Venture capitalist, advisor and founder of Exponential View - one of the leading tech newsletters with over 43,000 readers.
You’ve probably heard of Azeem Azhar.
He has just shy of half a million LinkedIn followers, and he has worked for all the major names in media - The Economist, BBC, Reuters and The Financial Times. While most people have just one job listed on their LinkedIn, Azeem lists no less than twelve positions. He’s an advisor, venture capitalist, fellow and expert in various organisations.
He has also spent five years founding, growing and then selling a successful business.
On the surface, it’s hard to imagine someone with this kind of agenda fitting in side projects. He seems too focused, too ambitious, perhaps even too busy to experiment. But, alongside his myriad paid work gigs, Azeem has had a side project for almost five years.
Azeem writes Exponential View: an exceedingly well-researched newsletter on trends and future of technology, for which he’s built a 43,000+ strong readership and a podcast. In actual fact, it’s not his first side project, “I’ve done this so many times before” he tells me, “this must be the 15th, 20th organisation I’ve started up.”.
We talk about why curiosity is a good guide for career progression, how side projects help you be more free and how they ultimately make you better at your job.
A CAREER OF CURIOSITY AND RULE BREAKING
“I’ve had a really mixed career which has almost always been driven by curiosity.” Azeem explains, “I’ve always been distracted by other things. Whether in my own organisation or elsewhere.”
“My first job out of university happened to be at The Guardian. Although I was a correspondent, I was always doing other things within The Guardian, and then doing consultancy with a strategy consultancy on the weekends. To a large extent, that has been driven my inquisitive personality.”
“At one employer, I took a personality survey. Gallup had run it thousands of times for different firms. On one particular axis, which was for rule breaking and non-conformity, I was 3.5 standard deviations from the mean.
“Three standard deviations is the weirdest 0.5%, and I was 3.5. I was one of the most extreme people - in terms of being unable to conform - that they’d seen in thousands of people. I am more measured now.”
FINDING A WORKPLACE THAT APPRECIATES CURIOSITY
“I think that the world of work was curiously unwilling to deal with people who were going to ask questions. I think I was really fortunate, at The Guardian and The Economist - my bosses and my direct boss wanted that. They recognised that in a field of people that were going to exploit the opportunities ahead, having someone that was going to explore was a good balance.”
“You are often given that freedom by more senior people than you. I was fortunate with my bosses. Many of my friends really were not at all.”
SIDE PROJECTS HELP CREATE WORK ETHIC
“When I was younger, my conscientiousness with respect to anything that was organisational was exceptionally low. But yet as soon as I accept the mantle of a side project I can be extremely conscientious.
“It reminds me of the story when Steve Jobs went mad about the colour of the second ‘O’ in Google on the iPhone, back in 2008, and sent one of his direct reports to do a double all-nighter with a VP of Google to fix that ‘O’ colour.”
“Side projects are how you align with what people really end up wanting to do. My experience with start-ups is they can be really all consuming. The work might be better in some sense, but it still not necessarily what you yourself wanted to do.”
THE THREE STAGES OF A CAREER (AND HOW THEY’RE BROKEN)
“A thing I’ve observed over the last 25 years of working in a lot of big organisations, is that execs will go through three life stages.
“You turn up out of university, bright eyed and bushy tailed and full of ideas. You graduate full of Freudian critiques and jungian archetypes ready to throw out a literary phrase.
“And you want to bring those into the workplace. When you turn up, everything’s been turned into processes. And the first thing that your bosses do is beat that playfulness out of you.
“So even if you survive the process of the British education system - which is essentially answering some very narrow exam questions - and you still have some creativity and willingness to explore the world and be playful, that’s no good. It’s no use to a large FMCG company.
“So the first 8-10 years of your career is spent learning how to toe the line. And if you toe the line really well, you might get a GM promotion. And then your job will be to ensure that all the bright eyed bushy tailed, hopeful youngsters also toe the line.
“And then at some point during that journey you then have to start talking the language of innovation, the language of leadership, ambiguity, uncertainty. Because all the senior execs have read “Exponential Organisations” or Peter Thiel’s “Zero to One”, and they keep asking themselves why aren’t we the next dollar shave club? Or why aren’t we the next Uber? Or why aren’t we the next Airbnb?
“And the reason is that those guys explored and were willing to take risks.
“The senior leadership become obsessed with hideous things like organising spontaneity, fostering creativity, they look at that phase 2 group and they say the only types of people who get promoted are those with an exploratory mindset, the mindset that we’ve just spent 14 years beating out of you.
“So everyone goes off and does the Harvard AMP advanced management program, or Singularity University and maybe they go to Stanford D School, in order to teach them those skills of curiosity and passion. That has been the trajectory in large corporates for the past couple of decades.
“And frankly it’s a bit of a bullsh*t trajectory.
“The idea that you’d do an all nighter to increase the sales of an anti dandruff shampoo by 10 base points, and that shampoo has never gone through a clinical RCT to prove that it reduced dandruff is just a shocking idea, a shocking waste of human time”.
THE WORLD OF WORK HAS CHANGED
“Today people have many more choices, and those firms have become much more formal. Early internet companies were bright kids without methodology. But over the last 20 years we’ve constructed methodology. User driven research, iterative OODA loops, so you do pick up a bunch of skills that you can do something with.
“The data also seems to show that more and more people want to try their hands at these entrepreneurial endeavours, and the data also seems to show that people are increasingly working in flexible styles of work.
“When I was 26 or 27 the only people who were freelance were a couple of people working in TV and Radio production and a handful of journalists who had a granny who’d passed away - leaving them some money. Everyone else had to work full time.
“Those structures seem to have adapted a bit more, and they are creating space for people, who otherwise would have been in those secure milkround jobs managing quality processes for god knows what, to explore. It’s a more healthy space.”
EXPONENTIAL VIEW STARTED AS AN EMAIL TO FRIENDS
“I first spent about 7-8 hours a week writing this newsletter but it was actually just an email to some friends. Over the course of the 4 years, it was a passion project, but it’s much more than that now.
“It’s scaled up - I now do a day and a half a week on it. I have something like 2.5 people working full time. It actually about 7 people giving a day here and there. And it’s actually expensive - all the money it makes goes straight into salaries. So I don’t yet take any cash out of it.”
SIDE PROJECTS BECOME FREEING
“With Exponential View, even though I have to do all of that, lots of that, I’m able to better drive it to where I need it to go. Firstly, I have no expectations, no external investors seeking returns. I don’t have a team - I had twenty mouths to feed previously - and I manage the costs so much more closely.
“Now the newsletter growth is so much slower as a result. But it does mean that the existential risk of failure has been eliminated. And that allows for a lot more clarity of thought.
“By the way, it can still feel like work. If I’m having to write four or five hundred words on how neoliberalism and machine learning intersect, and I’m doing that on Saturday night at 1am, after the family has gone to bed…That still feels like work. And it’s kind of tiring because I’m not that productive at that time of night. But it still has to get out. I fit it around the other priorities in my life.”
SIDE PROJECTS IMPROVE YOUR DAY-TO-DAY WORK
“Exponential View has really contributed to my own growth and progression. It’s contributed because people know who I am, and that’s made marketing much easier.
“I also have spent a lot of time reading. Doing this for four years, I probably spent about 25-30 hours reading a week, off the back of 20 years in the industry. It’s probably a couple of PhDs worth of reading right?”
“I have access to the authors as well, so I have a lot of insight I can bring to a topic. I’ve got a really helpful network. As an example, two of my readers have written to me in the last 2 weeks. One of whom is the founder of a nuclear fusion power start up. The other has built 3D printers for CBD products. These are people I have direct access to. It’s been very very helpful.”
And it looks like he’s built strong relationships from it.
When Azeem kindly does a shout out for Out of Hours at the end of his newsletter, one person emails me to sign up to the Out of Hours mailing list. Under the reason why they want to join, they simply put “I really like Azeem.”
Join the club.
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