The way I design my career completely changed when my first son was born in 2017. From the day I graduated from IIT, I implemented what I call a Brute Force strategy to climb the career ladder. The idea was to basically outwork everyone – worked deep into the weekend during my investment banking days, did every possible hustle during the venture capital gig, and was on a plane 15-20 days a month for 5 years at Alibaba, literally doing a round trip of the world (SF – Hangzhou – SEA – India – back to SF via EU).
Everything changed once a parallel day (& night) job landed on my plate – that of being a parent. Relative to Asia, raising kids in the US is especially hard given there are no support systems to fall back on, especially for a 1st gen immigrant like me.
The easy choice, of course, would be to step off the gas a bit, realign professional goals & essentially, accept the trade-off of more personal time & lower professional outcomes. And many at this life stage end up choosing this option.
But then, I have never been the guy who loves the easy way out. I set out to answer the golden question – “How do I get more leverage in my career?”. Essentially, figuring out ways to significantly improve the ratio of output (value created) to input (time & mental bandwidth invested).
Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.Archimedes
As I churned on this topic in my head for a year or so, Naval Ravikant posted his now legendary “How to get rich (without getting lucky)” tweetstorm in 2018, where he wrote about leverage as one of the key ideas.
Fortunes require leverage. Business leverage comes from capital, people, and products with no marginal cost of replication (code and media).Naval Ravikant
Having worked in tech as an investor, operator & founder, I had the opportunity to observe various forms of leverage at play from close quarters. Some examples that hit home hard for me over the years included:
- When WhatsApp got acquired by Facebook for $19Bn in Feb 2014, it had only 55 employees and yet, had built a product with 450Mn MAUs.
- Masayoshi Son of Softbank invested $20Mn in Alibaba in Jan 2000. When Alibaba went public in 2014, Softbank’s stake was valued at ~$90Bn, a 4,500x return. Similarly, Peter Thiel’s 2004 angel investment of $500k in Facebook turned into a ~$1Bn cash return when the company went public in 2012.
- I discovered legendary VC Fred Wilson’s “AVC” blog during my first year in venture capital. It blew my mind that Fred had been consistently blogging on startups & investing since 2003 when at the time most Indian VCs didn’t have a Twitter account. Cut to today, Fred still continues to write on the same AVC domain!
These examples highlight 3 main forms of career leverage I have come to identify in my journey. I call them the 3Cs – Code, Capital & Content.
Code is the strongest form of leverage that has come into existence in the last 50 years. It started from the days when one had to have access to a University with a Punch Card machine, just to run simple programs. Then, Apple and Microsoft together brought computers to regular homes, but coding languages were still complex & needed expertise. As personal computers got more powerful, the open-source ecosystem of programming languages started thriving, creating much broader access to software programming across the world (from s/w products in Silicon Valley to IT services in India). Now, with the rise of generative AI, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that almost every knowledge worker can code & create products without deep expertise in specific languages.
Code provides game-changing leverage. Over the last 20 years, anyone with a decent laptop and an Internet connection could build a SaaS business, become a freelance developer, or get hired by a large tech company at extremely attractive salaries irrespective of location, background, or past credentials. As opposed to hourly jobs in the industrial age, coding just for more hours doesn’t necessarily translate into better outcomes. Quality of problem-solving matters much more than the quantity of hours, which is what gave rise to the 10x engineer phenomenon.
As someone who had neither the skillset nor the mindset to code, this extremely powerful form of leverage has always been out of my reach. That’s why I am particularly excited about how AI will make coding so much more accessible. At the minimum, it will both increase the global base of developers, as well as significantly enhance the productivity of the best ones (the 10x engineer now becomes a 100x?).
Given coding hasn’t been available to me as a leverage point in my career, I have had to double down on the other 2Cs, as I will explain below.
Using capital to own assets is the oldest form of leverage that continues to stay powerful. The Vanderbilts made their fortune owning railroads, Carnegie in Steel, the Waltons & Jeff Bezos in retail, Buffet & Munger in owning full businesses as well as investing in stocks, Jobs & Gates in tech, Templeton, Soros & Jim Simons in public market investing, Stephen Schwarzman & Henry Kravis in Private Equity investing, and Don Valentine & John Doerr in Venture Capital investing.
Capital can be used to buy ownership in Real assets as well as businesses. The former benefits from scarcity (land is finite on this planet) & gives double-dip benefits of monthly cash flow + equity appreciation. But personally, I find the latter more interesting, purely because great businesses become long-term compounding machines, providing the prospect of exponential returns that Real assets can’t match.
As an example, Microsoft’s market cap has grown from ~$270Bn to $2Tn+ in 20 years. For any part owner via stock, everyone from Bill Gates to Steve Ballmer & now Satya Nadella has been putting in the work to give shareholders ~17% annualized returns.
Of course, the most powerful route would be to use your “sweat equity” & start a business, but that’s typically not an optimal option for most people.
Given my significant experience in banking & venture investing, I have gotten the most exposure to Capital as a form of leverage & ways to harness it across asset classes. In addition to developing expertise by working across institutions, investing in both public & private markets has also become my personal passion over the years. In a very organic way, I have always turned to the lens of markets & investing to decode life & human behavior.
As a result, I have doubled down on leveraging Capital to acquire ownership in businesses as a core form of leverage. I have been investing in tech startups for more than a decade, & plan to keep doing it for the rest of my life. My simple pursuit is to identify the best founders out there, & I believe this is where my professional Alpha is!
Compared to Code, Capital-based leverage is relatively hard to acquire. Accumulating own capital takes time & being able to manage other people’s money has a really high bar of trust, reputation & accountability.
The good news is – you can start young & with small amounts of capital. Compounding is your friend and as long as you are determined to save & deploy on a continuous basis for decades, every small step adds up. And sooner or later, my favorite model of “you only need to get a few right” kicks in, wherein a smart decision every few years will create a step function in your portfolio.
The first $100,000 is a bi**h, but you gotta do it. I don’t care what you have to do – if it means walking everywhere and not eating anything that wasn’t purchased with a coupon, find a way to get your hands on $100,000. After that, you can ease off the gas a little bit.Charlie Munger
This is the newest form of leverage, & one of the most exciting ones. Pre-Internet, there were many gatekeepers in the way of getting ideas heard. Most regular people had almost no access to traditional media. One needed relationships with publishers & power brokers to put anything out in the market. Participating in a high-quality exchange of ideas happened within tight cliques – scientific, university, neighborhood, racial, socio-economic, etc. Essentially, the common man was blocked by “access”.
The Internet changed everything. Anyone could build a website to publish their ideas. With search engines, this content became discoverable by anyone across the world. As social media got created, distribution became turbo-charged with authors able to create holistic personal brands & interact with very specific audiences for their work. Now, powerful phones & software have transformed authors into “creators”, arming them with light-weight studios to create various forms of media, from vlogs & podcasts to tweets & reels.
I started writing online in 2011, mainly via blogging & tweeting. Over the years, my conviction in Content as a powerful form of leverage has only increased with time. As anyone who has taken a new product to market knows, it’s just not enough to have a great product. Communicating with your audience in a way that makes the product resonate in their minds matters the most. Case in point: Apple’s legendary 1984 Super Bowl commercial introducing the Mac (& in the process, convincing the audience that IBM is obsolete!). Even a product genius like Jobs spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about marketing (check out this snippet from Jobs on how he simplified Apple’s marketing message).
To me, the ability to influence human minds with your ideas is a superpower like no other. Writing & putting content out there helps me engage with people I would have never met otherwise. It helps me attract people with similar values, with whom I can solve problems. It helps me have a conversation with them even when one of us is asleep, or in a different time zone, or even when the encounter happens many years after the actual writing.
Early-stage investing is a long-tail game, with thousands of new startups getting created across the globe & tens of founders in the pipeline at any point in time. I realized very early that real-time meetings are unscalable, especially at my life stage, & that demand-gen is key.
Content is arguably the most scalable form of human interaction, with its engagement & subsequent impact reverberating for years & sometimes, generations (in the case of the best books). In fact, this post itself is a perfect example, wherein I have shared links to an Apple commercial from 1984, a Steve Jobs speech on marketing from 1997, and a Wall Street Journal article from 2000.
My belief is that Content in many ways provides more potent leverage than Capital – money can’t buy the best ideas, but the best ideas can attract money. And this friends, is why I write!
To summarize, employing various forms of leverage is key to creating large professional outcomes. As you design your career, think about proactively layering in one or more of Code, Capital & Content into it & equally importantly, commit to doing it over many decades.
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