Professional Development @ Startups

Koa Labs
2 min readFeb 29, 2024

As a founder, investor or BOD member in more than 120 startups over the past 30+ years at Koa, I’ve found that professional development is a core component of great startup culture and have worked hard to practice proactive and highly individualized professional development with many entrepreneurs at their startups. If you are curious about specifics, in my recent book “Live for a Living” my co-author Paula Caligiuri, PhD and I discuss many key principles for professional development at startups. I’ve also blogged about similar topics in the past here and posted about my recent experiences at Tamr here.

I believe the one real retention muscle that startups can develop is their unconditional commitment to the professional development of their people. IMHO if the best talent can get paid more money working at any big company (which the best people always can) — the primary reasons they might stay at your startup is that they believe their manager and the company is more committed to their individual professional development than a manager might be at bigco. Of course you want people to stay because they are inspired by the company’s mission (and the relevance to them as an individual) and their connection to their co-workers — but the commitment of the company and their manager to their individually professional development can be the strongest muscle to retain the best talent.

At startups if you can create a culture of commitment to individual professional development an individual will measure the potential of a new gig relative to the individualized professional development that they will get at their current startup. The goal of every manager at your company should be to understand each individual’s interests (and if they are unsure help them explore potential interests) and match their interests with opportunities at the company to exercise their interests through their work.

Core principles for me in professional development are always :

  • Lots of introspection and self awareness (not driven by superficial optics or titles)
  • Long-term horizons (not over reactive to short term) — years not quarters or months
  • Thoughtful communication & thorough discussion (no surprises and deep trust)
  • Informal authority granted deliberately over time followed by formal authority (avoid the Peter Principle)

I am truly honored to have the opportunity to work with so many incredibly talented human beings, honored that so many of them trust me to work with them as they develop their skills and character in the interest of building great companies that make the world a better place.

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Koa Labs

Located in the heart of Harvard Square, Koa Labs is a Seed Fund for promising start-ups. http://koalabs.com