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Recently, I was forwarded a blog post about why not to work at a startup right out of school. Reading the post immediately brought me back to Chris Dixon’s notes on the ideal startup career path and why joining a startup is far less risky than most people think.

While startups are generally riskier career options, I can provide anecdotal counterpoint with two words: Lehman Brothers. And while beginning a startup career-path straight out of school can be a rewarding one, I believe that working at startups isn’t right for most people out of school. Many jump into it with distorted expectations and aren’t prepared for it personally or professionally.

So if you’re a talent thinking about joining a start-up right out of school (or are a startup thinking about hiring recent graduates), please consider the following.

Self-Awareness and Maturity

These are important characteristics for professionals at any level. At a start-up, I believe they are absolutely critical to any individual’s success. Nobody will be holding regular one-on-one touch-points or formal annual reviews. Training is “on-the-job” and the skills that you don’t have when you start you’ll need to learn on your own – and fast. I’m not just talking about programming language or Excel skills – I’m also talking about basic professional behaviors and attitudes.

Most students out of school also don’t have a network of professional mentors. So if you’re not self-aware and mature enough to self-identify, troubleshoot and improve on functional or soft skills by building networks or through other more creative channels, you’ll quickly find yourself frustrated in a role with limited career upward mobility.

The Boss

The above brings us the next point: your boss. Bosses of entry level positions generally aren’t great. But at a startup, they can be downright terrible. Most startup folks arrive at management roles because they were key people during the initial stages. Unfortunately, the skills that are required to be good bosses at later stages aren’t generally found in the early stage people.

This can be especially bad for someone just starting out with zero experience. A good manager can turn mediocre talent into someone who thrives. A bad manager can confuse and disengage the most talented people. If you’re joining a start-up, make sure to ask who will be managing you and that he or she will be a good fit. Don’t ever accept the response: there are no bosses because we’re a startup.

Entrepreneurial Attitude

Just because you’re not starting a company doesn’t mean you don’t have an entrepreneurial attitude. What I mean by this is a raw aggressive, proactive and positive outlook. For those of us who’ve worked in these environments, there are constant moments of ambiguity, volatility and negativity in any given hour. No one is going to have time to tell you to take care of something or even to provide a clear direction for you to follow – if they knew, they’d go at it themselves!

Not all of us will start companies – so yes, I agree with Chris Dixon’s definition that there are those who have started companies and those who haven’t. You don’t have to in order to prove your value in the startup community. I’d oftentimes wish that more entrepreneurial individuals would join to improve a business rather than hopping on some accelerator to realize a VC or investor’s portfolio strategy (but that’s a post for another time).

There are interesting new programs out there (e.g., Venture for America) that help connect young talent to startups in developing tech cities. Not only do these students get on-the-job training but they’re also provided regular coaching sessions that give them the fundamental business and professional mentorship that they need to be successful. Then again, these are also probably the folks that would succeed out of school doing whatever they’re doing!

I certainly don’t believe that all students need to start companies to participate in and appreciate entrepreneurship. I do hope that more of us in the community will provide the right guidance and leadership to successfully and responsibly bring more recent graduates into the new start-up economy.

§347 · September 29, 2012 · Uncategorized · · [Print]

  • Brijesh

    Fantastic post, Leilei; your points on “Self-Awareness and Maturity” particularly stood out. There’s a level of emotional intelligence and professional maturity that tends to get undercut in the startup culture unless one makes a conscious effort to strengthen those more ‘classic’ professional growth areas. Also love the points under ‘Entrepreneurial Attitude.’ Noah Kagan’s recent post (“What You Learn From Getting Fired By Facebook And Missing Out On $100 Million”) is a nice case study for this post.

    • huanleini

      Brijesh – Thanks for the comment, Dan actually forwarded me the same post! Great read, hope that everything’s going well!