So, you’re currently in corporate America but you want to work at a startup.
You don’t currently have the right story and no one will interview you despite the fact you’re blasting out resumes. I get it, neither did I. But I solved those problems by meeting the right people, learning new tactics, and getting laser focused on what I wanted.
Really! I know where you’re coming from because that’s my story, too. After graduating college, I joined a bank. It was big, prestigious, and looked impressive on my resume. I worked until early morning hours building models, preparing client reports, and trying not to drown in work. For my colleagues, it was rewarding. But for me, it wasn’t. And it wasn’t just the industry, but rather the entire structure of traditional business that left me wanting more.
I gambled that working at in the startup world would satisfy me. I was right. Long story short, I found partners who wanted to build a venture capital fund and we raised it together. Today I invest in and work with startups.
Through my experience, I picked up a few lessons that proved invaluable as I went through my job search. So invaluable, I wanted to share them with you if you’re trying to make a similar jump.
1. You Need to Build the Best Possible Network
Yes, no matter what step you want to take next in your career, your network matters. However, more than many other industries, startups form a pretty strong and supportive community because everyone’s working at a company that’s trying to do something new, something creative, something that’s possibly never been done before. Your first step is to meet these supportive people who are already active in the community because they’ll help you discover opportunities.
So, how do you get started? If you live in a startup-friendly city, you can kick it off by going to meetups and other industry events. You can find out about them by going to Meetup’s website and searching for topics that interest you. Or sign up for an events newsletter, Startup Digest, for example, has one for almost every city. Of course, for many people, that’s easier said than done. Not only does showing up to a tightknit community as a stranger sound intimidating, but you might also live in a place where there aren’t a lot of in-person opportunities.
What do you do then? Use the internet to introduce yourself to people. Check out places like Hacker News and Product Hunt to find emerging and established startup leaders and connect with them. Sure, you can ask to meet up for coffee or jump on the phone, but I found a better way in: interview them.
Reach out to people you want to meet, but propose an interview to be published rather than a traditional informational interview. Many people love being interviewed, it makes them feel important and it’s a hard request to turn down. Once you get a yes, prepare a list of questions about things you want to learn, record it, transcribe it, and publish to a platform like Medium or LinkedIn Pulse. That’s how I met my earliest (and strongest) contacts. And bonus, how I grew my online presence as a thought leader before even stepping foot in the industry.
2. You Need to Know What Kind of Startup You Want
Saying “I want to work at a startup” is unfairly broad. Even saying I want to work at a startup focused on improving the marketing experience is broad. Because, even among startups, there are a lot of differences. No one should confuse seed-stage companies with Series-C companies (and if you don’t know what those words even mean, you might want to brush up on your lingo).
If you want to find the best possible fit—and sell yourself as the best possible candidate—you should know which kind of company you’d thrive in.
Here are a few key differences for you to think about:
Are You a Specialist or a Generalist?
Let’s stay on this marketing example: When you sign on to a company that’s gone through a few rounds of funding, you could be hired for a very niche marketing position, such as a Google Adwords specialist. However, at an early stage company, you might need to use Adwords—but also assist with PR and HR, too. Do you like wearing many hats or one?
Do You Prefer Cash or Equity?
When a company puts together your compensation package, it’ll balance cash, equity, and benefits. Earlier companies have less cash, therefore you’ll get more equity. While equity doesn’t always pay off, it’s amazing when it does. It really depends on where you are in your own career and in your life as to what’s important (and necessary) to you right now.
Does Working at a Name-Brand or a Build-a-Brand Matter More?
How will you market yourself? Having Google and Facebook on your resume adds instant credibility. But you could become the 10th employee at a startup that goes on to become Google or Facebook. And you can be part of the reason why that happened. Both look good, one just takes more time (and is obviously riskier).
Do You Care About Security or Opportunity?
The newer the company, the bigger the chances it’ll fail. Are you OK with failure, knowing that you’ll learn how to build a company from the ground up? Or would your prefer security in knowing there’s lots of money in the bank?
These are big questions, and unfortunately, they’re not ones that I can answer for you (but wouldn’t that be nice if I could!). However, as you’re networking, ask people for their opinion as well as what they would do differently. You’ll gain insight simply from hearing their stories.
3. You Need to Understand Which Skills to Highlight
One difference between corporate America and the startup world is that in addition to the skills you need for the actual position you’ll apply to, you’ll also need to know the following:
Basic Technical Skills
Not everyone needs to be a developer, but you shouldn’t have to bother an engineer to solve simple issues. Learn how to work with a CMS (understanding WordPress will get your far on that front), be comfortable making small edits in HTML, and understand how to create templates on an email platform like MailChimp. With so many free, online classes at your fingertips, it’s not hard to pick these up.
While you should get familiar with the basic communication tools, like Slack and HipChat, you should also learn a bit about project management software like Trello, Asana, or Basecamp. Not only that, take time to learn about the basics of common company building methodologies, including “Lean Startup” and “Agile Development.”
The best startups use data to make decisions: They can tell you to cancel a project or roll out into a wider launch. Being armed with data makes your arguments and suggestions more persuasive. So be sure to highlight any data-driven projects you’ve worked on in the past.
While you don’t need to become an overnight expert in everything listed above, having a basic understanding will make you look like a candidate who could jump right in on day one and get started.
4. You Need to Know How to Find Openings
Large companies have well-known and established recruiting processes. You can rely on job boards, headhunters, and direct applications. You might even be able to find the interview questions online. Smaller companies often don’t have the scale for that. They still promote jobs, but you’ll miss them if you’re not talking to the right people.
Yes, remember that network you’re working to build? It just came back into play. When you’re out there (or online) speaking to people, make sure to be specific about what you’d like to do next.
“I want to join a growth team at an edtech startup that’s raised $10+ million.”
“I want to be a graphic designer at an early mobile gaming company in the Bay Area.”
“I want to work at a late stage digital healthcare startup as a junior product manager.”
The more focused you are, the more your network will be able to help you. And, of course, shameless plug, check out The Muse’s job boards.
5. You Need to Be Prepared to Give Up Corporate Perks
Some startups might have ping pong tables and kegs of beer, but don’t count on getting the same perks as you would at a large corporate company. Does your current company give you free access to museums, discounts on your cell phone (does it include a cell phone), and a company credit card? Does your group have an administrator who handles expenses? You can’t expect a 50-person company to have the same kind of scale. Instead, get ready to trade in your perks for a DIY lifestyle (and, obviously in my experience, a far more rewarding career).
There will no doubt be times when you’re jealous of your friends’ benefits, but if this life is right for you, the good moments will far outweigh those moments of jealousy.
Transitioning from corporate America to a startup was a bumpy ride. I not only had to change careers, but I had to do in a field in which I was completely unfamiliar. But I did it! And that means you could make the transition too. So, don’t be scared at taking the leap, if you’re anything like me, you’ll be looking back in a few years thinking that it was all so worth it.