Bringing “big company” benefits to startup communities

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the fluidity of talent in the tech sector. If you’ve even worked at a startup or tech company, you might sense that it’s pretty common for a regular amount of employee turnover as organizations scale.

Last year, our portfolio company Carta found that the average tenure at a startup was 37 months, a number that even seems too high when I share it with companies headquartered in the Bay Area. (I’ve heard some cite 18–24 months as average tenure for employees in San Francisco.)

This makes a lot of rational and emotional sense to me. A 30-person company operates completely differently than a 100-person company, which has a totally different feel than a 300-person company. It’s unlikely that most humans are wired for each subsequent stage of massive change and growth. A company is put into the tricky scenario of both hiring for what they need “right now” while simultaneously understanding that this will no longer be likely be the reality in a year or two.

What you get is an unlikely mash-up of folks. The ones that were there super early, the first “next cohort” brought on, the ones brought on for hyper-growth, and the ones brought on to help a company “grow up.” By definition, these clusters each carry different strengths. It’s little wonder that tensions arise between cohorts in fast-growing tech companies. Unlike a larger company, there isn’t always a clear “path” for some of those earlier employees — no other department where you can transfer.

It’s perhaps due to these bleak “staying” figures that companies had been investing less time in long-term employment among companies, something that Reid Hoffman calls out in the book, The Alliance, back in 2014. At the time, LinkedIn was one of few organization to take the inverse approach, providing endless opportunities for employee development, learning, and progressive “leveling up” opportunities for careers. Each new role that an employee takes on fits into a 2–3 year timeframe, referred to as a “tour of duty,” and through tight expectation-setting, employees are guided through subsequent challenges and shepherded through their careers.

But there are a few advantages to be gained from working at a larger organization — among them, and opportunity for learning and development, a clearer career trajectory, the opportunity to switch roles from one organization to another, and often, a robust “alumni” network to stay connected even after you move on from that organization.

Lately at USV, we’ve been experimenting with one aspect of this by offering cross-company manager trainings to new managers across our portfolio network. To date, more than 250 managers from 40+ startups have participated in these programs, with one of the highest net promoter scores out of all of our programming.

But I wonder if there’s an opportunity for us to emulate other parts of that “big company” experience from the startup point of view, too. After all, if you enjoy the experience of working at one startup, you might enjoy working for another one later in your career. Better yet if you already know what it’s like to be a part of this type of community.

This is one of the reasons why I’m so excited to have Matt Cynamon join the USV Network team this year. Drawing from his experiences in leading a peer learning company called Circles and through heading up the alumni network at General Assembly, Matt will help us think through these possibilities to build and strengthen our external network. How do we connect with “alumni” who used to work for USV companies earlier in their careers? How can we leverage the strength of our combined networks to foster even stronger connections for the 10,000 people working across our current portfolio? And how can we provide a startup learning experience that transcends whatever time you happen to be working for one of our companies?

As I’ve said before, the timeline of venture capital will nearly always be longer than the timeline of any one employee’s tenure. I’m excited to see how we can continue to iterate on this “startup life cycle” experience. If you have ideas, please share your feedback.

Originally published at Dry Erase.

GM @USV, alum of @StackOverflow and @NorthwesternU, board member at @CompSci_High and @NUalumni, co-founder of #BeyondCodingNYC

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