The entrepreneur's path to employment

By Ray DePaul

I had just quit an executive position at a startup for all the right reasons (mismatched values, lack of faith in and respect for the founder) and for the first time in my adult life, I was unemployed. Now with all humility, I was financially stable and I had a pretty good resume, but I still dreaded the question that everyone asks in a social and professional situation - "So, what do you do?"

My initial answer to the question was the typical and somewhat desperate responses of "I'm looking for a new opportunity" or "I'm between gigs". Out of sheer ego, I started answering that "I was starting my own company". The response to that statement was the complete opposite of the one I had been receiving with my weak answers. The most common reaction was an enthusiastic, "Really! Tell me more!".

Now I wasn't completing lying. I was in fact looking into how I could use my talents behind commercializing technology and see if I could connect with a brilliant technologist to start a company. I embraced this path and started setting up coffee meetings with anyone who was tinkering on something or had similar experience bringing products to market. The more conversations I had, the more I understood the challenges and potential solutions that faced tech startups. My growing knowledge made subsequent conversations far deeper than early ones. I was becoming far more interesting to the people I was meeting.

The lightbulb went off during one of those conversations when the other person enthusiastically offered me a job at their company. I wasn't looking for a job but the entrepreneurial process of getting out of the building and engaging with potential customers and partners had made me attractive as an employee!

I turned down that job offer and a couple more. The short version of the whole story is that I found my brilliant founder and joined as CEO, selling the company to Intel less than 5 years later.

While I'm fully aware that my situation is different than a graduating student in a tough job market, I think the approach can still work. If you find yourself unemployed or underemployed after graduating, consider starting your own company. Then go out and follow the lean startup and customer development model. Engage customers and partners with the enthusiasm and diligence that a founder does. Dig into the problems they encounter. Get smarter on your particular area of interest than virtually everyone else. It might result in you starting your own company, or it might result in you being so impressive that someone offers you a job.

Good luck!