One of the reasons I left my corporate job to be the first employee of a startup a few years ago was that I knew it would accelerate my career.
I knew that I’d be asked to wear multiple hats (editor, marketer, recruiter, public speaker, event planner, and Chief Takeout Orderer, to name a few). I knew that I’d be able to shape who we hired and how our culture was defined as we grew. I knew that I’d get constant access to the CEO because, well, she was typically seated next to me on the couch at our “headquarters” (read: apartment).
And if you Google “why you should work at a startup,” you’ll hear similar benefits: Being part of a small, quickly growing company allows you be exposed to multiple parts of a business and get constant access to leadership.
But that’s not the whole story. In fact, looking back, being part of a startup has accelerated my career beyond my wildest expectations and in ways I never could have imagined. And I hear the same from friends and contacts who have taken similar paths.
I sat down recently with a few of the founders, alumni, and partner companies at Startup Institute to reflect on just how much a startup can boost your career. If you’ve ever contemplated joining an early-stage business, here’s what you can expect to gain.
1 An Impressive Job Title
In the corporate world, the schedule for promotions generally follows a set path; before advancing to the next role, you typically need a year or two of experience in your current one. In an extreme case, a friend of mine who was the top performer in her department was once told that she couldn’t be promoted to the next level because “that job just isn’t given to 27-year-olds.” Fair (or legal) or not, it happens.
Not so much at startups, though. Especially in the early stages, the related experience you have matters much less than what you’ve proven you can do once hired. Often, people who join a startup at the early stages and are part of its growth receive responsibilities, promotions, and job titles that they never could have dreamed of at a bigger company.
For a great example, read this interview with Austin Geidt, who started out at Uber as an intern then quickly rose through the ranks to become a community manager and driver operations manager. She’s now the company’s head of expansion. (For, you know, the world.)
Jules Pieri, CEO of The Grommet, shares a similar story about employees at her company. “Several people started doing temporary roles such as shipping or seasonal customer support,” she says. “They threw themselves at being excellent and word quickly traveled. Then they were also in the right place at the right time—those kind of expansion moves happen most fluidly in a growing company. We grew revenues 900% in the last two years, so most of the team has had a dramatic increase in responsibilities.”
2. More Resume Bullets Than You Ever Thought Possible
At a startup, you can pretty much guarantee that you’ll be making huge contributions to the business. “At an early-stage startup, time is valuable, and every team member is critical,” explains Alison Johnston Rue, the founder of InstaEDU, which was acquired by Chegg in 2014. “This means that you’ll be working on projects that directly impact users, and probably immediately.”
In other words, you’re going to be doing and achieving more than you ever have before. (And working more, but that’s another story.) In almost any role, you’ll be launching features, gaining users, or otherwise seeing results—and, no matter what type of job you do next, these are incredible things to be able to tell future employers that you’ve done.
Particularly if you’re making a career change. As Startup Institute co-founder Aaron O’Hearn puts it, “Startup employees rarely work within the confines of one job description—you have to be willing to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty in a lot of different facets of the business.” If you’re a sales professional who wants to transition into, say, marketing—you can bet that finding new ways to gain users, discussing the brand strategy, or even writing copy will be part of your job description. “In my current role as a community manager, I’ve had the opportunity to also help our company with marketing, account management, product development, and customer support,” says Erika Gordon, a former Startup Institute student who now works at Mobee.
Is there a faster way to get that experience on your resume? Probably not.
3. An Entirely Different Way of Thinking (and That’s a Good Thing!)
In most jobs, a lot of what you do is following procedures for what’s been done before. Most companies have a standard “way of doing things” for everything from manufacturing to marketing to putting together meeting agendas. And while new ideas are often welcome, they typically fall into a framework of how the company has operated in the past. (“Great idea! Let’s put it on the Q2 product roadmap.”)
At a startup? You’re building everything from scratch.
And as you might imagine, designing, building, and creating requires a completely different skill set than following or adapting a standard protocol. And that’s a good thing. In fact, recent research by the Institute for the Future detailed six factors driving the evolution of our workforce and—more importantly—the 10 skills every professional needs to succeed in the future. It’s worth a look in full, but “novel and adaptive thinking” (the ability to think beyond what’s been done before) and “transdisciplinary thinking” (the ability to think beyond your functional role) are two of the key traits workers will need to succeed in the future.
Consider a startup—where you’ll be constantly innovating and interacting with other departments—your free education. As an added benefit, you’ll be learning from entrepreneurs, who by nature tend to think this way. “People who start their own business have a different mental and professional makeup than those who have never gone off to create something of their own,” writes Kerrin Sheldon in Fast Company. “Entrepreneurs are defined by seeing a problem and thinking of an innovative and original way of addressing it… They approach problems differently, are constantly finding solutions, and are driven to make the most out of their time and work.”
4. A Mini MBA
Working at a large company, strategic decisions about business operations, hiring, culture, financing, budgeting, and so on are typically made in the C-suite or a board room, behind closed doors.
In the earliest days of a startup, they’re typically made at the other end of the table or couch.
In other words, most early employees are part of all of those conversation about business operations, hiring, culture, financing, budgeting, and so on. “Working at a startup, you aren’t just a cog in the machine,” explains Startup Institute VP of marketing Bryan Maleszyk. “You have agency in building a company from the ground up. Business models and organization, company culture, and values—you can have a say in all of this.”
And even if you don’t have a say, you’ll certainly have a front-row seat. As they grow, most small to mid-sized startups I’ve known or worked with involve their team members in strategic decisions, or at the very least hold regular all-hands meetings where employees can ask questions and learn about what’s going on within the company.
And seeing the inner workings of a company with your own eyes on a daily or weekly basis? There’s pretty much no better way to understand the ins and outs of business.
No, startup life isn’t for everyone. (Here’s a helpful article if you’re contemplating whether it’s right for you.) But in many ways, there’s nowhere else you can take on such incredible responsibility, have such immense growth potential, or move your career forward by such leaps and bounds.