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Advice / Career Paths / Exploring Careers

Want to be a Start-up Founder? Here's What to Do Now

Whether you’re still in school or sitting in a cubicle and contemplating a career change, the idea of starting the next big company can be pretty appealing. Start-ups are fast-paced, exciting, and give each employee an ownership stake in what they’re building. And, if you’re a founder, you get to lead the charge—not to mention be your own boss.

While working in technology doesn’t require an advanced degree, it does require some specific skills. And, like any career, the right preparation makes all the difference. Think you might want to be the next Leah Busque (TaskRabbit) or Caterina Fake (Flickr)? Here’s what I did before launching my company—and what I’d recommend to every aspiring founder.

Work or Intern at a Start-up

This is by far the most important thing you can do (and how I got my start in the tech industry). Early-stage start-ups work much differently than larger companies, and seeing how other entrepreneurs handle the ups and downs of this stage of the business is immensely valuable. It also gives you a chance to take on several roles and step out of your comfort zone, things you’ll be forced to do as a founder.

If you’re still in college, reach out to start-ups in your area to see if they could use some part-time help, or spend a summer in Silicon Valley interning. Already in the workforce? A great segue into the start-up world is to work for a company that focuses on your industry and could use your expertise (think something like Rent the Runway if you currently work in fashion or ZocDoc if you work in healthcare).

Find a Mentor or Two

Another advantage of working at a start-up is that it will give you natural access to potential mentors. Some of the most important people in helping me get started with InstaEDU were the founders of other companies I’d interned and worked for (and two are current investors).

If you’re working at a start-up, don’t be afraid to let the founders know that you’re interested in starting a company of your own one day. In the vast majority of cases, they’ll be happy to open up about parts of the business that you may not otherwise have seen.

Other potential mentors include entrepreneurship professors at your college, friends or friends-of-friends who are in tech, and even people you don’t know who are active in your local tech community. Most successful people in Silicon Valley got to where they are today through the support of others and are eager to pay it forward to the right people. Show them that you’re smart, motivated, and eager to learn and you can go a long way.

Take Entrepreneurship Classes

Running a company means learning how to do a lot of things beyond your core strengths and interests. You need to be able to manage a cap table, evaluate potential markets, and track your finances, to name a few—none of which come particularly intuitively. And while classes are no substitute for real world experience, they can help teach you some fundamental skills and processes that any entrepreneur needs to know.

If you’re no longer in school (or your school doesn’t offer relevant classes), Udemy has free and cheap courses that you can take online, covering everything from product development to raising money.

Learn Basic Coding Skills (if You’re Not Already an Engineer)

Start-ups have important roles for people who can’t code, but understanding the fundamentals will make it much easier for you to understand issues and challenges with your future product. Plus, you’ll want to be able to speak the same language as the engineers you’ll be working with (and hiring!). Even if your idea focuses on a physical product (think, Birchbox’s sample boxes or Warby Parker’s glasses), you can bet your online presence and sales funnel will be a huge part of your business.

If you’re in college, make room in your schedule for an intro to programming class. Or, if you’d like something more flexible, there are several new sites that can help you learn to code. Check out Treehouse or Codecademy for self-directed programming courses.

Attend Start-up Events

When you start a company, having a support network of friends who understand your challenges is incredibly valuable. Attending start-up events is a great way to begin building a network of like-minded people. Subscribe to StartupDigest to learn about start-up events in your area or look for local Meetups. And—most importantly—when you go to events, try to focus on having a few meaningful conversations with other participants instead of trying to network with as many people as possible.

Follow Tech News

Keeping up with tech blogs has several advantages for entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs. First, it will give you a look into what other companies are doing and what’s working (and not working). It can also help you identify trends around what companies are raising money or getting acquired. Most tech blogs also publish guest posts from entrepreneurs and investors with tips, trends, or other insights into the industry. I personally keep TechCrunch and PandoDaily in my Google Reader account; I only read a handful of articles every day, but I make sure to scan every headline.

Starting a company might seem like a daunting task, but the truth is, you can set yourself up for it the way you would for any career: Do the research, make the connections, align yourself with great people, and then get start tackling the work.

Photo of start-up team courtesy of Shutterstock.