Recently I was talking with the noted surgeon, writer, and public health researcher Atul Gawande about his demanding schedule – and how he tries to manage it for maximum impact.
As I described the framework I use to navigate Silicon Valley and all its potential deals and alliances, Atul suggested my approach could help any busy professional trying to prioritize her obligations, not just Silicon Valley types. So I’m sharing it here.
In Silicon Valley, thousands of start-ups are taking root and reaching fruition at any one time. For those who work here, staying focused and productive becomes a challenge as new opportunities present themselves.
Early in my own career, for example, I was immersed in running my own start-up, Socialnet. It was a serious foundational commitment, but then Peter Thiel and Max Levchin approached me about helping out at their own start-up, PayPal.
That also seemed like a major opportunity, so I started wondering: Was there a way I could have a strong impact at PayPal while fulfilling my existing role at Socialnet?
As I note in The Startup of You, I reached an agreement with Peter and Max that essentially involved a formal but limited commitment of time: I would serve on their founding board of directors and promise to return their phone calls by midnight the same day.
This allowed me to collaborate on PayPal in an ongoing and substantive way and yet continue my work on Socialnet. Eventually, I decided to commit fully to PayPal, and that turned out to be a hugely important decision in my overall career arc.
In Silicon Valley, this is the kind of challenge that entrepreneurs and executives face as their networks expand. In an environment of increasing abundance, it’s crucial that you learn to invest your time, your resources, and your capital to greatest effect.
Defining my relationship with Peter and Max in a flexible but clear-cut manner was an early instance of my framework for maximizing collaborative opportunities in a time-crunched world. Over the years, I’ve continued to develop my approach, which essentially mirrors how Silicon Valley creates start-ups.
Specifically, I think in terms of four tiers of potential engagement with a company or any project.
While these different roles help determine how I engage with start-ups, I use them generally too – for projects as well as formal companies.
For example, when I decided to develop and co-teach a course on blitz-scaling for Stanford University, I committed to functioning as a principal for the course of the project. There was no company involved, but in my mind, and in budgeting my time as we developed and then taught the class, I operated as a principal member of the team.
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