How starting at the bottom gets you to the top — quicker

June 30, 2015, 3:00 PM UTC

The Leadership Insider network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question: What advice would you give your 22-year-old self today? is written by Frederic Kerrest, co-founder and COO of Okta.

I woke up one morning in my early 20s in Argentina to find that all of my company’s assets were frozen by the Argentinian government. I went straight to the ATM with my two U.S. bank cards and withdrew all the cash I could to pay my software development employees their daily wages. I was knee-deep in my first startup — a tech consulting company — in a foreign country with a very different set of rules. That morning in 2001 was one of my most difficult on record, but it was also when I truly realized that only the ditch-diggers start at the top.

While that first business venture wasn’t ultimately a resounding success, today, as the co-founder and COO of Okta, I know that experience was a necessary step in the right direction. So my message to aspiring entrepreneurs is simple: The bottom is a great place to start. You’ll learn more starting at the bottom than anywhere else, such as why menial work is vital to a company; how research pays off; and the power of long-term relationships.

With that in mind, here are a few lessons for my 22-year-old self:

Embrace the “small” work — you’ll need it for the big stuff
It’s very likely that your first few jobs in your 20s will involve extensive time doing one (or many) of these tasks: working in Excel, fixing small bugs, taking meeting notes, writing documentation, scheduling, and making trips to FedEx, just to name a few — basically doing the things that no one else wants to do.

Through summers in college working as a software intern into my first full-time job as an engineer, I spent long hours understanding the ins and outs of software development — learning how to write code for scale and how to design thorough test harnesses. When I moved onto the business side of software (still in my early 20s), I worked as a sales engineer and account executive so I could understand the process and power of relationships. It’s how I eventually worked my way up through the business development ranks to ultimately design, develop, and launch’s first reseller program and help grow the organization.

Mastering the humble, small work of your industry may seem mundane at the time, but an understanding of the who, what, when, and how of the business will give you incredibly valuable insight that you can turn into smart recommendations and strategic guidance that will set you apart during the rest of your career.


Know the game to play it
When you’re starting out, you’ll need to know the answers to the following questions: Who are the founders of the industry? Why and how did they create it? How has your industry changed over time? Who are the key players now and what do they think? The best players know the game and study the greats.

My advice to my 22-year-old self would be to study and absorb everything you can about what you’re about to do. If I’d had a better understanding of the Argentine government’s breadth of power in times of crisis (and a historical perspective on their inclination to use those powers broadly), I might have foreseen my company’s financial troubles and limited our capital at risk. If you’re considering a new business venture, be a student of history: know the trends, the highs and lows, and the events that shaped the landscape. When you’re building your skills and setting goals, you can leverage their wins and losses to make smarter decisions along the way.

Never forget a friendly face
In my early days as a computer science student at Stanford University, and then working at Meridian and, I developed friendships that turned out be more important than I could have ever imagined. My peers from those early days have served as both my personal support system and my professional network. They have the relevant experience I need to gut check ideas, brainstorm new ones, and get much-needed outside perspective on industry trends. The same is true of mentors — many of my Stanford University and MIT professors are still my close friends and advisors, and I go back to these folks on a regular basis and seek out their opinions.

Building a network of mentors and investing in your relationships with them for the long term is a necessity in business. Stay in touch with everyone you meet — the head of engineering at one of your first jobs could one day be your co-founder — and don’t lose sight of your friendships. Your friends will be the ones to support you when you fly home from Argentina with less cash in your pocket than when you started. It’s likely that many of them will become industry leaders with stories to share and shoulders to lean on (and maybe even a bank account to tap) when needed.

Read all answers to the Leadership Insider question: What advice would you give your 22-year-old self today?

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