"If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the people to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea."-- Antoine De Saint-Exupery, author of The Little Prince
In my last post, I suggested that college students COULD be a perfect fit for startups to hire. According to a Kauffman Foundation study, nearly ALL of the net-new jobs created in this country in the last 30 to 40 years were created by startups and younger firms. No wonder this is where the action is, and why college grads ought to consider working for startups.
Young college graduates have unique attributes that are valuable in a startup environment, which older, more experienced employees don’t bring to the table. (Truth is, a startup needs both.) Staying focused on college students seeking jobs at startups and early-stage companies, I’d like to suggest eight steps college students should take BEFORE seeking these jobs with startups.
#1 – REALIZE STARTUPS ARE DIFFERENT
What’s different when startups consider hiring? Everything, pretty much. This is especially true with very early startups, but it is also true of startups as they shift into growth mode. For these startups and early-stage companies, job descriptions are different (or non-existent); job interviews are different (for better or for worse); resume reviews are different; and risks/rewards assessments are WAY different. That’s because THE JOB at a startup is WAY different from a job at a typical, established company – especially bigger companies.
For recent college graduates, the excitement of working at a startup can quickly fade when you realize how much work it will be. But if you are hooked on performance, love what you do, enjoy the thrill of building something, and don’t mind working long hours with cool, smart people… Startup jobs are for you!
#2 – RECOGNIZE WITH FREEDOM COMES RESPONSIBILITY
There are great advantages to working for a young startup or early-stage company. Startups usually have a younger focus, so there is usually less discrimination against a younger person with less experience. There are more “field promotions,” so you are more likely to become the VP of something at a startup in two years than you are at ever making it to VP at an established company.
Overall, there is usually a lot more job growth, opportunity, freedom, and chances to succeed. But with this freedom comes great responsibility. See the great Netflix presentation on their culture to get an idea of how this can play out in your job and in the corporate culture. In this presentation one main point is that they value: judgment, communication, impact, curiosity, innovation, courage, passion, honesty, and selflessness.
The other side of working at a startup: Expect to work long hours and have some kind of performance pay (bonus, options, equity, and more). Startups are about DOING, and paying for performance is the way to get everyone attached to the same goal. Depending on the size and culture of the startup, new hires will get more responsibility, more self-management, less training and specific guidance, and more chances to fail than in traditional, established companies. If this turns you on, Startups are for you!
#3 – PASSION AND CHEMISTRY ARE MORE IMPORTANT AT STARTUPS
As indicated in the Netflix presentation, culture is usually THE paramount consideration when startups and young growth companies hire. That works both ways. If you are not passionate about the product, service and people at a startup, do yourself and them a favor and walk away. This is not about selling yourself and convincing the potential employer that you are the right person for the job. If you convince the startup to hire you and you don’t understand or believe in the company, you have hurt yourself and them. New startups especially need to hire people who believe. The first hires set the culture.
#4 – TALENT CAN BEAT OUT SKILLS AND EXPERIENCE
There’s a debate in the startup community about this point. There are also two camps on whether to hire generalists or specialists. Startups should grapple with these issues, but from the point of view of the job seeker who is fresh out of college, you should seek startups that want Talented Generalists. Generalists are especially valuable in new startups, where everyone does a bit of everything. But even in startups and early-stage companies in growth stage, they may be seeking more specialists, but I feel they really need someone to handle a specific task, while having generalist sensibilities.
Overall, startups need talent. So talk about your talent, show your talent, back up your talent with action …and startups will be interested.
#5 – ACCUMULATE DIFFERENT EXPERIENCE AND SKILLS while in college
Take courses on startups so you can learn what makes them tick. Colleges should offer more of these kinds of courses, but they are out there. Some are in the business schools. Others are in corners of non-business schools, in engineering, IT, and other schools. Find them. Take them. Highlight these courses on your resume! Not only will knowledge of startups and startup thinking make you a better employee, but you will be better informed about what’s happening in the business; you’ll see the bigger picture.
Other things you can do while in college?
- Intern at startups… especially ones where you would want to work, or at least in the field or type of business.
- Start your own business in college. Entrepreneurs are doers. Better to say you did something than say you studied it. (Best to say both!)
- Build something. A website. A product. An app. Go beyond the portfolio. Make it real.
- Read startup blogs and get WIRED and Fast Company Magazine. Show you understand startup mentality. Know the current discussions and have an opinion.
Do as many of these things as you can, then highlight them on your resume and talk passionately and intelligently about them in your interviews.
#6 – SEARCH IN DIFFERENT WAYS AND PLACES
Startups don’t usually post their job openings in the local newspaper, or on the general-purpose job boards. When they do post, they post on startup jobs websites, forum sites and on their own websites. But many times, they don’t post the job at all, because they don’t have a job opening per se: they just have endless opportunity. Because of this, startups are constantly looking for new talent, so your job is to search so YOU are found. That means you need to find the right startups for you, then develop them.
You should read startup news sites (like TechCrunch and Business Insider), VC blogs and sites that list startups and search by your interest or industry. Keep your eyes open. This is how you search for jobs with startups: you find the startup that has a great product or service and you look for signs of growth and expansion: new funding, new customers, product announcements, new services, etc. Once you find ones that interest you, reach out to them. Use social media. Instead of asking for a job, tell them you about your passion for their business, market or service (see item #3, above) Have a conversation, and when the time is right, offer to work as a contactor first… or simply volunteer to work on nights and weekends. (That’s what startups do: they work on nights and weekends and it would be great to have someone come in as extra help or a reliever.)
#7 – ACT LIKE YOU’RE ALREADY HIRED… and if you can, act like a founder
Landing a job with a startup is easy if you are self-motivated, self-aware, self-disciplined, self-reflective and self-improving. These are the attributes of good leaders. Startups need good leaders who don’t wait to be told what to do.
Plus, be aware that startups should follow the old adage of “Hire slow, fire fast.” Keep this in mind. Don’t rush the process. Every hire is key, especially with early startups. There are some who believe that startups should contract or hire under probation first. This is a great idea with its pros and cons. Make this process a positive for you.
When you get started, remember this: Entrepreneurship is about DOING. Too often, we hear that entrepreneurs are great idea people. True, but we miss that entrepreneurs and all people in startups are focused on getting something done. In fact, most startups would rather have someone make a mistake and correct it fast. There are exceptions to this approach, but most startups prefer the approach made famous by General George Patton: “A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.” (Now there’s a great leader for you!)
#8 – THIS IS YOUR TIME
My last point comes via Paul Graham of Y Combinator who bluntly stated twenty-somethings have stamina, poverty, rootless-ness, colleagues, and ignorance.
That’s why college grads are perfectly positioned to do what startups need: spend long hours (stamina), keep the costs low and think about ways to keep products and services low-cost (poverty), be available to move at a moment’s notice (rootless-ness), have lots of connections and friends to help jumpstart and grow the startup (colleagues), and a blind passion, belief and unshakable tenacity to make something work (ignorance… as in the old line: “they said it was impossible, he’d be a fool to try, and the damn fool went and did it.”)
You have these attributes NOW. You will lose these over time. So NOW is your time.
Coming out of college and want to change the world? Join a startup.