Want to Get Your Foot in the Door?

Start gutting chickens.

It’s June, which means that we’re in for another round of a particularly irritating genre of writing: The Graduation Speech.

You know what I’m talking about. The empty platitudes, the corny jokes, the airy advice. I doubt anyone wearing a robe and mortarboard has ever learned anything new in the twenty minutes between the processional and the handing over of the diplomas.

Maybe I’m just bitter. No one has ever asked me to give a graduation speech. But in my years of working with aspiring entrepreneurs, many of them in college, I’ve gotten used to giving advice. And more than once, sweating on a foldable chair in the sun as happy graduates file across a stage, I’ve outlined a speech of my own.

It’s called Start Gutting Chickens, and it’s my answer to the #1 question college-aged entrepreneurs always have for me:

How do I get my foot in the door?

Gutting chickens isn’t a lecture intended for culinary school. It doesn’t even require any poultry. It’s just a way of talking about apprenticeship.

When you work in a kitchen, you start at the bottom. Nobody walks into The French Laundry and applies to be the sous-chef. Hell, no one walks in and even gets to cook.

Instead, they all start at the bottom doing prep: peeling vegetables, dicing fruit, and in general doing things that the other cooks don’t want to do.

Like gutting chickens.

But talk to enough chefs, and they’ll tell you that gutting chickens isn’t just about knives and entrails. In Japan, sushi chefs often spend years as apprentices, only making rice, before they’re ever allowed to touch the fish. In the meantime, they’re observing. They’re watching and learning how to serve guests, how to treat ingredients, how to run a kitchen efficiently and artfully.

Gutting chickens means doing whatever is necessary, if it means you’ll be learning from a master. It isn’t about servility. It’s about letting go of your ego. It’s about taking jobs because of the people, not because of a preconceived idea of what you should be doing.

Gutting chickens means finding the smartest person who will take you seriously, and doing whatever they ask.

Here’s an example from my own life.

When I was twenty-three, I was quite possibly the worst real estate agent in New York. I was working for my mother’s agency in Chappaqua, and no one was buying houses. In eight months, I made zero sales. I rented one apartment.

So when a family connection got me a job as an executive assistant — basically a gofer — to the CEO of a sheet music company called Cherry Lane, I jumped at the chance. Did I care about sheet music? Not particularly. Did I see myself as a gofer, long-term? Again, no.

If the career center at Hamilton College had heard that my B.A. in geography had gotten me a job following around the CEO of Cherry Lane Music, noting down meeting times and keeping track of deadlines, they would have said I was wasting my time. But I wasn’t. I was learning thousands of things per day: What a CEO does from 9 to 5. And what he does from 5:00 until he actually goes home (which, I noted with respect, was usually well after most of the other employees were already home and on their second cocktail). I saw firsthand how a good CEO prioritizes tasks, how he handles himself around employees. And, most crucially, I got to see how a real company works, at every level.

And nine months in, when an opportunity opened up in the mail order division of the company? I was already a known quantity at the company and the perfect person to take it.

Now, mail order wasn’t — isn’t — a glamorous division in any company, much less Cherry Lane. It’s kind of the nylon leisure suit of the advertising industry. Distinctly un-cool, bordering on sleazy. But the more I looked at the way the company interacted with its customers via the mail, and the more I experimented — with different types of paper, with photos, with promotions — the more I grew to appreciate the ways in which a company could have a direct relationship with its customers. (I didn’t know it at the time, but this knowledge would be hugely important years later, when I was starting Netflix.)

Mail order wasn’t rocket science. But it was a big step up from gutting chickens. I was learning direct mail marketing — what worked, what didn’t, and why — and also getting a crash course in customer relations and advertising. I was learning from other people — but I also had the freedom to teach myself. I was gaining real skills.

So when Cherry Lane put together a team to start a magazine, I was the natural choice to run (and teach myself) circulation. And when, a year later, a different publisher needed a circulation director to help launch a new a magazine aimed at Mac enthusiasts, I notched my second startup with MacUser. After selling MacUser, why not jump from there to startup number three, MacWarehouse, this time running the whole show?

From there, off to California and another startup mail order company: Icon Review. Then to Borland Software — and then on to Visioneer and Integrity QA, Pure Atria and Netflix — following a path which only made sense when seen in the rear view mirror.

Long story short: I didn’t start out thinking I’d be a tech entrepreneur. I started out thinking that I’d gut chickens until I stopped learning. It was a long, circuitous route from my mom’s real estate business to Netflix. It didn’t happen overnight. Or in a year. Or even in ten years.

But it happened.

And if I had to give anyone advice about how to go about things, here’s what I’d say:

Chill out. Every successful career I’ve ever known was filled with long periods of meandering, months or even years when no one knew what would happen next. Look at me: I started as a geology major turned failed realtor.

But if you apprentice yourself to the smartest people who will take you seriously, you will learn at every step. You’ll learn their special language. You’ll see what real people do. Your interests might surprise you. They will evolve. And you’ll be well-positioned to take advantage of whatever opportunity life throws your way.

So if you want to get your foot in the door?

It’s simple: Find the smartest person who will take you seriously and do whatever they ask.

Even if it’s gutting chickens.

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