Startups can launch careers forward, providing experience, exposure, and scale that traditional companies cannot. I’ve spent the last 10 years in talent at unicorn disruptors Bird, Uber, and TravelClick, watching the best in the world harness this opportunity for career success.
It’s important to set the context as to the offerings of startups when compared to larger, more established companies. Understanding these trade-offs is the first step in being able to navigate startup career progression.
Startups have less time and resources for talent development. They focus first on building products and proving their fit in the market. This becomes even truer the earlier it is in the startup lifecycle.
Startups give you exposure. Exposure to great leaders, the fundraising process, board prep, growth planning, etc. Roles are not rigidly defined or scoped to one function. This is also more relevant the earlier it is in the company’s lifecycle. But there are some roles you can work toward or around. Absorb what you can, where you can while you are there.
Startups favor disruption and empowerment. Process isn’t set in stone. Startup companies are expected to be meritocratic and open to change. Great startups exist to solve problems not yet solved by traditional business and help customers do what they do, better.
These are important considerations. Those who remain stagnant inside growing start-ups seldom consider these differences when deciding if they are the right fit. This has nothing to do with their intelligence or capability. They have aligned themselves with traditional company development, where the company has already figured out career progression (by position, promotion cycles, compensation bands, org structure, etc.) and can operate comfortably within those structures.
Here are three behaviors that accelerated my success.
“Fast progression comes to those who have a plan.”
1) Set goals for your career progression
Startups are a tremendous amount of work, with constant change and little structure. The opportunity for you to ask for, or be asked to complete, work outside of your scope is common. Fast progression comes to those who have a plan. Seek the projects that help you get to your desired outcome whether that includes management, learning a new skill, or taking on more scope. Talk to your manager/leader about what you want to achieve so they can help get you to the role you envision.
Perhaps the most difficult skill is learning when and how to say no if an opportunity does not help you meet your goals. Leaders gravitating to you for quality work and managing requests outside your path is common. If the decision to decline work outside of your scope is more detrimental than taking it on, set clear expectations. Use measurable deliverables, and predetermined transition dates, to help limit discourse. Being transparent from the beginning, preserves relationships, and keeps your career progression on track.
“Great people get great jobs, and great jobs favor referrals.”
2) Seek out the best, and incorporate their style into your own
This has been the driving force behind my success within startups, particularly in those who’ve achieved unicorn status. The potential to interact with the people who are accomplished, visionary thinkers is much higher than at traditional companies. I watched how they solved problems, communicated, and led teams, and I incorporated their style and technique into my own.
Get creative with how you gain their attention and respect. Beat them in the office, learn about their area, and be able to speak to it when the moment arrives. Care about their success, find ways to help them achieve it, and in turn, they will take notice. An endorsement from someone who is recognized as the best goes a long way. These relationships will also help in the long term as you grow your career. Great people get great jobs, and great jobs favor referrals.
“Prepare pitches with different lengths, or topics, based on who you are talking to.”
3) Learn to pitch
Those who move up the fastest all share this ability and gain confidence the more they pitch. People who choose startups do so because they want to have a real impact in solving a new problem. They are excited at the possibility their work can make a drastic difference in something they care about. New opportunities arise constantly and when new problems, projects, or departments come available they go for it. They present solutions from their unique perspective with a presentation that is metrics-based and segmented by audience. They gain the respect and buy-in of key stakeholders. They have proven why they are ready for this move and present logical reasons as to why they are the best person for the job.
An easy way to practice your pitch is to start with yourself. Learn how to summarize your experience with the most impactful accomplishments. Prepare pitches with different lengths, or topics, based on who you are talking to. This will be tremendously valuable during networking and interviewing. After completing thousands of interviews, I’ve found that those who can pitch themselves well, do well in the interview process, and move up quickly once hired. They are purposeful with information and can tailor their delivery to each audience.
There are, of course, many other things that contribute to your progression inside startups. Some are inside of our control, like working hard, desire to learn new things, or how we receive feedback. Some are outside of our control, like product-market fit, the financial climate, competition and, sometimes, a little bit of luck. But, if you know where you want to go, a startup is a swift, exhilarating vehicle to help get you there—if you know how to handle it.