Career Tips: Are you suited for working in a start-up?

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Should I start my career in a big corporation or a small start-up? That’s the question most students face during their last year in school.

I don’t have an answer to this question, but I do know how start-ups operate and what is required for a fresh graduate to join them. Hopefully, after finishing this article, you can find your own answer to this question.

Relative to established organizations, start-ups can be hard to figure out. What are the jobs to be done? The best entry points? How can you tell whether a company has potential for success and is the right fit for you?

Start-ups have no clear hierarchies or paths to advancement. But from their embryonic stages through more-mature ones, they need good managers to create and effectively run departments such as marketing, product development, and sales. And one can accrue numerous personal and professional rewards working for these young organizations.

Assessing your fit

To work at a start-up, you’ll need to do three things you might not have learned in school or in jobs at larger companies: manager uncertainty, push the limits, and think like an owner.

Managing uncertainty: start-ups represent giant experiments. Every initiative is new. One hypothesis after another is being tested. Titles, functional boundaries, roles, and responsibilities and often fluid. The team works as one, inventing, creating, moving toward shifting goals – all while working without a playbook. Given this organizational dynamism, which continues even through the later stages, anyone working for a start-up has to be comfortable with large doses of ambiguity and uncertainty.

Push the limits: a start-up employee is constantly confronted with an obstacle, they must look for a way around it, not by cutting in line but by testing assumptions. “Can’t we design a more efficient system?” they would ask. “How can we get around this obstacle and speed things up?” This tendency to actively question rather than passively settle is key to success at a start-up. If you want to work for one, you should be the sort of person who’s always looking to solve a problem, make the solution more efficient, make it repeatable, and keep iterating from there.

Think like an owner: working at a start-up, you’re expected to become emotionally invested. The sense of mission and adventure is greater than at a traditional organization, and your efforts are clearly and directly linked to the value and success of the enterprise. You must therefore be someone who can care deeply about not just your own work but all aspects of your company. One interesting example of how a start-up measures employee commitment is a hypothetical staple on the rug near the front desk of the company. Employees, no matter their position, should stop, pick up the staple, and throw it out. Everyone in a start-up is expected to always ask themselves, “What can I personally do to make this place even more awesome?”

Picking the right company

If you feel that you’re right for a start-up, you next have to choose the right company for you. A wise strategy is to approach this important decision methodically, in 4 steps.

Pick a domain: first, find a field you’re passionate about. This means asking yourself a series of questions: “Do I prefer a business that focuses on consumers or on businesses? What kind of customers would I like to serve? Which brands do I admire the most? What are my favorite websites, apps, or subjects to read about?” These questions can force you to think very tangibly. For example, if TripAdvisor is your favorite app, you clearly love to travel and should perhaps look for a start-up in that sector. When you’re reading a newspaper, a website, or a magazine, which stories do you read immediately and thoroughly? If you tend to skip past headlines about the media business, you shouldn’t join a new online video service. If you dive into stories about autonomous vehicles or virtual and augmented reality because you find the subjects intellectually stimulating, narrow your focus to those domains. 

Pick a city: not everyone can relocate anywhere for work. But for those who do have that flexibility, I recommend thinking very carefully about where you’d like to live. If you’re not currently based in an entrepreneurial hub such as Silicon Valley, New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Tel Aviv, or Berline, you should consider moving to one – not only for the job you are about to take, but to position yourself for the next several jobs, since start-up life can be fluid and unpredictable. These hubs are tight communities, often clusters of local universities, established technology companies, venture capitalists, and successful entrepreneurs. Each has its own pros and cons, quirks, and vibe. For example, L.A. blends media, entertainment, and technology while offering the benefits of the beach and an active lifestyle. Boston is the world’s best intersection of healthcare and information technology and represents a more professional environment. Tel Aviv is the cybersecurity capital of the world and crackles with raw energy. Figure out in which place you’d like to settle and build relationships. Once people choose a start-up community, they tend to stay. Your coworkers in one company could become your co-founders in another.

Pick a stage: when describing the various stages of a start-up, a road-building metaphor is used. In the jungle stage you have no idea where the paths are. You’re surrounded by a tangled mess; you grab a machete and hack away. Many use the term “pre-product/market fit” to characterize this nascent period. In the dirt road stage the path is bumpy and winding, but it’s there, and the goal is to move down it as quickly as possible. You’ve developed a well-defined product and are pursuing a clear market. You’re starting to figure out your business model and addressing the early challenges of growth. In the highway stage you’re speeding down a straight open road. You’re improving operations incrementally while executing, scaling up and iterating. If you are a risk-taker and a figure-it-out person, the jungle phase is for you. You should focus your search on seed-stage or Series A-funded companies. If you’re someone who enjoys building systems, look for businesses in later funding rounds. If you’re an improver and operator who wants slightly more stability and a higher salary, a highway-stage company – perhaps just before or just after an IPO – is the right choice.

Pick a winner: this step – choosing a company that you think will be a huge success and therefore provide you with tremendous growth opportunities – is the hardest to get right. Even the most brilliant and experienced investors in the world are wrong more than half the time, and whereas they have the benefit of holding a portfolio of companies, you get to pick only one to work for. How can an outsider identify the likely winners in a given domain, market, and stage? One way is to ask a handful of insiders. Find the top three VCs, angels, start-up lawyers, and headhunters in your target geography and ask them to name the three hottest start-ups in your chosen domain and stage. Pressure-test the companies on their combined lists by looking for more evidence of success and momentum. Do your own due diligence, using the simple criteria that venture capitalists employ: 

  • Team: is the founding team compelling? Can its members articulate a vision that inspires you and others around them? Are they of high integrity? Would you want to work with them again in their next company?
  • Market, is the market in which the company is operating huge – that is, greater than $1 billion in revenue potential? Is it experiencing some kind of disruption that might lead to opportunity for a new entrant? How crowded is the market, and does this start-up have a sustainable advantage over the competition?
  • Business model, are the unit economics – the ratio of net revenue to costs for each customer or product unit – attractive? Can the company articulate and compare the lifetime value and acquisition cost of each customer? Does its business model include network effects – that is, will value grow as the network of users does? If the company already has customers, do they appear loyal and provide growth potential, or are they churning out?

These 4 steps will generally produce a short, targeted list on which to focus.

Selling yourself

The next challenge is to position yourself so that the start-ups on your list want to hire you. you’ll need to do 2 things well.

Arrange a warm introduction, many start-ups are full of people with large social networks. It is your job to identify key players at the companies you’re interested in and find ways to connect with them. LinkedIn searches can help you find employees of any start-ups. Through various networks and databases you should be able to identify a connection. Ask the contacts you’ve found not just for an introduction but for some endorsement based on what you’ve told them about your enthusiasm, experience, or other assets. That sort of inquiry trumps a cold voicemail every time.

VC and angel investors are also a great channel. They are often happy to pass along the resume of a qualified manager who could be an asset to one of their portfolio companies. In general, the start-up community is incredibly generous with its time, and it has such a strong “pay it forward” culture that with tenacity you can get to almost anyone. In fact, aiming high is recommended. List 10 people with whom you’d most like to have 30 minutes of face-to-face networking. Then go after them – without stalking or being a noodge. Even if it turns out the job fit isn’t right, meetings like this will help you establish relationships  and will lead to more valuable connections.

Articulate how you can contribute, start-ups run lean, so they’re willing to take on only those people who can drive their success and have a point of view on their business. Before meeting with management, do your homework. Read everything you can online. Talk to a couple of friends or colleagues who are customers. Try the product or service yourself and analyze the business model; then develop ideas for improvements and present them in your meeting or interview. If you’re a designer, you might recommend tweaks to make the product more attractive. If you’re a marketer, you might suggest a new campaign or message. If you’re in finance, you might distill a few of the company’s key performance indicators into a mock chart to be used as part of a monthly review.

In addition to pitching yourself, remember to engage your interviewers in content-rich conversation about their work. Almost all start-up CEOs and executives blog or are on social media, so begin by commenting  on their tweets or LinkedIn posts. If you’ve attended conferences, company open houses, meetups, or other industry events where they’ve presented, ask about the issues they covered. Show that one of your contributions will be to constantly listen and learn.

After reading all above, if you still think you are a good fit for a start-up and are willing to spend time doing all the work, go for it. Just remember that choosing a start-up requires more work, but the potential reward makes the effort worth it.