In Search of a Rocketship

gong photoGong Ke Gouldstone (EC) talks about the challenges of trying to catch the next big startup.

[stag_dropcap font_size=”50px” style=”normal”]W[/stag_dropcap]hen Sheryl Sandberg was contemplating whether or not to join Google (then in its relative infancy), Eric Schmidt famously told her “If you’re offered a seat on a Rocketship, you don’t ask what seat.  You just get on.”  I think it’s safe to say that the advice has worked out very well for Ms. Sandberg.

As many of us contemplate a career in entrepreneurship, whether to start our own company or to join a startup, the image of hopping on A Rocketship, and riding its meteoric rise up the hockey stick growth curve is touted so frequently in popular media that it’s hard not to think of it as something realistic and achievable. All we need to do is find a  Rocketship that has yet to take off…

Last week, the iLab hosted a startup career fair where 100+ companies of various shapes and sizes came to showcase their entrepreneurial vision, in search of their next engineer, bizdev lead, marketer or product manager.  Over the course of two hours, I spoke to companies that ranged from seed stage (3 co-founders with angel funding) or early-stage (20+ employees with seed or Series A funding) to mid-stage (60+ employees with Series B funding) and all the way up to the likes of Uber and Redfin, who have thousands of employees.

I realized a couple of things.  First, yes, there are early stage companies still looking to add to their leadership team!  Whether or not they find my resume attractive is a separate question… I was just happy to see that such companies actually exist and are looking!

Now I just have simply to filter for the promising ones… and it quickly became obvious that the only thing these companies had in common was their stage of life.  They are all in completely different industries, targeting unique customer segments.  The founding teams had a lot of variation in terms of diversity and experience.  And of course, everyone is promising lots of growth and future glory.  So how do you choose?

[stag_dropcap font_size=”50px” style=”normal”]S[/stag_dropcap]uddenly, I feel like a VC whose only resource is my time and future career.  This scares me quite a bit because as we learned in TEM (spoiler alert!), VCs are notoriously bad at picking winners.  And unlike VCs, I cannot diversify myself.  If their seemingly vast investment resources and cadre of associates doing deal sourcing and due diligence cannot crack the Rocketship puzzle, who am I to buck the trend and luck in?

So, the second thing that I realized is that finding my little Rocketship simply cannot be the only goal, because most likely I would fail.  There has to be intrinsic value in my role that I can take away regardless of the success of the company itself; be it skills, wisdom, experience or even relationships that will help me in the next step of my career.

Now I am looking again with a modified set of criteria.  More specifically, who is on the team?  Can I learn from them?  What impact and responsibility will I have?  Am I interested in the problem they are trying to solve (and subsequently, jump out of bed every morning excited to solve it)?  Now this is starting to feel like a set of questions I can begin to answer.

And maybe, the Rocketship isn’t something you find, but something you build.

You can follow Gong Ke on Twitter at @gongkeshen and read more of her writing at