When I started applying to jobs in my senior year of college, I found myself wishing I had taken classes like “Deciphering Startup Job Titles,” or “How to Know when the Startup You’re Applying to is Broke,” or “Is this CEO a Jerk or Just Really Smart?”
Since that wasn’t possible, I’ve had to give myself a self-taught crash course in startup success over the past few years as I’ve gone from Marketing Intern to Marketing Director at Magoosh—a profitable, growing startup in Berkeley. So if you foresee startup work on your career path, here are some steps to guide you through the grey areas in your job hunt and professional growth.
Step 1: Apply ambitiously and foolishly
No, seriously, apply and interview everywhere. My interview experience taught me the difference between companies who did interviews well and those who did not, Product Marketing and Product Management, “seed round,” “Series A,” and “bootstrapped.”
All my interviews, both good and horrible, helped me figure out that certain industries, verticals, or positions I thought I was interested in were actually not for me. And at least I found out through a few weeks of applications and interview rather than 6 months of unhappy employment.
Bonus tip: Nonstop job searching, applying, and interviewing will make the second semester of your senior year really tough, so plan ahead and take a lighter class load.
Step 2: Realize it’s okay to start small
If you want an opportunity to grow, here are two qualities you should look for when trying to find an ideal startup: 1. small and scrappy, and 2. open-minded leadership.
We live in an age of small to corporation-sized startups, so if you’re interested in accelerated career growth, target the small ones when you’re starting out. They’re much more likely to invest in training you to take on management roles instead of hiring more expensive people.
But it’s not lack of money alone that makes this opportunity happen! It also takes very patient, open-minded leadership. They have to care about their employees’ growth and happiness and prioritize “promoting from within” to give opportunities for growth. I was employee number 3 at Magoosh, so the CEO/founder interviewed me, and I got the chance to ask about his long-term vision for the company and the company’s philosophy on career growth.
Bonus tip: It’s a sign of a good company when you get interviewed by the CEO or founder at the startup. Especially for a small company (less than 10 employees), the personality and goals of the founder or CEO make up a large portion of the company culture and it shows that they care about each new hire.
Step 3: Learn
This step could have been labeled many other things—“be aggressive,” “lean in,” “take risks,” etc.—but all those really boil down to one thing: just learn. Learn as much as you can, as quickly as you can, as an investment in your own future. But that means you have to be okay with looking dumb and not being afraid of taking on new projects that are beyond your experience level.
Bonus tip: Work is not school! A B- job on something new for you is better than an A+ on something you’ve already practiced five times. Try things that are outside of your domain while you can. As you build up more years of experience, it is tougher to move “horizontally” (i.e. a VP of Business Development can’t just suddenly decide she wants to try learning Photoshop for a week), so the earlier the better for experimenting with different fields, which is especially easy to do at a small startup.
Step 4: Know when it’s time to leave vs. stay
At some point within a year or two of working at a startup you will know the following:
- There are/will be opportunities for career growth for me here.
- This company will be successful.
If EITHER of these isn’t true, you need to leave and seek out another company, even if it means “moving sideways” which is a terrible name for a perfectly good thing to do. Even moving “down” in startup land is actually quite great, especially early on in your career, and is just another opportunity to learn another breadth of skills in a different context.
However, if both are true, then you’re in luck :). That’s not to say the work will be easy, but you will at least be consciously deciding that you are in charge of your own path and you know that it’s possible for you to get there.