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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

4 Ways to Advance Your Career at a Start-up

One of the things that people love about working at small start-ups is the flat management structure. Instead of presenting your ideas to your manager’s manager after spending two days preparing a PowerPoint presentation, you can focus on simply executing them. When you’re the entire marketing department or the only mobile developer, there’s simply no need for dozens of meetings—most days, you’ll know what’s going on in your company simply by showing up to work.

For many people, this type of autonomy results in greater levels of responsibility and can give your career a great deal of breadth. But even in this type of environment, a year or so after you’ve gotten a job you love, you might be looking for new challenges (and maybe even more money!). So, how do you continue to advance your career without a formal organizational ladder to climb? Try one of these strategies.

1. Join a Growing Company

This one is the most obvious approaches: If you join a company that’s growing and changing quickly (or has the potential to), there will likely be more opportunities for new roles and new responsibilities. So, when you’re interviewing for positions, ask questions that give you a sense of the company’s trajectory: What’s the funding situation? What are the company’s sales and revenue goals? What’s the hiring plan over the next 12 months? How does leadership see your role evolving over time?

If you’re entry-level, this can be especially important, since you may be specifically starting as an Office Manager or Junior Back-End Engineer with the goal to become an HR Lead or DevOps Engineer.

2. Be Upfront About Your Goals

The worst thing you can do—at any job—is to be quiet about your career goals and hope they work out. Do you want to eventually manage a team? Are you hoping to switch roles when your dream role opens up? Let your company’s founders know now, and ask what you can do to get yourself there. Then, make a point to regularly check in on your progress.

Also, be clear about what type of advancement is important to you. You may want more responsibility and new projects, or you may just want a better title that you feel you’ve earned after a set period of time. At InstaEDU, one of our early hires let me know she really wanted management experience, so we put her in charge of managing our summer intern. But we might not have made a point of doing so if she didn’t tell us she wanted to gain that skill.

3. Pick Up New Projects

At a start-up, there’s always way more to do than people to get it done. So, think about the types of people your company would hire if the company was twice the size, choose an area that you’d like to learn about, and suggest a project to the founders. For example, if your company has talked about building out a sales team in the future and you’d love to get exposure in that area, offer to test out the viability of sales as a customer acquisition strategy. As long as you’re still performing in your core role, your manager will probably be happy to have the extra help—and you’ll have the chance to build out a new skill set.

4. Be a Leader

Even if you’re not managing a team, there are lots of opportunities to lead in a growing company. When new hires start, take the initiative to help them get up to speed. Instead of waiting for directives from your manager, put together a plan for how you think your time would be best spent. Proving that you can make those around you more productive and planning strategically will prove that you’re the person for the job when your company does need a management structure.

Hiring and keeping top employees is the goal of any start-up management team. With so many companies competing for talent in San Francisco, New York, and other areas with lots of start-ups, your manager will most likely do what he or she can to make you happy—and make you as valuable as possible to the company’s future. But it’s takes two to do this, so determine your goals, make them known, and work to get yourself there.

Photo of woman at start-up courtesy of Shutterstock.