I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have spent my summer in Palo Alto, California, interning on the data science team at Wealthfront, a startup innovating in the financial services sector.
I learned an incredible amount over those 12 weeks, not only about the job I was doing but about the many other areas of our business that are crucial to building a world class company.
And while I had fantastic resources and opportunities to learn about startups and hypergrowth companies during my first year through Wharton and Wharton FinTech, living and working in Silicon Valley showed me that there is so much that goes into making a successful technology company that my peers and I don’t get exposure to as MBA students.
Working with world class designers, engineers, product managers and the rest of my colleagues over the summer gave me a sense for where some of these gaps in my knowledge were. The many conversations I had with my Wealthfront teammates over Blue Bottle Coffee in downtown Palo Alto gave me insight into what they do every day and where I can learn more.
And because Wealthfront is led by executives from Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Greylock, and many other Silicon Valley institutions — people who have built and invested in billion dollar businesses — I felt I had to take full advantage of their knowledge. So I also reached out directly to them to get recommendations on the best places to read about their respective domains from the perspective of someone without specific knowledge of their role and how they think.
As a result, I’ve put together what I now call the MBA Startup Reading List: a collection of books (and a few blog posts) that constitute the base level of understanding that any MBA student recruiting for startups should have to interview well and perform in her role.
With more information and understanding, it should be easier to take a little more risk and say no to Goldman and McKinsey, and instead do something for a living that you actually enjoy. I hope this post provides the resources that will allow other students to get enough background in these concepts to not only land a role at an early stage company they believe in, but perform in that role and add value in domains that don’t necessarily fall under their job descriptions.
This is the one book on the list that I think everyone needs to read, regardless of whether or not they’re an MBA student or working at a startup. It was recommended by more than one of the executives I consulted for advice on this article and was my personal favourite read this summer.
Ben Horowitz, cofounder and partner at Andreessen Horowitz and one of Silicon Valley’s most respected entrepreneurs, wrote a management book based on first-hand experience, rather than theory. In his book, Horowitz provides insight into the particularly challenging moments of running and leading a business, like hiring and retaining the right people, laying employees off, and managing the politics that come with trying to simultaneously please investors, managers, executives and co-founders.
The common theme throughout his shared war stories is that the hard thing to do and the right thing to do are usually one and the same.
2. Design: “Universal Principles of Design” by William Lidwell
The full title of this book is actually “Universal Principles of Design, Revised and Updated: 125 Ways to Enhance Usability, Influence Perception, Increase Appeal, Make Better Design Decisions, and Teach through Design” but that was a little verbose to make a heading.
Rather than dedicating a few hundred pages to a single set of design paradigms, “Universal Principles of Design” deliberately allots two pages to each of many concepts. The left side of each two-page layout is dedicated to theory, with guidance on where to find additional information and resources, while the right side provides visuals and other examples of the practical application of the theory in the real world.
The book lists these concepts alphabetically, so it reads more like a reference manual than the other books on this list. This makes “Universal Principles of Design” more challenging to get through the first time around, but allows you to easily come back to brush up on specific topics down the line.
Wealthfront’s VP of Design, Kate Aronowitz, notes, “It’s less about teaching someone to design, and more about the language of how it works. Understanding these principles will allow you to better spot what’s working and what’s not and give articulated feedback.” I can’t really argue with that.
While there are many fantastic books out there on product development, “Inspired” was recommended for several reasons.
First, the book has been around for about seven years and therefore presents a proven perspective on product development. Furthermore, Cagan lays out concepts in a clear, intuitive manner while delivering content that is highly practical and aimed at those operating in the real world. The book also covers all the non-product challenges that product managers face, such as managing the often opposing goals of engineering, sales, design, marketing, executives, customers, and other stakeholders.
If you are applying for a product management role this book is necessary but not sufficient. However, if this isn’t the case and you can internalize the lessons taught within its pages you should have the basis of knowledge to work with product managers more effectively and better understand how to engage your users.
For starters, it teaches modern statistical approaches and algorithms using Excel (which you will stretch to its absolute limits). And it takes content that can often be challenging and technical, and makes it accessible and understandable. Foreman focuses on the practical applications of data science techniques, rather than the theory behind them, giving the material a certain dimensionality that is often lacking in more technical sources. Importantly, Data Smart contains enough instruction to start running actual analyses right out the gate.
One thing that separates most startups and hypergrowth companies (the good ones at least) from their incumbent competitors is a strong adherence to data-driven decision making, at all levels of the organisation (see the section on engineering below for more details). This is a mindset and approach to problem solving that you must embrace if you are serious about building a career in early-stage technology (I would argue this really applies to business in general).
If you are analytically-minded and really want to learn what I think is the most technical material in this list you can do it with this book.
This was the domain that I found most challenging to provide a recommendation for.
Because software engineering is so orthogonal to the typical MBA skillset, it is really difficult to recommend a text that is sufficiently comprehensible while still accomplishing our goal of providing perspective on how to think like an engineer.
Fortunately, Avery Moon, Wealthfront’s VP of Research & Engineering, has published some really pithy blog posts on decentralized learning using data and the engineering-driven culture at Wealthfront that I think provide this perspective while being very accessible to non-engineers. I’ve also included Avery’s post on disruptive companies and hypergrowth because it provides additional colour and is generally a must-read.
Lastly, I think that “learning by doing” applies here: Taking an introductory programming course or two through Coursera or Udacity is probably the most effective and rewarding process for developing real technical empathy and an understanding of how your engineering colleagues approach problems. Writing code is fun, not scary (trust me!)
6. Growth: “Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling Disruptive Products to Mainstream Customers” by Geoffrey A. Moore
This is one of those books that everyone in Silicon Valley has read (probably more than once).
Geoffrey Moore shows how successful technology product adoption follows a pattern called the “Technology Adoption Life Cycle”. Beginning with the innovators and early adopters in a particular market, a deadly chasm separates the early majority, late majority and laggards. After laying out this framework, Moore goes on to explain how companies have successfully “crossed the chasm” before and why those that failed to make this seemingly miraculous transition did so.
The third edition of “Crossing the Chasm” has been updated to include more recent examples of high-tech companies that made this perilous marketing transition, such as Salesforce, VMware, and Mozilla. This edition also includes two new appendices, that cover Moore’s subsequent work from “Inside the Tornado” and the “Four Gears Model for Digital Consumer Adoption”, respectively.
If you are working for a venture capital-backed company you need to understand how its capital structure impacts your economic situation in different outcomes for the firm.
In “Venture Deals”, Brad Feld and Jason Mendelson explain the ins and outs of venture capital from the perspective of the entrepreneur, demystifying the term sheet and explaining the tradeoffs between economic value and control.
In addition to covering the technical aspects of venture, the book covers the various participants in the fundraising process and how the capital structure of a venture backed firm is meant to align and protect their respective interests.
“Venture Deals” does a remarkable job of making venture capital understandable and approachable, which is probably one reason it is Amazon’s #1 Best Seller in the Venture Capital category. I actually took Brad and Jason’s course through the Kauffman Fellows Academy and have been recommending their book ever since.
A career perspective
While these seven domains cover what I think are all the bases, I do have one final reading assignment for my MBA compatriots: the Silicon Valley Career Guide. Wealthfront’s co-founder and Chairman, Andy Rachleff, put together a resource for job seekers in the Valley that is now table stakes for anyone looking to join an early stage company. And if you are looking for a starting point for deciding which companies you should be targeting, the 2016 Wealthfront career-launching companies list is a very good place to start.
Remember, you aren’t reading all of this material because you want to join just one startup. You’re doing it because you want to give yourself a foundation upon which to build a career working for many successful companies, maybe even starting your own.
This short video of Andy answering a few questions about startups and careers in Silicon Valley is a great starting point for understanding how he and many others think about the true risk profile of a career in startups.
Above all else
Ultimately, the reason you want to understand all of these different professional disciplines boils down to empathy; if you have a better understanding of what your colleagues are doing and, more importantly, what mental models they use and how they think in general, you can work faster, ship better product, better delight your customers, build more valuable businesses and forge stronger relationships. I hope that this becomes a resource for anyone interested in working at early stage technology companies to do all of these things more successfully.
Finally, I want to sincerely thank Andy Johns, Kate Aronowitz, Andy Rachleff, Avery Moon, ASHLEY FIEGLEIN JOHNSON, eshmu, alison rosenthal, Adam Nash, Kate Wauck, Philip De Cortes, Roberto Medri and everyone else I worked with at Wealthfront this summer. I am beyond excited to be joining such a world-class team full-time in December. I can’t wait to build a truly great company with you all.
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