Christine Tsai, of 500 Startups, recently wrote a post outlining some great ways that people can become involved in the “Startup World”. As she mentions, the post is targeted at people that have been around the technology industry for a while and want to try something new and a bit more exciting. Obviously, this leaves out a large swath of people that at the beginning of their careers and working in more traditional industries that would still like to be a part of a cool, emerging company.
I joined Krossover, a New York-based startup, about 7 months ago as Director of Operations after working in Banking for just under two years. After I had about a year under my belt in that position, I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do long-term. At that point, I began looking for ways to get involved with a startup company. Unfortunately, I couldn’t code (although I am learning now!) and didn’t have any real experience that would be translatable to working at a startup. To overcome this I had to put together and follow a plan that ended up working well for me and could be useful for others as well:
Seek out people who have taken a similar path.
When I was in Chicago, I was constantly looking through the websites of local startups to see if there was anyone on their management teams that I would be able to connect with (same initial profession, same college, etc.). I eventually found an individual working with a very cool company, called FeeFighters, that had started out his career in banking in a similar role. After a cold email, he agreed to meet up for coffee and offered me some relatively common, but extremely useful advice about making decisions based on what is essentially a regret minimization framework.
It can be daunting to try to gain entrance into a community that seems so exclusive and it may be difficult to find someone that has taken the exact same path as you, but with a little digging, you should be able to find someone whose lead you can follow.
Become an expert in something and find companies that are in need of that skill set.
During one of those classic entitled, early-20′s bitch sessions where everyone takes turns discussing why their job sucks so bad, I told all of my friends that I wanted to work for a startup. One of my buddies stayed above the fray in the conversation and asked me what skills I actually had that could help a startup. Turns out I didn’t really have any.
When I met with the former banker that I discussed before, I was wondering what special skill set he had that allowed him to make the switch. Turns out he didn’t really have one either so he decided to learn the ins and outs of online marketing and SEO. He did this by taking unpaid jobs on Craiglist and learning on his own time. The progression certainly wasn’t glamorous but the work got him to where he wanted to be.
Be sure to make use of Angellist, Twitter, and the portfolio sections on VC websites to find companies that seem interesting to you and then see what kind of people they are looking for. Ideally, when you pick skill set or expertise to develop, it will be something that you are very interested in. If this is the case, a company in need of your services is one where you should fit in well. In some cases, you may get lucky and run into a company that needs someone with skills you already have but didn’t know were in demand. That, fortunately, is what happened to me. Krossover needed someone with an expertise in sports and as a former athlete and sports fanatic, I fit the bill (they also needed me to move to India which, I suppose, is a skill as well).
Offer to help out a company in your “Spare Time”
I put “Spare Time” in quotations because in reality, if you want to make an impact, gain an education and foster solid connections with the company you are helping, it will take up much more than just a few hours every few weeks. It can become almost like a second full-time job and you have to be willing to take on any task! The company I offered to help out was GrowVC, a platform for equity-based crowdfunding. I volunteered to host the company’s weekly podcast (among other things), something I had never done and was terrified to try. It ended up allowing me to meet and interview some very influential people and has helped me to connect with some individuals working in startups here in Bangalore. In the process of conducting these interviews, I learned a lot and had some start-up related experience that I could now reference when trying to find a company to work at full time.
Understand the “Startup Mindset”
At a small company, everyone is responsible for offering insight into which direction the company should be taking. That is not usually the case in more traditional industries with more structured hierarchies. There is so much startup-related content out there (some good, most bad) that it can be difficult to sort out what you should actually be reading. Try to stick to just a few primary resources or else you can easily get lost in a fog of information and not retain a thing. Fred Wilson’s blog, Andrew Warner’s Mixergy interviews, and certain startup-related Quora threads are my favorites. You can also attend conferences in your area if for nothing else than to understand how people talk and what they talk about (as stupid as this may sound, it is important in any industry).
Conference Attendee Protip: Try not to hit every conference in your area and steer clear of the “founders” that you see at every single one. The real founders and difference-makers don’t have time to make it all of these things. They are building their companies!
While consuming content (blogs, talks, etc.) is an important part of learning, it is probably more important to create some kind of content on your own. For example, I wrote blog posts about companies I thought were doing cool things - StarStreet, Quickish, and Quora were some that I talked about. Creating content forces you to take an opinion on things and really think through the decisions being made by companies or people you may be discussing. This becomes useful once you finally take the plunge and join (or even start!) a company.
Hopefully these points give you a place to get started. Even in the booming “Startup World” jobs are hard to come by (if you are non-technical) so it will take a lot of effort and time to really execute on the plan that you set for yourself but the reward of working for an exciting company in a challenging position is a great payoff. Good luck!