

I think ThoughtSpot is in prime position to do just as well as Nutanix has, given the experienced duo at the top, and you can still get in early enough to see a lot of action. Cohesity and Nutanix still have amazing runways ahead, though.

I would do my best to be a product manager or in sales at these companies. It’s deeply technical, but if you can do it, working in this space with strong leaders and proven track record can’t go wrong.

Antipattern: Collective Health, Flexport, Clover Health

I find that a number of new grads jump onto operations teams at these companies thinking that they’ve chosen something that they’ll learn a lot at where in fact, they could be better off at another opportunity instead. And I only know the latter part of that because of how many people hit an emotional trough shortly after joining.

Operations teams at these companies are investing a relatively smaller portion of their time on higher-leverage work. They’re similar to customer support roles in that you have an expected backlog of output waiting in front of you, but the act of clearing that backlog does not improve the company’s processes or growth potential. You’re the person operating the machine, and while you have some leeway in building or improving it, you’re still responsible for that daily output above all.

If someone were in this position, at one point said they were “interested in business” as a high schooler or college freshman, and wanted to work at a tech company vs. professional services, I’d recommend something like Google APMM or LinkedIn BizOps instead.