When I graduated from college in 1993, I got a job at Fidelity Investments as a customer service representative. It was a prestigious company in Boston, and after majoring in English, I was delighted to have an opportunity to be trained in something in the financial services industry. It seemed practical and, at such a big and eminent organization, opportunities to climb the corporate ladder seemed limitless.
It didn’t take me long before I realized that, no matter how limitless the opportunities seemed, moving up the corporate ladder would be slow and require navigating tons of bureaucracy . I also didn’t like working odd-hour shifts, having my bathroom breaks monitored, or having to explain to crackpots why their mutual fund account went down that day.
I knew I was unhappy, but I had no idea what else was out there in the world for someone without much work experience.
One of my biggest regrets from my 20s is that I didn’t know how to explore career options . And more specifically, I did not understand the concept of startups or equity. I thought working was about working for salary. But if you go to work for a startup, especially early on, you’ll get something else: stock (or “equity”) in the company. And if the startup you work for succeeds, the stock you get could end up being worth significantly more than your salary.
As a new grad in Boston in the 90s, I had no concept of this. But an ambitious person graduating from college today should think about it. There are a lot more startups today, and you can in effect become an early investor in one by going to work for it.
Startups are companies that are designed to grow fast, usually because of technology. They usually represent new ideas that never existed before or that are a drastic improvement over what was previously available. Startups typically begin with just a few people and grow rapidly once the company figures out its product and secures funding.
Yes, startups are very risky, and they often fail. But when they don’t fail, their stock can become quite valuable.
I wish I’d taken a job as an early employee at a startup and gotten some equity when I graduated from college. I didn’t have tons of experience but, boy, did I work hard and care about the work I did. Startups often have more flexibility on hiring people without credentials. They don’t have corporate ladders, just stuff that needs to get done. You can often join doing one thing, learn on the job quickly, and work on something more important very soon, if you are effective enough.
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There are a few warnings that go along with working for equity. The biggest is that it’s very hard to predict which startup will become the next Google and which will fail. It’s also likely that you will have to take a lower salary until the company becomes successful enough to pay market rates. And lastly, you will probably have to work long hours.
But that wouldn’t have mattered to me in my 20s. I had no financial obligations except for rent. I had no kids. And for much of my 20s, I worked long hours anyway—but others benefited financially from whatever I did, not me.
And remember, working isn’t just about making money. It’s also a form of education. And at a startup, you learn a lot faster about how companies work and how to make a great product than at a big company.
If you feel really ambitious, instead of just going to work for a startup, you could start your own. Starting a startup is much harder than taking a job at one, but the benefits are also multiplied—both the financial benefits and what you’ll learn.
I’d like there to be more Googles and Facebooks started by women. There are some on the horizon and I hope there will be more in the coming years. If you’d like to read some inspirational stories by women who’ve started startups, I’d encourage you to read Y Combinator’s Female Founders Stories .
And if you are a woman and want to meet others who have started a startup or are considering taking the leap, apply to the Female Founders Conference , being held on Saturday, February 21 in San Francisco.
My 20-year-old self didn’t consider joining a startup—or founding one—as a career option, but I hope you will.
Photo courtesy of Philippe Lewicki .
Jessica Livingston is a founding partner at Y Combinator, an early-stage fund and the first tech accelerator. Y Combinator has funded more than 800 startups, including Dropbox, AirBnB, Stripe and Reddit. She is also the author of best-selling book Founders at Work, a collection of interviews with successful startup founders. Read more about Y Combinator at ycombinator.com and follow Jessica @foundersatwork.More from this Author