Scaling Support

A lot of the work I've done over the past decade could be framed as a support function, in both connotations:

  • we provide support to a specific audience in terms of how they learn or perform their jobs.
  • the work is in support of a larger business function, investing at a venture capital firm, for instance.

In most cases, support is seen as a manual, bolt-on activity, and you're on your own to figure out how to systematize and scale your own effectiveness.  This makes sense when you're a cost center and not a clear direct revenue driver.  

(As a side note, one mistake I made with Orbital was choosing not to run any support programs initially in 2014 because I had learned to see them solely as support functions, when in reality they were a good business opportunity when you're doing it on your own.)

If you're well-resourced, you then have the ability to think bigger about how you design and scale support systems, largely because you'll have the runway to test, iterate and evolve over time as well as the ability to cultivate networks of people (mainly alumni) who will provide you with optionality down the road in terms of being able to incorporate different structures altogether.  For example, early on in the Studios, we relied on superstars—experienced, well-known, senior practictioners who had "done the job"—to anchor our programs.  In later years, we had a deep bench of alumni to lean on, which provided more flexibility and scalability.

So, just like a startup, whether you're well-resourced and have sufficient runway will inform your strategy for scaling support.

Another aspect of scaling is considering what the equivalents are of prototypes vs. MVPs vs. fully-featured products.  When you're building digital products, you want to keep an eye on how much time, energy and resources you're spending on your early experiments.  Accordingly, you want to be intentional and focused on a subset of your audience when you're starting out.

As you gain more confidence over time, you'll expand the radius of who you're targeting and also invest more into the fit and finish of the product.  There's a hierarchy to your process.  Imagine a volume control, where you start "quiet" and eventually grow "louder".

In terms of experimenting with effective ways in which to support a given audience, what is an analogous paradigm of providing help?

Here's the best that I've come up with, in order of investment:

  1. directory of existing online resources: blog posts, videos, etc.
  2. curated speaker(s) content (meetups, podcasts, blog posts)
  3. online private group containers (forums, slacks)
  4. facilitated group discussions
  5. group training
  6. facilitated 1:1 peer matching
  7. matching 1:1 with external coaches
  8. batched, asynchronous help

Across all of these, you're doing some combination of aggregating, matching, facilitating, training, and creating spaces for people, which can take different forms.  What's exciting about where we're at today is that these forms are rapidly evolving.

For example,  just as we've seen with the consumer internet, products (like Slack) are capable of sculpting new spaces from our previously unallocated attention that enable new areas for such interactions to take place.  A quarantined default world could introduce new forms, though the core behaviors will largeley be the same.

Then there's the topic of sustainability and business models, which I think is probably worth of its own post because it's a whole complex mess of its own.  

On the one hand, you have very different entities with very different business needs pursuing this type of work, from solo individuals to investment funds.  Theoretically you might be competing against a venture capital firm's marketing budget.

On the other hand, particularly at a time like this, who your buyer is—a company vs. an individual—is shifting rapidly, and what it does or doesn't make sense to charge for might change based on the shape of the market.  In an incredibly short time frame, the market has shifted such that helping people find jobs and/or re-train is now a much more relevant problem than it was two months ago.

All that said, it's pretty clear that there's an opportunity to improve how people access support in their professional careers, whether it pertains to their current job, or whether it's about helping them uncover and pursue new paths altogether.  Most of the existing systems are fairly adhoc and localized, and despite the current climate there's still fairly open green field to pursue.