For many, leaving the world of cubicles and bureaucracy to join a startup is alluring. The chance to be part of something huge and world-changing! The flat organizational structures! The unlimited vacation time!
But figuring out how to make that move isn’t always easy. You’ve most likely spent years focusing on one particular set of skills and working with a team of people who all focus on the same thing—pretty much the opposite of how scrappy startups function. So, how does your corporate experience translate into a world without traditional career ladders, job descriptions, or even defined roles?
Turns out, better than you might think—you just need to know how to tell your story in a way that makes sense. Here are five things you’ve picked up at your corporate gig that startups will definitely value (and how to talk about them at your next interview).
1. You’re a Team Player
Most likely, you’re not doing your corporate job in a silo—you’re on a team or in a department of people who are all working toward accomplishing the same goal.
In a startup, though you may be the only person doing, say, marketing or business development or sales, this team mentality is more important than ever. “The team-player attitude is everything for the startups we work with,” says Startup Institute co-founder and New York director Shaun Johnson. Elise James-Decruise, senior director and head of global training at MediaMath, agrees. “The ability to ‘lean in’ and collaborate with another department or client to accomplish a common goal is just as or equally important as accomplishing it on their own.”
So, look for ways to show hiring managers just that. Think about times you partnered with another person or department—not necessarily when you led the team, but when you were part of one that achieved great things. While traditional resume and interview wisdom is that you should emphasize your personal accomplishments, startups want to know that you’re interested in the success of the group as a whole.
2. You Know Processes That Work
In a corporate job, almost everything you do has a process—from tracking customer feedback to requesting vacation time.
All of this might seem totally irrelevant in a startup environment, where you’re creating things from scratch and doing a lot of flying by the seat of your pants, but remember that startups that grow will eventually need to put in systems and processes for everything from sales lead tracking to payroll management. And if you have knowledge of efficient ways to do those things, it can be very helpful. “Our project manager came from Popular Science, and not only came with an understanding of how to roll out a project from start to finish, but also how to take a concept and create a system for rolling it out,” says Alex Wolf, CEO and founder of na2ure. “It was very helpful to us, as a startup, to find someone who could take ideas and turn them into action items.”
So, don’t be afraid to talk about your experience and the types of processes you could bring to the table as the startup grows. Just be mindful of how you position it. “Experience creating new teams, making process, and workflow can be very useful when you are at a growth-stage startup,” says Mariko Kosaka, an internal tools engineer at Percolate, Inc. “Just don’t get too caught up in ‘This is how I used to do at [name of company]—be adaptive to your environment.”
3. You Love to Learn and Grow
It was pretty much unanimous among the companies we talked to that to join a startup, you’ve got to be obsessed with learning, growing, and evolving. As Ethan Austin, president and co-founder of GiveForward, puts it: “We’re always looking for learners and people who are curious about the world. Skill sets are irrelevant because things change so quickly at a startup. You could be working on customer service one day, SEO the next, and product management the day after. We like people who are constantly looking to learn new skills and take on new responsibilities.”
Instead of just giving the highlight reel of what you’ve done and achieved, think about times when you’ve taken on something totally new—especially when it’s something you pursued on your own. Did you learn to code when your department website needed some updates? Jumped in to help with SEO when the data analyst was out on leave? These are great ways to show that you’d be willing to tackle responsibilities outside of your job description. “Nothing’s more important than finding people who will do whatever it takes to learn,” says Jay Neely, digital community manager at Boston Globe Media, which has been in operation for over 100 years and is finding that integrating a more startup-like culture is essential to building a future for journalism. “Demonstrated passion for building your skills is more important than a college degree or X years of experience.”
4. You Know How to Communicate
If you worked for a big company, you had to be a master of communication: keeping your boss updated on what you were working on, sending detailed reports to clients, translating your needs and priorities to other departments—you get the picture.
This is actually something that startups really value. “Someone who is confident, has business savvy, and can communicate their ideas clearly and effectively to internal and external audience are all at the top of my list for new hires,” says James-Decruise. Why? It goes back to the team mentality—you’ll be working closely with people from all different backgrounds to achieve the same goal, and being able to effectively share your ideas, views, and feedback is crucial. Plus, as you’re figuring out how to launch your startup into the world, you’ll be interacting with and listening to customers and users more than ever before. And finally, startups (successful ones, anyway) grow quickly, with new people being added to the team all the time.
The best way to let startups know that you’re a great communicator is, of course, to show them. Have a story—and know how to tell it—about the skills and experience you bring to the table. And most importantly, talk openly and excitedly about why…
5. You’re Excited to Ditch the Corporate World
Frankly, there’s a reason you’re considering leaving your corporate job for a startup. You want to be part of building something world-changing, to have a real say in company decisions, and to take on more responsibilities than you currently have.
Well, this right here might just be your biggest asset.
Hands down, the #1 thing that startups look for in their employees is passion for helping the product and company succeed. “People I've hired from corporate backgrounds all cite the same reason for leaving their jobs when we interview them—they want to be at a place where they can meaningfully contribute to the growth of the company,” says Deepti Sharma Kapur, founder of FoodtoEat. “They are dedicated to building the company from the ground up and are passionate about achieving their goals.”
The lesson: Think deeply about what it is you really want out of joining a startup and—more importantly—the types of companies and products you want to work on. Then, share this passion in everything you do—from networking with employees to discussing what you could do for the company in your interview.
The good news? A corporate job provides tons of experience you can use to get a gig at a startup—you just need to know how to shape it. And that’s probably the best piece of advice we can give: Know when your corporate experience is an asset, but be able to show and explain how you’ll succeed in a totally different environment. The best hires, explains Marc Ioli, business development manager at Appboy, “know when to tap on their corporate experience but don’t let it define them.”