Zach Zaro has spent the last nine years working in a variety of positions in the start-up world. For the last six years, as a software developer, he helped build Percolate as an early-stage engineering and product leader, and his most recent venture as the founding CTO at Maven Clinic, a digital health clinic for women. Following are some thoughts Zach has had as well as lessons learned on his entrepreneurial path.
Liberal Arts and Technology Careers
A liberal arts education was a great preparation for the career I’ve had in technology. Some of the skills I use every day are: the ability to research and think deeply about unfamiliar topics; the ability to digest and distill complicated ideas into simpler ones; and the ability to ask good questions. These are the foundations of thoughtfulness that our liberal arts professors all strive to show us.
The most basic aspect of the technology industry is that things go obsolete very quickly. Google replaced older search engines, and is now being challenged itself. Snapchat suddenly has more users than Twitter. Amazon Web Services made the “public cloud” popular, and now Google and Microsoft are selling the next generation of cloud services. New programming languages are invented. The treadmill is relentless and ceaseless.
A liberal arts education gives you the ability to think critically, which is invaluable when it comes to adapting in this ever-changing world. Thinking critically encourages you to have reasons to justify your conclusions, instead of relying on groupthink and dogma. The practice in these skills that you get at Colgate will give you the freedom to make choices about what to learn based on what really fits into your path ahead, all things considered. When you think from first principles instead of based on what you might have heard or read, you can form a coherent story about why to do things, as opposed to simply following a formula or processing orders. It’s never bad to spend time exploring and staying current – the hard part is finding a balance between putting your nose down and working, and picking your head up to see what might be happening around you.
Additionally, thinking critically forces you to actually know what you want to say and why you want to say it. This will make you a powerful communicator in the workplace. In today’s data-driven world, knowing what questions to ask is the only way to get the support you need for your arguments. If you cannot describe exactly what you want to get out of a database, you won’t be able to get the data you need – and so critical thinking will only become more important as we rely more and more on “big data” in businesses large and small. When you can consolidate multiple points of view and help guide decisions and consensus, you can become a lynchpin of your team, and an asset to any enterprise that you endeavor to contribute to.
Early-Stage vs. Later Stage Companies
So far, I’ve worked at nine “start-up” companies ranging in size from just me up to 100 people, and in roles ranging from entry-level to executive leadership. There’s a huge difference in the experience at these different size companies. Understanding this is very helpful as you’re looking at where to work or thinking about how to build your own team. The differences are really much bigger than you might expect, and this decision is one of the most important when thinking about what your daily experience will be like.
Working with yourself or just another person or two, the biggest challenge is prioritizing your time and getting something done that moves your business forward every day. You need a laser-like focus on details and every hour you put in matters a huge amount. It’s interesting to think about the effect of this as a total percentage of the hours worked on the company as a whole. When it’s just you at the beginning, a day can affect a whole number of percentage points. At Ford Motors, a whole year of full-time work is probably a rounding error on a TI-83 calculator.
With a team of about 10 people, things are very different. You are probably the only specialist in whatever you do, but there are other people with similar skill sets that can help. Leadership is so important at this stage because team habits are forming and bad communication can waste multiple people’s time. The emphasis here should be focus on communication and culture as a leader, and on building a culture of respect and professionalism as a member of the team.
Once a company gets bigger than 30-40 people, and really up until 100 people, everything changes again. You’ll have teams of specialists in each important skill set, and often the organization within these teams is more important for the day-to-day of the company than the overall structure/culture. As a team leader, you want to focus on finding people to delegate the details to, so that you can focus on the big picture. As a team member, at this stage, you want to focus on processes and building automatic productivity and communication into the company workflows, so that your job gets easier and the company benefits from your impact as a multiple of the hours you put in.
Being a TIA mentor and interacting with young entrepreneurs in general has been a great way for me to learn surprising truths about how people approach new ventures. The most important thing I have learned is that there is such an amazing reservoir of talent and ambition at Colgate. The TIA program has found a way to put some structure around that energy and it’s amazing to see the results that have come out of it. I hope to learn more from the classes to come!
One thing I’ve seen (and reflecting on my own weaknesses, probably) is just how easy it is to lose focus on getting something out the door and into the market, instead of worrying endlessly about the details. You can get distracted by trying to envision the perfect customer, find the optimal price point, or user-test the best wireframe. These are all important, but as Mike Tyson once said “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face” – and when you are working on a new idea you should be trying to get punched in the face as quickly as possible. The most exciting thing about being around the TIA program is seeing all the punches that everybody is willing to take in order to put thought Into action.
Zachary Zaro is a 2007 Colgate graduate with degrees in Political Science and Philosophy. Since graduation he has worked in the technology industry in New York City and has been a TIA mentor since 2012. While he lives in Brooklyn, Zach really misses living on Lake Moraine.