How to approach your own career like an entrepreneur

December 29, 2014, 12:37 PM UTC
Illustration by Justin Metz for Fortune Magazine

Nitin Julka was 31 and working like a dog in Cleveland when he got the itch. For six years he’d been a VP of his family’s business, a $20 million company that sold IT to schools. He had moved home after getting an MBA, excited to grow the company and make a difference in educational technology. It had been a “wild ride,” but he was ready for change. “I had no idea what I wanted to do,” he says. “I just knew I wanted to do something different.”

The jobs that interested him most were in tech. He started calling friends, friends of friends, business school classmates, and even distant contacts to talk about Bay Area companies and about what professional roles he might actually qualify for. After 30 or so conversations, he made up his mind: He wanted to be a product manager at a fast-growing Silicon Valley–based startup.

This struck few as a logical or even feasible next step for Julka: “I was changing job functions, industries, and geographies. People told me you can do one of those things—not all three at once.”

But Julka is more self-aware than most. On a quarterly basis, he conducts a life assessment and reviews what he considers to be his professional competitive advantage. Among his “most unique” attributes he lists his receptiveness to feedback. Indeed, in his quest for continual improvement, he has recorded personal and professional feedback in a single, running Google doc since 2010. He reads it once a week, when prompted by a recurring calendar invite.

And so began what Julka considers the “abnormal part” of his job search: He drew up a spreadsheet of 60 target companies, a few of which he researched for 60 to 80 hours (he admits he “overinvested”). He read 10-Ks and 10-Qs and a hundred CrunchBase articles; he mined his personal and virtual connections; he enlisted a friend, a former Google programmer, to tutor him in code; and he found free online videos from which he learned UX/UI design. With his wife’s support, he gave himself five weeks in Silicon Valley—no mean feat given that he had an 18-month-old baby at home. He met with three or more people a day, prepared a 48-page set of interview notes, and rode the highs and lows of pitching himself for a job that many thought he was an odd fit for.

It ended on a high. In September 2013 he got several job offers—including one, through a contact of his business school professor, at Bizo, a startup that has since been acquired by LinkedIn (LNKD).

Julka may sound like a case study in craziness, a modern-day Ben Franklin whose entrepreneurial energy and efforts cannot be easily matched. But while he exists at one extreme, he’s the prototype for what it takes to navigate one’s career these days.

The truth is, wherever you are on the corporate ladder, whatever you do for a living, you’ve got to think like you’re launching a business from the ground up.

As LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha wrote in their zeitgeist-tapping book from 2012, The Start-Up of You, “All humans are entrepreneurs.” To accelerate your career in today’s economy, you’ve got to embrace that spirit and apply the Silicon Valley formula—“adapt to the future” and “invest in yourself”—no matter how comfortable in your job you might be.

Imagine you’re a founder. You’ve been working for days—years, really. (You can’t remember the last time you took a day off.) You’ve networked like crazy. And now, at last, you’ve landed one of those much-coveted meetings with a high-profile venture capital firm on Sand Hill Road.

the start up of you bookIt feels as though you’ve been waiting your whole life for this: You’ve prepared your slide deck, rehearsed your pitch, and honed your talking points. You’re ready to be grilled about even the finest details of your marketing and monetization strategies. You’ve gone so far as to research your VC’s hobbies. But the product you’re selling isn’t some whiz-bang app or the latest and greatest cloud-computing platform; the product is you.

Here’s where your potential backer steps in: What’s your competitive advantage, she asks? The questions come rapid-fire: What’s your addressable market? The opportunities for growth? Your five-year plan? Your 10-year plan?

You may not be used to thinking about your career in such calculating terms, but old standards like “follow your passion” get you only so far. You won’t get Series A funding, but the analogy is apt: If you are the startup, you’d better start answering to your inner VC.

“You’ve got to have a sense of purpose, authenticity, self-awareness, intellectual honesty, and the ability to navigate ambiguity,” says Hemant Taneja, managing director at General Catalyst Partners, a venture capital firm. That’s what he looks for in companies—and people—he invests in. Alan Braverman, an entrepreneur and angel investor who co-heads the Giant Pixel, a tech startup studio, speaks more bluntly: “What most people consider a safe career path, I consider falling behind.”

You don’t have to be a TaskRabbit (or a VC) to know that the world of work has changed. Technology, globalization, and one long recession—in which nearly one in six Americans reported losing a job, according to Princeton economist Henry Farber—have all disrupted old-fashioned employment. Corporations have downsized, outsourced, and rightsized. They slashed training budgets during the recession, and though that spending is coming back—up 15% in 2013, according to a Deloitte survey—corporate talent development is thought to be a dying art. “As companies see it, the incentives are just so perverse,” says Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at Wharton Business School. “Typically you train someone, and once they become useful, they’re hired away from you.” Meanwhile, the slow march of automation continues: Robots now fly planes, perform surgeries, and in some cases write news. That leaves you, dear worker, in a tight spot—whether or not you’ve got your dream job now, you’ve got to stay relevant and evolve.

That’s not as easy as it once was. The half-life of desirable skills has shortened with the hastening pace of technological change. (A Python programmer now eats the once-hot Java programmer for lunch.) Fabio Rosati, CEO of the online freelancing platform Elance-oDesk, says these dynamics are moving us from the era of employment to one of newfangled “employability.” Professionals, like the 9.3 million who find work on his site, are now being viewed as mobile, independent bundles of skills. In this universe the most adaptable talent rules the day. Increasingly, learning agility is an attribute sought in corporate leadership, says Vicki Swisher, a senior director at Korn Ferry, an executive search firm. What’s more, she says, it’s what employers are looking for in all new hires.

That agility is also mission critical for your personal enterprise (formerly known as your career path). Rather than climb a single corporate ladder like the company man of yore, you’re more likely to spend your career scaling a professional jungle gym, maneuvering between projects, jobs, companies, industries, and locales. By the reckoning of the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ latest job-tenure survey, you’ll pivot every 4.6 years (make that three if you’re a millennial, a demographic that will dominate the workforce in 2015). To do this well requires imagination, initiative, and some guts. Much like a startup, you’re forging your way ahead in a dynamic world where there is no conventional path.

“Get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” advises Mike Abbott, a general partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, who knows as an entrepreneur and as someone whose career zigged to Microsoft, Palm, and Twitter before it zagged to venture capital. In his case, he sought discomfort. “That’s how you learn the most.”

While the ideas of a free-agent nation and personal brand building have been with us for a couple of decades, DIY-career building has gotten a big push from the digital (and old-fashioned sharing) infrastructure that fosters this independence. There’s the rise in communal workspaces like WeWork and educational alternatives like Coursera, which offers college courses online, and General Assembly, which trains workers in the most in-demand tech skills. (As Julka’s case shows, YouTube and Google can also be empowering resources.)

A slew of online platforms has made it simpler to drum up employment, from one-off gigs to full-time jobs. Professionals can peddle their services, whether it be supply-chain management or legal advice, more easily and independently too, through sites like Elance-oDesk and TrustedPeer, which sometimes cater to big companies.

The data are messy on the size and shape of this new, more independent workforce. The BLS, whose classification system dates back to 1948, counted 14.4 million self-employed Americans in April 2014. That’s a far cry from the results of a study commissioned this year by the Freelancers Union and Elance-oDesk, which put the number of freelancers—a broader category that includes temps, part-timers, and moonlighters—at 53 million, or one in three American workers. (A report on freelancers from the Government Accountability Office in 2006 had a slightly lower figure, with 42.6 million.)

The jobs are out there, the evidence shows. In October the BLS recorded 4.8 million open positions, the highest level in 14 years.

Whether you’re after one of those jobs, attempting to move up or out at the one you’ve got, or trying to make it on your own, thinking entrepreneurially will help you get ahead. Like Nitin Julka, Fortune talked to three dozen experts in the new startup economy—venture capitalists, recruiting specialists, and successful jungle-gym-climbing workers for tips about how to get yourself launched. Consider the five rules below your mini-accelerator.

You’re in the founder’s seat now.

Choose growth over profitability

Startups don’t start off making money. They chug along on venture funding while they figure out what the heck they’re doing. It may sound unpalatable, but it’s a good idea for your career too. Rather than focus on short-term gains, think long-term goals and what you need to get there. Consider Lateef Jackson, 38, a software engineer in Portland, Ore., who at 29 took a job in private equity—as an unpaid intern—to expose himself to business and investing. “It was life-changing in that I realized the lack of barriers to my dreams,” he says. Or Ryan Holiday, who as an aspiring author dropped out of college at 19 to work for two writers and intern at a talent agency. “I saw it as the equivalent of signing up for Y Combinator,” he says. “I thought, I’m going to commit two to three years of my life to work for these people to learn everything that I possibly can.” He has since written three books, run the marketing department at American Apparel, and started his own marketing firm. He’s 27.

But investing in yourself doesn’t have to mean taking a pay cut. It’s about opportunities that will make you more valuable down the road. Vas Narasimhan, a trained physician and former McKinsey consultant who is now global head of development at Novartis, has pursued a wide range of roles in his seven years at the drug company. It’s been a nontraditional path—something people pointed out to him at every turn—but it allowed the 38-year-old exec to build broad expertise and differentiate himself as a leader who can adapt, he says.

Bet on who you want to work with, not on where

“Startups are ultimately a collection of great people,” says Jon Sakoda, a general partner at Menlo Park venture capital firm NEA. He advises job seekers to, as they do in the Valley’s money circles, invest in people, not ideas. That means pick the place you’re going to work for the people you’re going to work with. They’re the ones who will train you and lead you to other opportunities when the time comes. He says he owes his career as an entrepreneur and VC to others: “I was tricked into doing what I’m doing by people I fell in love with. I got seduced into working with great people.” Dan Portillo, talent partner at Greylock Partners, agrees. He says to ask yourself two questions before taking a job: “Who am I really working for? How much of an impact is this person going to have on my career?” He credits his former boss at Mozilla for developing him as an executive and his old startup buddies for bringing him there. Having a broader network helps too. After leaving his job as a biotech CEO in 2008, Dave Summa, a Procter & Gamble and McKinsey alum, was at a loss about what to do next. He found clarity by talking with his friends in the CEO Alliance, who helped him realize where his passion and expertise lie. He had long puzzled over why companies invest so heavily in R&D and product innovation and yet barely at all when it comes to improving business models. He founded his firm Business Model Innovation with a colleague earlier this year. “I was the last person to get it,” he says.

Find your special sauce

The No. 1 reason startups fail, according to a recent analysis by venture capital database CB Insights, is that there is no market need for them. In the entrepreneurial employment age, you too have to think about product-market fit. This may be one of the hardest challenges in the new economy. All of us have to become sophisticated market researchers. Thirty-year-old Angela Irizarry discovered this mostly by accident. The Cleveland native was in an unfulfilling role at an Ohio property-management company. She had liked some parts of her job—particularly her work with social media—but the fun stuff ended when she got promoted to assistant property manager. She joined oDesk (which merged with Elance in 2014) for the chance to moonlight and make some extra cash. Irizarry grandly called herself a “social media marketer,” but the jobs didn’t come. After her first 100 applications turned up nothing, she tried a different tack, studying competitors on the site: The aim was to see who was winning what jobs and why. Her discoveries led her to apply for smaller projects to build up experience and broaden her skills. The research paid off. Now Irizarry, who bills herself with the slightly grander title “integrated marketing specialist,” is freelancing at nearly four times her original hourly rate for clients all over the world.

Celebrate uncertainty

Startups are always iterating; things rarely go according to plan. You’re in “permanent beta” mode, say Hoffman and Casnocha. Sakoda, whose NEA firm was an early backer of Hearsay Social and Opower, echoes the thought. “When a startup shows me a five-year plan, the only thing I can be sure of is that it’s wrong,” he says. You can make the same bet for your career, so drink the West Coast Kool-Aid and “fail fast.” Seek feedback and adapt, and when things go off course, pivot. Consider 54-year-old Ed Dillon. Until he lost his job in a reorganization at a Chicago-based real estate firm a decade ago, he had no idea there were jobs he’d be better suited to. Trained as an accountant, he had reached the level of VP after a long, successful run in the industry. Losing his job was a blow, and for a few scrappy years he took assignments through agencies and tried to build up a consulting business of his own. Those projects led him to realize that he thrived doing more dynamic work. He now pitches himself to companies in transition—like the major law firm where he works today—and has a more fulfilling career managing organizational change.

Be public

Every startup has to sell itself. So do you—to co-workers, industry colleagues, and the wider world online. Join LinkedIn, of course, but think of this less as calculated branding than showing who you are and what you can do. It rarely hurts to engage, and it almost always helps to be helpful. (In this spirit, founders examine the ugly truths of their failed startups in digital postmortems.) “If you give away hard-won information and knowledge, you’ll get something back,” says Holiday, the 27-year-old writer and marketing pro.

Recruiting strategist Stacy Donovan Zapar, 41, has found this to be the case too. She started sharing job-searching tips on Twitter years ago. Her following grew, and she began blogging, a platform that has built her reputation online. “Just about every good thing that’s happened to me in the last decade of my career has been because of social media,” says Zapar, who claims to be “the most connected woman on LinkedIn.” She now works with big-name companies like Zappos and TripAdvisor.

And then, once again, there’s Nitin Julka. Last year he shared his career-transformation experience online—“How I got my first Valley-based product-management job in five weeks”—which has gotten him thinking about his personal brand. Now he wants to find an even bigger way (he uses the Valley term “scalable”) to help people feel more productive and less stressed. Admits Julka: “I feel stressed a lot of the time.” It may be the least surprising thing about him. 

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This story is from the January 2015 issue of Fortune.

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