By Dan Shanoff
On Saturday, Foursquare head of business development Tristan Walker posted the story of how it was the two-year anniversary of the day he cold-emailed Foursquare’s founders while he was a Stanford MBA student, which led to an internship, which led to his full-time role managing partnerships for the fast-growing company. The story dovetailed with my memory of a similar anniversary today -- one of the pivotal moments of my career...
On Wednesday, July 17, 1996, I flipped open my copy of the New York Times to the business section, and there was a picture of three guys in an office playing basketball on a mini-hoop. They looked like they were having fun.
The story was about a start-up outside of Seattle called Starwave, and they ran the newsroom and were the “development studio” for, among other things, ESPNet SportsZone, the leading sports-news site on the Web. (The reporter Steve Lohr noting that SportsZone “now attracts 230,000 visitors a day, making it one of the more heavily trafficked sites on the Web.”)
From the article: “Yet in a field still in its infancy, Starwave is viewed by many experts as a bellwether, an ambitious venture whose early progress suggests how the medium will develop and perhaps become a business.”
As I read on, Starwave sounded a bit magical, a place I wanted to be.
It’s not that I didn’t have a great job already: A year earlier, I became the first full-time employee of a radically innovative sports-news start-up in Chicago backed by Ted Leonsis and AOL. The founders gave me and my co-editors (including longtime online sports-news vet Rob Peterson) as much freedom as we wanted to experiment in this new medium. It wasn’t easy, but we were having fun, creating new formats and conceits specifically designed for the online fan. I was 23 and living in Wrigleyville with my two closest friends. Professionally, it remains the most formative experience of my life, the year when I was given the unique opportunity to develop an expertise in and intuition for online news and what fans wanted online.
But there was something about Starwave and the scope of its ambitions, not to mention the fact that they were powering the best site on the Web. That piqued my notions of grandeur.
And so the next day, July 18, I typed up a blind letter for that Starwave “vice president of sports publishing,” Geoff Reiss. It was a pitch of passion and purported expertise and plenty of self-belief, that my experience at the AOL start-up made me the ideal addition to Starwave. From the letter:
I think the medium demands two elements...
(1) Content must be interesting. It has to be intelligent without “talking down” to the reader. Throughout my coverage... I’ve tried to talk to fans as a fan. I approach readers as if they were going to a bar right after reading my columns and need ammunition to impress their buddies... (2) Content also must be interactive...
For me, what’s great about being part of this new medium has been experimenting with what works online that carries over from traditional journalism and what doesn’t. The reality is an “IN-IN” situation -- interesting stories plus interactive opportunities yielding a fan-friendly and lucrative combination.
For Starwave, I’d like to think I can offer a “win-win” situation. I have the online insight that starting a site fosters, plus a savvy journalist’s instincts for good content that readers relate to as easily as they learn from.”
[Let's pause there for a sec: “In-In” and “win-win” -- cringe. (See the full note here.)]
I put the letter and my resume in a FedEx envelope -- email didn't seem serious enough! -- and sent it to him. A day or so later, I got a call from Reiss; he would be in Chicago imminently and could I meet him for breakfast. I eagerly agreed. We met at some fancy hotel -- certainly beyond my $18,000-a-year means -- and talked intensively about the future of sports news. I was won over; he was won over.
I was flown out to Seattle for a recruiting trip -- it was early August, so I was like “Wow, it’s beautiful here!” not understanding that in a few months, we wouldn’t see the sun again for a half-year. But I was sold -- on the company, on the fantastic people, on the location. I would pick up and leave this really fun, interesting life in Chicago for something that I thought might be even more interesting.
My experience at Starwave/SportsZone itself exceeded that (I even became an erstwhile all-star on that very same mini-hoop). But as much as anything, the experience I had and the relationships I created at Starwave set up the rest of my career, from my transition back to the East Coast to my stint at SI.com (and even good ol’ Bolt.com) to the story I could tell on my business-school applications to my chance to write for Page 2 (and, later, successfully launch the Daily Quickie) to joining Associated Content -- to founding Quickish. I developed friends and mentors and expertise that have lasted (and powered) the 15 years since. In short: It was everything.
And what does it all trace back to? The blind cover letter I sent -- maybe not quite the best piece of writing I’ve ever done in my life. Certainly the most important.
Things are so different in 2011 than they were in 1996 (although if you read that Times article about Starwave, you will be stunned at how forward-thinking the company was about almost everything in online news publishing). But there is a timeless lesson there:
Extraordinary career opportunities come from extraordinary efforts to go get them. You can’t wait hopefully for these things to come to you; they take enterprise. Start with this: Consume as much media as you can about the subjects you are interested in. Don’t just read about a cool company or trend; recognize the people who are saying things that get you energized. Then reach out to them, respectfully (obviously) but also resolutely.
Maybe when you reach out to someone there isn’t a job -- what insights do you have into their business that shows them you’re smart and you care? Determine what a company’s pain is (or ask!) and then explain how you’ll help solve it. Better yet: Just go run an experiment and come back to them with something they might use. The smart ones will appreciate it -- and you. That is the case whether you are trying to get in to a company or even just trying to move up within one.
You have no control over whether a company has the means to hire you. You have total control over the effort you can put in to helping your own cause. Tristan Walker was willing to help the Foursquare founders in any way he could; all he wanted was the chance to create some value for them (and, along the way, for himself). Once he did, the founders saw it and quickly brought him on board in a thrilling and valuable full-time role.
No one will give you your dream job -- or any job, for that matter. Go get it.
Dan Shanoff is the founder of Quickish. You can reach him at dan-[at]-quickish-[dot]-com or follow him on Twitter at @danshanoff.