When I was in my final year of university, the only things anyone seemed to talk about were internships and job applications. Everyone I knew wanted to be a banker, a lawyer, a teacher, a consultant, or an academic (the 'big five').
For me, more than anything, I was worried that I had to have my career planned out before I took my finals, or I’d probably end up homeless or ridiculed by all my friends who, by then, would all be wearing designer suits in tall buildings in Canary Wharf...
At some point between revising for finals and applying for management consultancies, I realised I didn't have to work for a big company. In fact, maybe I didn't need to work for a company at all!
I’d seen a problem that needed a solution (my university city had no central place for information about events, shops, restaurants and so on) and put two and two together. "If no one else is doing something about that, maybe I can!"
Long story short, I set up and ran a student guide website and a discount card scheme for local businesses alongside it. By the time I graduated (at a small cost to the amount of time I spent revising for my finals!) I had 50 businesses paying me to advertise to 22,000 students who would receive my discount card at the start of the next year.
I owned my own business, and I was running it exactly the way I wanted it, from my bedroom, working the hours I chose.
Of course I wasn't making millions. In fact I couldn't even pay my bills after the first couple of months. But I’d learned so much, and now knew exactly what I wanted to do next.
I applied for a job in a London tech startup (GroupSpaces) giving email support to its customers. Three years and five job titles later, and I'm writing this to try to convince other people who might be thinking the same things as I was before I graduated: that the 'big five' are not the only options.
If you, like me, have ever thought "it would be cool if this thing existed... maybe I can be the one to make it happen", you’re probably already an entrepreneur.
You don’t have to start your own business straight away to be an entrepreneur. Learning from doing and learning from failing are the cornerstones of the modern entrepreneur's experience, but learning from other people who have already done a lot of both might be even better.
Here are my four reasons why working for a startup is better than 'the big five'.
1. Be a big cog in a small machine
Even from day one at your first job, a startup will expect you to make real contributions to the success of the company. This trust can be scary but hugely exciting, and feeling like your presence in the office really matters each day makes it so much easier to get out of bed and get straight in to enjoying your work. After just a few months you might be given even more responsibility and be making decisions at a fairly high level.
2. Take ownership and reap the rewards
You need to have the mindset that your work is vitally important, even if you’re 'just' answering emails (happy customers means more money, means company success, after all!). There may be no time to slack but a huge sense of achievement, recognition and even financial rewards (share options, a good salary and so on) will make it more than worth it.
3. Jack of all trades, master of some
Each day will have new challenges and learning experiences, but that makes for a far more interesting day and provides a much more accelerated learning curve than your friends in the 'big five' careers who have hundreds of other people in the same intake learning the same things and doing them over and over. You’ll need to be the kind of person who learns quickly and can keep up with the pace, but if you’re not quite there yet, you’ll learn that as well!
In a startup, with a small number of employees, people will have job titles but actually they’ll be expected to contribute to all areas of the business in whatever way they can. It’s common for CEOs to do customer support, the marketing team to go out and bring back lunch, developers to critique a design and designers to critique the developer’s code. Startup employees and founders know that the best way to contribute to the team's goals is to know as much as you can about all aspects of the business.
4. Work your way - not 'the company's way'
Not only do most startups allow you to wear whatever you want or give you flexibility over when you arrive or leave for the day, but you may find you’re out of your comfort zone a little at first by being left to your own devices. In the companies I've worked for so far, after about one hour on my first day, I was already finding my own work to get on with, because no one had given me a specific project. It was more a case of "you know why we hired you, now get to work on making this business even better in whatever way you can"!
So how do you persuade a startup to hire you?
Firstly, make sure you like the sound of all the above. If you have doubts, chat to whoever you can who already works in startups or runs their own business. If you think it sounds exactly like you, then start finding out as much as you can about the world you want to work in:
- Be online and be visible - tweak your profiles on social media and make sure you have a decent personal website or profile page to show off what you do best (we do a pretty good job of that at enthuse.me!). More so than at other companies, startups like to find out who they are interviewing, what makes them tick and what they enjoy doing both in a professional and personal sense. Make that information easy to find, and make it look great.
- Be interested in tech - read techcrunch, mashable and other big blogs. Follow interesting people on twitter and read what they link to. You're unlikely to have bizarre questions in your interview like "what is determination", but you probably will chat about recent tech trends or new startups.
- Be yourself - if you pretend to be something you're not, the team will quickly realise and it will cause problems. If you are genuine, and they like you, and you like them, you’ll have a great time working there. 'Team fit' is often the biggest factor in hiring someone for a startup. You’ll work closely with a small team, sometimes for long hours, so you’ll want to get along with them, and they’ll want to get along with you!
TSR provides guest spots to external contributors. This is from Toby Vacher, head of product at enthuse.me.