How the Startup Institute Helped Me Escape the Competency Trap

By Geordie Kaytes

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Graduating from college in 2008, my career path was certain. Due my time in management consulting, hop over to a client in a “strategic” role, and spend Sunday afternoons on my boat. I dutifully joined a great consultancy, and begin climbing the ranks.

Four years later, something went terribly wrong. I wasn’t laid off; my firm didn’t fold. I just had a startup idea that I couldn’t shake.

Since this is not an “Ask the Wildly Successful CEO” piece, the reader can confidently predict what happened next: my idea disintegrated almost immediately upon contact with the real world. 

This sucked, because I really liked my company logo. I had been given a taste of the entrepreneurial life, with its ridiculous ups and downs (mostly downs), and yet I wanted more – so I signed up for a Startup Weekend in Philadelphia to see if I could build and push out a useful product on a short timeline.

Failure number two. My team floundered, and at the end of the weekend all we had to show was a clipart-laden slide presentation.

The problem this time was simple: I didn’t have the technical skills to contribute on the UX and design side. My self-taught Illustrator chops were just window-dressing so long as I lacked a solid grounding in web development.

So, I grabbed my nametag from Startup Weekend, which read “Geordie Kaytes: Non-Technical”. I drew a big red “X” through the “non”, and hung it by my desk. If I wanted to build my own ideas, I needed to learn web development skills. That was in April.

A crazy few months commenced. I stayed up late learning Python, Rails, JavaScript, and the principles of human-computer interaction. I entered the Boston Innovation Challenge, taking second place with a mobile web app for the American Red Cross (www.mygobag.org) as the lead developer and designer. And most importantly, I applied to the Product & Design track at the Startup Institute Boston.

I didn’t think I stood a chance at getting in. SIB was meant for “recent” college grads, and I didn’t fit the description. In my interview, I didn’t for a second think about trying to impress them with what I knew (which, I had learned from my recent experiences, was very little). I talked instead about my failures, and about the steps I had already taken to get where I wanted to be.

Building, hacking and designing felt so natural, but I was afraid I’d spent too much time in the belly of the big business beast to change course. I later learned the term for this fear: “the competency trap”. It was a trap built by my own expertise, funneling me toward further specialization in a field for which I lacked passion — simply because I couldn’t bear the thought of starting over.

Somehow, the SIB founders saw some potential in me, and provided the resources to help me kick-start my career in a new direction. I’ve recently joined a great design agency that will let me pursue my passion for spreading happiness through beautiful, usable products that solve big problems.

The boat will have to wait.