What I Learned From Being a Broke, Unemployed Graduate
I did what they told me to do. I went to college. I took out loans. I graduated on time. So why, three months after graduation was I still jobless?
The summer of 2010 was supposed to be my summer. The World Cup was roaring, I was a few months away from my 23rd birthday and I had just graduated from the international business program at San Diego State University. But instead of starting a luxurious career in sales or international management, I found myself a broke college graduate who had just moved back home. It was by far one of the most frustrating, challenging and trying periods of my life.
It was during this difficult stage of unemployment and underemployment that I developed the habits and skills that would help me land an opportunity that would turn into my dream job.
I had wrongly assumed that having a four-year degree would get me through the door at any company. If it had been 1980 instead of 2010, that might have been the case. But I had graduated from an antiquated system (one that had not evolved much since my parents’ generation) in which people attend college for four years and then think that they can expect to land a job.
In a sense, I had to begin my education all over again. If I wanted to succeed, I had to fully understand the economics of the Great Recession.
I began by reading everything I could on business, marketing and technology.
During my last semester at San Diego State, my neighbor, Matt DeCelles had loaned me a copy of Tim Ferriss’ classic The 4-Hour Workweek. Like many readers, I was blown away. It wasn’t that I was ready to deal drugs for fun and profit. Rather the book (which Ferriss developed after giving a series of lectures "Drug Dealing for Fun and Profit") opened my eyes to a new way of thinking. Before reading this book, I had thought that the world operated on a corporate, 9-5, hate-what-you-do schedule.
The other books I borrowed from Matt my last semester had showed me that there were many, many better alternatives. And off I went down the rabbit hole.
Because of my current financial situation (dead broke), I couldn't afford to buy books from Modesto’s Barnes & Noble. So I did what an ambitious, go-getting, unemployed graduate with considerable time on his hands could do: I drove to Barnes & Noble every day, picked up a book and read until I either finished it or until my eyes got tired. Even then, I would earmark the page and come back either later in the day or the following day to finish the good read.
I can’t say how many books I read that way (Jason Fried, I owe you for Re-Work). I’m not saying this to brag. I’m explaining this because when someone wants something, virtually nothing can stand in his or her way. Lucky for me, the only thing standing in the way of me and a better situation was money for books.
In one of the opening paragraphs of Key's opus, he talked about growing up in Northern California and how he eventually made his way to the then tiny agricultural town of Modesto, Calif., to raise a family.
I was shocked.
I couldn’t believe that Stephen Key, the subject of a chapter in one of my favorite books, whose webinars and conference calls I had sat in on and whose cold-calling techniques and approaches had influenced my thinking about sales, was a long-time resident of my hometown.
I remember taking out my cellphone and spending the next hour or so constructing a concise email to send him. The next day I got a very friendly response and an offer “to call him sometime” to talk about my background and my career (which had not yet begun).
That summer we got to know each other very well over the course of several conversations and lunches at La Morenita.
That was three years ago. To this day Stephen continues to be a great mentor and friend, advising and guiding me in both my personal and professional life.
One of the challenges of coming from a small hometown is that a person may not have a business mentor to learn from. He or she might not think it's possible to have success as an entrepreneur. In a way, that notion might be quite foreign. After all, only people from big cosmopolitan cities achieve entrepreneurial success. Right?
Well, Stephen lived in my hometown. And he did it. So why couldn't I? Much more than providing guidance and advice, he proved to me that achieving the goals of my dreams was not only possible but also that it was closer than I thought.
We were outside Barnes & Noble just after our first meeting when he told me that attitude was more indicative of success than a degree or connections -- and that I had the ideal attitude. In a way, he believed in me before I was ready to believe in myself.
Having a mentor like Stephen was possibly the most instrumental factor in helping me arrive at the right career path.
During that summer that I decided to move to the Bay Area. The startup scene was growing rapidly and I knew that I wouldn't gain an opportunity by applying for a job from 100 miles away. I had to be there.
A college friend had just moved to San Francisco from New York to take a job at Google. One of the things I had learned from Stephen is to not fear asking for advice, especially from people doing what you want to do.
I reached out to Arman and asked how he got plugged into Google and inquired how could I do something similar. Arman was more than happy to point me in the right direction and even introduced me to his cousin who at the time was leading the recruiting team for a hot startup named Zimride (the same team that would go on to form Lyft). The organization was actually looking for junior salespeople and Arman put in a good word for me.
Over the course of the next few months, I was interviewed by several people from Zimride: account managers, HR people and then ultimately some executives, including the president.
I heard time and time again that I was a great cultural fit for the company but that there were some reservations about my lack of work experience. This hesitation caused the process to be drawn out but eventually Zimride offered me a position on a one-month trial basis.
I was ecstatic. I'd been given an opportunity and if I worked hard and exceeded the goals they had set for me, I could join the firm full time.
A week after starting at Zimride, one of the account executives who'd been helping me in the onboarding process grabbed me and said that John Zimmer, the president, wanted to talk to me. I was happy! It would be my first conversation with him since arriving at the company. I could not wait to hear more about his vision and plan for the company and how I could help.
But it wasn't going to be that kind of conversation.
At the very time that I had been brought on, the company had also hired a general manager. This person was brought in to help scale the sales team and hit aggressive goals.
As John pointed out, the general manager had decided to change the structure of the sales team and my position had been eliminated. I was out of a job.
John softened the blow by telling me that my dismissal was in no way indicative of my work ethic or performance. In fact, he said, the team and the co-workers really liked me (and I’m still a huge fan of the team and Lyft).
This could have been a catastrophic blow to my morale: I had not lasted a week before being let go. But as I saw it, John had brought me to the Bay Area. And one of my goals a few months prior had been to reach San Francisco and the startup scene. And now I was in the Bay Area. I thanked him and the team for helping me get there.
A week later, I was in Palo Alto having lunch with my new roommate Stefan (we’d been acquaintances from Modesto). Stefan, who had sensed that I might have been feeling down, had invited me out to Nola’s, which was around the corner from his office at Color.
“Don’t worry, man. We’ll find something for you," he said. "I have friends at Google I can introduce you to. I have friends at Facebook. Plus, there are many startups in Palo Alto. TuneIn is on University and Waze is across the street from Color, like literally, right there.”
Stefan pointed toward Ramona Avenue to show both how close Waze was and how much opportunity there was in Palo Alto.
I had heard a lot about Waze. But I'd been under the impression that the company was located only in Israel. I'd completed a project in college about businesses in Israel and I was curious to see what the company's U.S. office was like.
I took out my phone and searched TechCrunch and Crunchbase -- and then the Waze home page for more information. It was there that I saw that Waze was looking for a public-relations intern to help with pitching stories, developing social-media campaigns and assisting with other marketing duties. I had experience in this type of work and knew I could provide value to Waze and be an asset.
Inexplicably, the browser on my phone closed. I looked at Stefan, who at this point was destroying a Nola’s jambalaya burrito, and told him I’d be right back.
“Where are you going?” he asked with a mouthful of rice.
“I’m going to go to the Waze office and find out more information about this internship!”
Stefan just nodded and said, “I like that attitude. Good luck.”
I came back 10 minutes later with a business card in hand.
“The guy, Michael, Michal or something wasn’t there. So I called, left a voice mail and I’ll email him tonight.”
Little did I know that the introduction to Waze would turn out to be the opportunity that changed my life forever.
If it had not been for the lessons I learned while being an unemployed graduate, I would not be here, writing this today. As an entrant to the new economy, I faced the prospect of "you have a degree, now what?" The new method I had to learn was of continued learning and being proactive in seeking out mentorships and networking.
I kept learning and reading, even after graduation. Along the way I've met some really smart and generous mentors, who have stressed the importance of having a positive and optimistic attitude.
But perhaps the most important lesson of my journey going from broke to New York is that things are temporary. The current situation, no matter how bleak or bland, is not going to last forever. Even at my lowest moments, I still had good health and good sense. As the Roman writer Publilius Syrus put it, "Good health and good sense are two of life’s greatest blessings."
People often have much of what they need to succeed within them: ambition and the will to learn. This will to learn can prompt them to reach out to mentors and networks. They just have to trust the process. After all, it’s often the most difficult or trying times that set the stage for the best opportunities.