One of On Deck CEO Erik Torenberg’s favorite pieces of career advice is to develop a personal career moat. But what is a “career moat”?
Career moats are a spin on Warren Buffet’s concept of economic moats.
An economic moat is a company’s competitive advantage over its competitors which allows it to protect its market share. Economic moats are difficult to replicate, so they create a barrier against similar companies. When companies are able to differentiate themselves across multiple axes, thereby compounding their competitive edge, this is referred to as “widening” their moat. A company’s economic moat can come from many different sources.
Here are just a few examples:
- Brand identity, recognizability or reputation, e.g. everyone is familiar with Nike’s logo and slogan “Just do it”; the word “Oreo” has become synonymous with nearly all sandwich creme cookies
- Their switching cost, e.g. Apple’s cross-device interconnectivity
- Their price point, e.g. Walmart
But the idea that you can have several competitive advantages that can help you stand out, even in saturated fields, doesn’t only apply to companies–it applies to people, too.
Enter: career moats. Why might you want one as an individual, though?
ODF8 Fellow and Founder of Divisional Trevor Sookraj described why he thinks career moats are important:
“I think there's a bias in most industries to go broad (generalist), whereas building moats means being known for something specific, like tackling a certain problem set, which makes it much easier for your advocates to surface your profile for opportunities.
I've personally been a fan of 'sprints' where I take on opportunities (FT, contract, volunteer, etc.) that test a hypothesis I have with respect to what I'd be interested in and how it'd contribute to my career growth, then reflect on it afterwards.”
According to Cedric Chin of the business blog Commonplace, career moats can also lead to job security, not just amplifying your signal:
“What does a career moat look like? It looks like this: you aren't that worried about finding work. You know that if you are ever laid off, you may easily find another job, because you possess ‘career capital’ — that is, skills that are relatively rare, and are in sufficient demand to guarantee a base level of compensation to support you and yours.”
People aren’t companies though. You can’t make the switching cost for your employer or clients, whereas companies like Apple and Verizon can. And you can definitely have a strong professional reputation, but it’d probably be a little bit corny if you had a personal slogan or a carefully choreographed brand identity, replete with a color scheme and pre-designated fonts, like Adidas or Nike.
So, how then do you identify and cultivate your own career moat?
How to Identify Your Personal Career Moat
To help identify what your personal moat is, Erik recommends asking a colleague, “What’s easy for me to do, but harder for others? What's something I have that’s very difficult for people to reverse engineer?”
Another place to look is what is your “ikigai”? That is, what’s at the intersection of what you love, what you’re good at, and what the world needs?
Some places to start might be:
- Your experience: Do you have an eclectic background? You might be able to leverage that as a strength.
OD50 Fellow Daniel Gamboa’s career moat is his breadth of experience: he’s worked in the energy industry, edutech, finance, and now web3. While part of Daniel’s journey was finding the common thread throughout each of his past positions, the unique knowledge he gained in each is a differentiator.
OD50 Fellow Cheryl Francis, on the other hand, had an untraditional background as a flight attendant. From there, she pivoted to tech, where she built up experience in the startup scene in Southeast Asia. Her unique perspective and experience poised her to take a Chief of Staff role at Jaza Energy.
- What you know: What do you know that other people don’t? Maybe you’re the best designer in your field, or you know a lot about an emergent field, like Customer Success.
Or maybe it’s less obvious, like you majored in Vietnamese language, or know a lot about the history of train conducting, or are a skilled welder. Even skills that seem like they’re not immediately applicable to your line of work can become career moats.
ODF10 Fellow and Founder of Daywise Ranjan Jagannathan is a projects-lead-turned-founder-turned-accidental behavioral scientist who originally led Internal Innovation at Yahoo. Today, his unique expertise allows him to work as an advisor to startups and investors. We’ll learn a little bit more about him below.
- Who you know: Your network can work to your advantage, too. There might be a lot of Product Managers, but not a lot of Product Managers who have the connections that you have. Or maybe you have access to a community of Product Managers.
Our Fellows have an edge in that they have access to the whole On Deck network. It’s pre-curated, cutting down on the time they may have otherwise spent going to networking events, or trying to find an in with the right community. Plus, you always have access to everyone, for almost anything you might need on your professional journey: if you need to ask a question, find beta-testers, or sanity check an idea.
Here’s how Disco (formerly known as co-op) founder and ODF1 Fellow Conner Sherline described his experience:
“My first developer and my first designer both came through On Deck, as did many investor introductions. [...] On Deck is the first place I go when I hit a roadblock or have a question because I know that there's someone in the community that must have done this before. Someone's hired a lawyer before. Someone's issued equity to overseas talent before. Someone’s figured out how to file in Delaware for taxes. There's someone in On Deck, guaranteed, that knows the answer. That's been just so powerful for me on my journey because I just get the ability to reach out for a vital level of assistance. And then also give back in the same spirit from my experience. People that have seen that I'm part of On Deck can reach out to me for anything. It’s no surprise to me that On Deck has been so successful so far.”
- Your personal presentation and reputation: Sometimes, our strengths are in fields that may feel oversaturated. We’re a great full-stack developer, or we’re really great at writing marketing copy. How do we differentiate ourselves in situations like that, and still stand out from the competition? Here’s where we need to think outside of the box. Can you present yourself, your skillset, or your past experience in a unique way?
Some Principles for Cultivating Your Career Moat
Once you’ve identified what your career moat might be, here are a few more ways to test its durability:
- Is it accumulating? Does it compound over time?
- Is it unique? Is it hard to reverse engineer?
- Is it flexible enough to evolve if necessary?
- Is it easy to describe?
One of the most important aspects of your career moat is that it should be accumulating. On the one hand, you should never put developing your career moat on autopilot. On the other, you don’t want to constantly feel like you’re pushing a boulder up the hill.
We like to think of this great piece of wisdom that Microsoft VP Rashida Hodge shared with us at a workshop for On Deck Customer Success:
“There are two phases of your career, pushing and pulling. When you’re in the pushing phase, you’re telling people, here’s who I am, and why I’m here. In the pulling phase, you’ve been consistent for a while, and people start pulling you into opportunities.”
All this to say is never stop polishing and perfecting, but at the same time, know when to stop laying your foundation. If you’re constantly building your career moat, as opposed to widening it, it won’t be sustainable.
Career Moats in Action: ODF Fellow Ranjan Jagannathan’s Journey From Internal Innovation Lead to Accidental Behavioral Scientist
“I used to lead internal innovation at Yahoo and got pitched around 500-800 ideas/prototypes in a year. Lots of folks would come pitch me ideas, and my job was to productize these ideas. This theme continued with my stints with early stage startups as well. I was the first product hire at a travel startup (which was acquired by the largest travel company in India) and my job was to lead a pivot. I interviewed a thousand travelers in a year trying to understand why people traveled and all the idiosyncrasies around travel. I realized I was trying to again guess what travelers wanted.
When I founded my startup (getdaywise.com) I was determined to build a global consumer product that would become a daily habit for people around the world. I realized again that the only way I could do this is to understand consumer psychology and behavioral science was the operating system on top of which I wanted to build products.
Most apps are pieces of psychology codified. I started reading books, blogs on consumer behavior and psychology and trying to build frameworks using which i could build winning consumer apps. I chanced upon Dan Ariely's book and that changed everything for me.As luck would have it, Dan runs a behavioral economics lab that partners with startups. I wrote to him and we decided to become research partners, studying smartphone addiction and push notifications.
Duke University became our investor and I moved my startup to Durham where I became an amateur behavioral scientist. Together, we ran 5 studies on the effect of push notifications on mental health and even ended up writing a paper together about this, which has been cited 65 times since.
Based on this research I built my company that was listed as one of the best productivity apps by Fast company and dubbed the Future of Android Notifications by ComputerWorld. We have saved people from more than 100 million interruptions. (The app batches notifications intelligently.)
I gave talks at Apple, Google on taking a behavioral science first approach to building digital wellbeing products. And our research was instrumental in digital wellbeing tools built by Apple and Google.
I currently advise startups and founders on harnessing behavioral science as secret sauce to product market fit.”
From Erik, here are a few more examples of well-established career moats:
- Tyler Cowen: He specialized as a generalist, spending decades writing and reading all day. To recreate his encyclopedic brain would take 1-2 decades of deep work.
- Elad Gil: He invested in more than a dozen unicorns and then wrote the "High Growth Handbook" to teach others about scaling startups. To match his track record would take 1-2 decades of hard work plus luck.
- Tim Ferris: He has garnered a massive loyal following by posting unique content for years. Building the same following would take hard work plus luck, at a minimum.
And then there’s Erik himself.
- Erik Torenberg: His community-building expertise, his network, and his experience as a founder.
Erik advises that becoming a founder is a type of career moat because even failing at founding a company grants you both experience and a certain amount of social capital. You already proved that you’re willing to do something bold. In the startup ecosystem, failure is a part of life, and often presents a higher job risk (your job won’t exist) than career risk (your long-term career prospects will suffer).
“Being a founder is a career moat as well [...] People will remember you for your wins, not your losses. One of the greatest strengths you can have is tech is your ability and willingness to look dumb.”
But not everyone is a founder, and that’s okay.
Our two cents? There are lots of ways to build a personal career moat: it depends on who you are, and what your goals are.
There is one goal we should all share, though: get so good they can’t ignore you.
You can do this by:
- Identifying what makes you unique, usually your “ikigai” – something that’s at the intersection of what you’re good at, what the world needs, what you can get paid for, and what you love.
- Testing it by asking the following questions:
— Is it accumulating?
— Does it compound over time?
— Is it unique?
— Is it hard to reverse engineer?
— Is it flexible enough to evolve if necessary?
— Is it easy to describe?
- Developing it–what it is.
- Never giving up.
Identifying what your career moat is might be challenging, but they’re well worth the time investment: they give you the leverage to negotiate with companies, the ability to differentiate yourself, and the freedom to make your career your own.