2012-2013 Sutton Entrepreneurial Intern Fellow
How did you find the position?
What was your motivation for working at a start-up this summer?
Joining the small and fast growing family that is the New York tech scene
What advice would you give to students interested in working at a start-up this summer?
I promise that if you are serious and focused, you can work at any start-up you want.
So you want to work at a start-up…
1) What does that even mean? If you think about it, it doesn’t really mean anything – that’s like saying you want to work at a company. It’s not enough to know you want to work in start-up – go further – what kind of company do you want to work at? What industry? Do your homework and don’t spread yourself too thin because preparation takes focused attention for months on end, but with genuine domain insight, you can shift the conversation from that of employer-applicant to peers exchanging ideas. What function? What role would you fill? Many start-ups don’t make the time to think through their hiring needs – do yourself a favor, make it easy for them and understand where you fit in. Just because a company is early stage doesn’t mean the answers to these questions are not relevant. You can’t just say I want to be the business guy at a mobile start-up – remember, approaching a company for even a casual conversation without proper preparation makes us all look bad.
2) Help! I can’t find my niche… where do I fit in? My suggestion would be to start with your existing background – what industry did you work in before school? Perhaps you specialized in healthcare or education – start-ups are no longer just about improving search algorithms. In fact, the most important employees going forward will be those with deep domain expertise in a particular sector – remember, tech impacts all industries and in fact, some of the most important and value accretive start-ups going forward will be those that disrupt the stodgiest of industries, least influenced by tech thus far, so show foresight and make a name for yourself in the industries where we’re headed – not where we’ve been. Personally, I had years of experience investing in payments companies and financial services, so it was a natural transition for me to focus on that area as I transitioned onto the business development team at Foursquare focused on monetization through payments partnerships and mobile distribution. Regardless of previous background, during the year, I took on an independent study project, focused on preparing an investment thesis around disaggregation in financial technologies, to further develop specific views and opinions on the space. This forces you to meet dozens of start-ups (primary sources) as part of the research – identify a gap in a market that is of interest to you, find the start-ups that address that gap and you will find exactly the position for you.
3) Do what you’re passionate about. Look, at the end of the day, you will be investing a lot of time in this process, so you better look yourself in the mirror and do what you’re passionate about, not what you think you should be doing. There are start-ups focused on everything under the sun, so think hard about what genuinely excites you in life and go after it – it will be obvious if you don’t. The more excited about a particular sector you are, the more knowledgeable you will become about it because you’ll spend all your free time thinking about and talking to people about it.
4) You have no idea where your start-up job will come from. Embrace that fact, adapt and you will be successful. Opportunity is everywhere. I was initially connected to foursquare by a sharp junior that I met at an undergrad speaker series event that I bonded with over a common interest in the payments space (thanks Talia!). In reality, the process is self-selecting because if you are genuinely passionate about a space, you will constantly find yourself in serendipitous situations just like the above because you know what you’re passionate about and when you meet someone like-minded, you will immediately form a connection naturally. See point 3 – focus on what you’re passionate about.
5) Warm intro or bust. In today’s world, there is no excuse for a cold e-mail and please don’t be tempted to send one of those annoying LinkedIn “InMails” – LinkedIn is amazing, but not for that. Right now, stop reading this and go systematically connect with everyone you’ve met at school thus far on LinkedIn – Facebook is not good enough. You are building out your network for research purposes. As you go through your independent study project and map out the companies that play in that space, start noting down who is a 2nd degree connection that will be able to connect you to those companies. It doesn’t matter what their role in the company is at first – if anything, it is better to first meet someone not directly relevant to what you’re interested in because you will have an opportunity to learn more about the company and set up a more informed meeting at a later date with a direct introduction from another employee in that company.
6) Practice patience. Many make the mistake of swinging for the fences of the first coffee chat – this is a marathon, not a sprint. Start with the companies you are less interested in to learn about the space, the contacts that are less relevant to you to learn about the company and then work your way into the ecosystem and across the food chain. That being said, do not take advantage of their hospitality – try to add value at each step of the process by sharing insights you’ve gathered. When your friend is warm introducing you to their colleague, make sure to provide 3-4 customized sentences that illustrate your direct relevance to that meeting (either through some research you’ve done, prior work experience, etc…) because your friend is putting their reputation on the line with each intro, so if you ever want another intro, then build a reputation for professionalism early amongst your colleagues and make it as effortless for them as possible.
7) Carve out your niche. As you continue to meet more and more members of the ecosystem, realize that you will soon be more connected than many of them because they don’t have time to do all this legwork, so start connecting them with each other where it is mutually beneficial and keep them abreast of industry insights that you’re gaining. Remember, that all these companies are made up of individuals that have unique motivations and there are a number of reasons that it could be beneficial for them to meet each other (for corporate or personal reasons). Last but not least, donot ask for a job! This may seem counterintuitive, but your goal in all of this, is not to build employer-applicant relationships, but rather mutually respected peer-peer relationships. When the time comes for you to secure a job towards the end of the year, you will know where you fit in, who will value what you bring to the table and when the start-up knows they have headcount for the summer, you will be the first person they call.
Working at a start-up is less risky than working at a large company. The start-up world is an ecosystem. Imagine the start-up world as GE and each start-up as a department within the organization. As you develop a reputation with peers in your start-up and others, you will constantly have a number of options available to you. If one start-up goes under, good people will fluidly move into positions at other start-ups or a team will break off from the failed start-up to found a new one. If anything, your exposure is more diversified because the ecosystem as a whole can never go down, only individual units within it. Ultimately, I can’t answer if start-up is for you – you’ll have to answer that for yourself, but once you’ve genuinely and honestly decided, follow the advice above and you’ll find exactly the right match for you.