The Harrison Ford Effect: Big Careers Start with Small Salaries [+ My Salary Diary]

Did you know Harrison Ford only made $10,000 for the first Star Wars movie?

Guess what he made for his appearance in Star Wars: The Force Awakens?

$20 million.

Ford was working full time as a carpenter when he started standing in on over 100 screen tests for director George Lucas.

Ultimately he was better than the ‘real’ actors who were auditioning, so Lucas took a chance and offered him the role of Han Solo.

The rest was history.

han solo

What do you think would have happened if Ford had demanded more money? Or if he refused to stand in on-screen tests because he felt it was beneath him?

At $1,000 a week and no guaranteed job after filming, he would have made more money sticking to carpentry.

He never would have played his iconic role in one of the most impactful movies in history, and he would never have gone on to enjoy so much success in the film industry.

Attempting to cash in on his first appearance and get an extra $10k could have seriously hurt his chances of making $20 million almost 40 years later. That’s not even counting the money he made in between. Ford is the highest-grossing actor in history, clearing $4.7 billion across 41 movies.

Knowing not to cash in too early was key to Harrison Ford’s success – he had a positive attitude and willingness to help George Lucas without an expectation that he’d get anything in return.

Now, I’m not saying that everyone has the potential to earn billions of dollars. But every single successful person I know has the same approach as Ford. They’ve worked for free, interned, worked in minimum wage service jobs, cleaned floors, and cold called.

Nothing is beneath them. They do favors without asking for anything in return. They aren’t optimizing for money, at least not in the short term.

They know that under-monetizing their work now will give them maximum earning potential in the future. Hard work and delayed gratification is their default response.

You see this a lot with extremely successful people.

George Soros ($20 billion) put himself through college working as a railway porter. Larry Ellison ($41 billion) dropped out of college and worked odd jobs for 8 years. Jack Ma ($29 billion) got rejected from dozens of jobs, including KFC, and was later rejected from Harvard 10 times!

This isn’t just the case with billionaires, it occurs on a more relatable level too.

Noah Kagan’s Salary Diary

Recently, my former boss Noah Kagan shared his salary diary and I saw the same pattern. I found the data he shared extremely interesting, because nobody really talks about this stuff.

Noah started at Intel, earning $55k in a job he hated, until he decided to quit to work in a more interesting fast-growing startup.

He famously got fired as an early employee at Facebook and lost $185 million in equity. He then went to Mint.com, quit before the acquisition, and lost a further $1.7 million.

noah kagan
Always smiling though.

He was originally rejected from that job at Mint, but spent a week putting together a marketing plan, which convinced them to hire him for $100k a year.

After Mint, his salary went way down to $42k for two years while he built a Facebook payments company… which went bust when Facebook cut him off their platform (jeez, what does Zuckerberg have against the guy?).

Noah wasn’t deterred and went on to build a multi-million dollar business, AppSumo (Groupon for entrepreneurs) and Sumo (tools to grow your website), where I enjoyed working for him.

Here’s the thing: He would have made more money if he stayed at Intel… all the way up until 2 years ago.

Instead, he found other ways to add value until one of them landed. It eventually landed: AppSumo emails reach 1 million people and Sumo is now installed on 500,000 websites!

My Own Salary Diary

We value transparency at Ladder. So, inspired by Noah Kagan and other examples on the web like Buffer and Nathan Barry, I decided to share my own salary diary.

Now I’m a lot further behind Noah in my career, and there would be a lot of luck involved for me to get to his level or beyond. But that’s what I want. I’m pushing hard to build something big at Ladder; our team of 25 is growing fast and I’m excited about the opportunity we have to disrupt the marketing industry.

So it was super interesting to me when I spotted some of the same patterns.

Check out my LinkedIn profile for more detail on each job.

salary spreadsheet

These salaries are just estimates based on my admittedly poor memory, and should not be relied on for tax prosecution purposes.

I realize that my career path isn’t relevant to everyone: I’ve been pushing since the very beginning to work on as many interesting projects as possible, and I’ve taken a lot of risk.

So you’ll probably notice I moved around a lot – that’s not normal. What can I say? There aren’t any unions in online marketing… plus I get frustrated and bored quite easily.

The other big thing to notice is that just the last 2 years were responsible for almost 40% of my entire lifetime earnings.

That’s despite paying myself below market rate: for example, a VP of Marketing can earn $140k, and a CMO earns on average $166k. As a co-founder of a 25 person marketing agency and technology company, I’d be able to get that level of job.

I prefer being an entrepreneur.

Some of you will laugh and say “man I can’t believe it; I earned more right out of college than you earn now”. Congrats on your graduate developer job at Facebook.

This whole time, I was living in London and New York, so if you live somewhere cheaper (aka pretty much anywhere), you might see these salaries as obscene, but trust me when I say you wouldn’t want to pay my rent.

metropolis

How much for a studio apartment!?

Job to Job Playback

Before moving to London, my first full-time job was as a ‘food runner’ in a holiday resort called Center Parcs. I wasn’t even a waiter – I would literally just carry the food to the table.

I got paid $12,000 a year for the pleasure.

Before that I’d worked part-time stacking shelves in a warehouse, washing dishes, played in a band (earning $50 for a 4-hour gig), and bagged groceries (average tip per customer? $1).

Thankfully I went to university in England, so 4 years of university (Bachelors at Anglia Ruskin and Masters in Nottingham) only set me back $17,000.

I worked part-time during university to cover my living expenses, at Wetherspoons behind the bar (I lied about having bar experience) and in a Cinema ripping tickets on the door.

Of course, after graduating and landing a kick-ass internship as a government economist… I turned down a job there to get my Masters in Economics.

I graduated in 2009, in the middle of the Great Recession. Perfect timing.

All the Economics I had just learned didn’t help me (or anyone else) predict said recession, so my degree was pretty much immediately worthless.

I applied to over 100 jobs before I managed to land one at Travelex, in their Global Business Payments Team.

I thought I’d be something like a forex trader, but in reality, I was just cold-calling small businesses who did not want to hear from me.

Let’s just say it was character building.

I quit that job unceremoniously after 9 months, 1 week after they gone out on a limb to give me an early promotion and move me down to London… yeah, I’m not proud of that one.

stormtrooper

Luckily I landed an awesome job at a startup called Efficient Frontier.

It was my first startup job and it came with everything you’d expect. I was working 80 hours a week with some the smartest people I had ever met; I got equity and a pay raise every 6 months.

Not like that was enough to keep me.

I got pissed off because I wasn’t getting promoted quickly enough and quit 3 months before they had an enormous exit to Adobe. Ouch.

If I stayed I would have earned enough to buy a house. 6 years later, I still don’t own a house.

TravelZoo was where I started to learn my lesson. I finally stayed at a company for more than 2 years, and I was rewarded by getting the chance to be an early Facebook advertiser, acquire over 1 million emails, and then move into a Product Management role managing 4 developers.

They even flew me out on business to San Francisco every month. But of course I had to go and ruin it. I got frustrated with how hard it was to get changes live on the website, and eventually it started to boil over and I was let go 9 months into the product management job.

After a brief period of introspection, I got a great job at ShopStyle. I had autonomy, made a big impact pretty quickly, the company had a great future, and everyone I worked with was super smart and really nice.

So I got bored, and when my girlfriend got offered a job in New York, I quit and moved with her. But in an attempt to not allow myself to quit yet another job, I decided to found my own company — a marketing agency — with the guy I was working for at ShopStyle.

We had a great year of ups and downs where I learned a lot. We did ok, grew to a team of 6 people and worked on some cool projects.

… and of course I quit.

Yes, I quit my own company.

emperor palpatine

I had been reading Noah Kagan’s blog for a long time. I was a fan. So when I heard he was hiring, I left my company, gave up a bunch of equity, and joined AppSumo.

The team were kick ass, the company had a great future, and everyone made me feel welcome. I helped them scale their Facebook ads pretty aggressively, but having a taste of being an entrepreneur ended up making me an even worse employee than before.

I was out in 3 months – I didn’t see a place for myself as Sumo scaled and I was finding it hard to be an employee again after being an entrepreneur.

Starting to sound kind of like a loser, right? If the last 2 years at Ladder weren’t in there, my salary diary wouldn’t look like much at all. I was one of the lowest paid people in my friend group for over 10 years. In fact, I’m pretty sure that everyone who works with me at Ladder earns relatively more than I earned at their career stage.

So if your path looks a little like mine, I hope you take comfort.

The dots don’t have to join up, it doesn’t need to make sense, but as long as you learn along the way and keep plugging away, you just need one thing to land and you’re golden.

So look out for those opportunities to help out, even when you don’t expect it to lead to anything; it could be the unexpected windfall opportunity you need to kickstart your career.

Good luck.

may the force be with you