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Maximizing impact at startup with high EA potential?

by knite1 min read10th Jun 20202 comments

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An early stage startup (SF Bay) has brought me on in a position of technical leadership. The product has the potential to save high-billions of human hours, and eliminate low-billions of tons of carbon emissions. Given that all startups are wildly optimistic, moving over two zeroes still lands at ~X00m hours and ~X0m tons of carbon saved.

It took me three weeks to realize I should run the numbers. After doing that, it took me three minutes to realize I've suddenly found myself in a potentially high impact and high leverage role. And that is precisely why I'm writing this post.

Beyond doing my job to the best of my abilities, what the heck else should I do? Are there EA/LW/rationalist resources and connections I should be contacting? Leadership coaches? Should I be advertising our job openings here? Talking to 80K hours? Playing NDA chicken and sharing more details about what the company is actually doing?

Advice greatly appreciated!

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(Context: I’m an EA aligned startup founder. I wish my employees asked questions like this :) )

First and foremost, grow into a great employee and team member. This may sound self-serving, but it’s not: I think the employees who are individually great end up in thought leadership roles — I trust them more and thus give them a lot more leeway, and then those employees can start making their own decisions and expand the scope of what we do.

I suspect that what makes employees great is different in different companies, but there are certainly likely to be similarities: cultural resonance, individual effectiveness, and communication/cooperation skills.

Second, start thinking long term but be impatient in the short term. If you really like this company and want to grow within it, and think it can support you in your growth, then your marginal impact per hour of work is likely to increase by at least an order of magnitude over the next several years. There are lots of things you can do to accelerate this trend, and you should take those opportunities — but I tend to think that trust-building takes time. Try to avoid being marginalized, and make sure your work is seen. But (at least over the first few months to a couple years) you should avoid making many short-term tradeoffs which will delay the point where you reach maximum marginal impact in the long term.

Leadership training is highly underrated. If you’ve never done management/leadership training, you can get a lot from online resources (e.g. Manager Tools podcast and such); beyond that I think there’s still a lot of gains to be had from courses, individual coaches, etc.

Do weekly or monthly reviews where you step back and check whether things are on track for your career or personal impact. Share your goals with your manager and get them to buy into what you’re trying to achieve.

Stay away from stuff that will antagonize your company in the short term (“NDA chicken”, distractions from their short term goals for you during work hours). If recruiting / getting recruiting advice is an important part of your role, it should become obvious soon, at which point it will make sense to use 80k / job postings/ whatever.

Primary activity: refine your model of the future for this endeavor, and collect more data to help you choose how to amplify the paths you prefer. Mostly this means talking with your co-founders and people who know the topic well enough to bounce ideas around with.

Perhaps this will lead to expanding the circle of people who're involved and excited. Perhaps it'll lead to you understanding why that's problematic, and finding better ways to spend your energy.