I got an email the other day from a business school friend asking for advice on breaking into the start up scene.
“[insert city you live in] is great, I am loving it, just looking for a little change on the job front. Right now, I am working at [insert bulge bracket bank or consulting firm] in an [insert synonym for analyst level] program and it’s been just about [insert 1 - 5] years since I started. I am really hoping to move to a startup soon, and I knew you’d be a great person to contact since you’re so involved in that world.
Do you have any advice as I start to apply/ research companies? I am not looking a specific industry; what I am most excited about is the culture of startups. I want to work somewhere where I can be creative/interactive and work with interesting, passionate people. If you happen to know of any startups that are hiring in [insert city you live in] or anyone you think I should reach out to in general, please let me know.
First of all, glad to see you are thinking about crossing over to the dark side!
Early-Stage Tech Start Ups
Most of my experience both from Lightbank and from oBaz is in early-stage tech start ups. More specifically, internet tech start ups. The 90’s boom saw the rise of web 1.0 companies such as Amazon, Google, AOL and Yahoo, which created lots of efficiency in buying, connecting, exploring and searching as well as many extremely rich people. Today, web 2.0 companies are building on top of web 1.0 experiences with social, mobile, local and gaming elements to make even more efficiency (and yes, some wealth). I have recently been getting a lot of interest from people in learning how to participate in this opportunity, which is why I decided to post my response.
Roles at Tech Start Ups
Most (not all) early-stage tech start ups have 3 main roles.
-Sales / biz dev
Note: Founders can and will obviously have overlapping skills with either tech/sales expertise, but at the stage you could be joining (~5+ employees) most roles will loosely fit these buckets. This is early stage start ups, growth stage (raised $10m+ is a different story).
Personal Skills / Desires / Growth
What you have to do is decide which role you want.
Obviously, founder is the highest risk / reward, but requires you to actually think of a concept, pitch it, get funding/bootstrap and really run with it. This is VERY difficult to do, but can be worth it if it works out.
Tech is a little more difficult, because you need to have a background in computer science. If you do, stop here and email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and maybe I’ll give you a job :). If not, you can take some time to learn how to code, but you will be average at very best after lots of time / work / effort.
The last role is sales / biz dev. This role requires the least amount of expertise and the most persistence / positive attitude. This role can be EXTREMELY menial and requires you to put yourself out there and sell. The good news is that you don’t need to be the founder or have a technical background! The reward profile of an early sales person at a start up is similar to a lower level person at a bank / consulting firm, meaning if things go well you can expect to make a few hundred grand after a few years. There are Groupon sales people who have made literally millions of dollars (in commissions, not counting their equity ownership). Most of Google’s employees are on sales / biz dev / account management for their advertisers. Note: if the company doesn’t perform and a business isn’t well funded you might have huge issues there. Worst case, you have gained sales skills and can transition into a sales role at another start up that you believe in with a great experience under your belt.
This is also a great jumping off point to being a founder. Many great founders were once sales people at tech companies. The job requires you to really learn what customers want, which can lead you down the path of launching a product that will really fit their needs and take off!
Opportunities and Industries That You Believe In
If you really just want to work at a start up, I would think long and hard about two things - what opportunity are you most excited about (both in terms of company mission and financial potential) and where can you deliver the most value. i.e. if you join a start up that makes a utility for [insert consultants or bankers], you would be in a unique position to sell it because you know about the industry more than most. If I were you, I would first take time answering question one and decide an industry that you are excited about.
I am currently really excited about 3 industries - discovery / curated ecommerce, video online and point of sale. I think they all have huge amounts of growth potential in the next 5 years. You should think about an industry that is exciting to you for any reason then figure out which companies are attacking that problem / industry. If you are not geographically flexible, than hopefully there will be one or more in [insert city you are in] working on it.
1) Understand / Research the Company
Once you find your targets, I would do a TON of research on the company, founders and industry. I would read business insider / mashable / techcrunch to figure out what is going on in the industry and who the players are. I would check out all of their websites, including the about us page. I would write down ALL of the listed employees names and look them up on Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and read their entire blog (if they have one). After you do this for a couple of companies, you will have a pretty good idea who the players are and which one you like.
2) Getting Intros
Once you are fully immersed, try to get an intro to the founder of the company you like. LinkedIn will for sure show you how to do that - all good founders have HUGE networks on linkedin. Find a mutual connection and ask for an intro or just reach out cold. Trust me, they are used to that, but if you take your time to write a well thought out email saying what you like about their company, background, and what you want to talk about, they will be responsive. Ask the founder if you can come and see their space - most founders prefer that to coffee because it only takes them the time you are there, not the two hours of leaving, meeting, having coffee and getting back - plus then you can get a feel for the culture. *DON’T wear a suit or anything nice - that makes the interaction seem businesslike and you want it casual. Think jeans and a button down or corresponding casual girl attire.
3) Add value in some way
Since you did a ton of research, you will know exactly how you can come in and help the company, probably by selling the shit out of their service to their customers. Make that very clear while you are there “seeing their space” and make sure to follow up that you would love the opportunity to work there. They will most likely tell you they aren’t hiring, but don’t let that stop you. Offer to do work for free at nights / weekends and actually do it. Once you are already kind of working for the company, they will hire you if they grow into affording you as long as you have demonstrated enough value and dedication as a part time free worker.
I am in no way guaranteeing this will work out, but in my experience, this would be my best advice for getting a job at a start up. Good luck!