Stoa’s Guide To Startups and How To Break Into One

Ever wondered how to land a business role at a startup? Here is your complete guide to get land one.

In some ways, startups are just like other businesses. They have products or services, customers, revenue and profit margins. The major differences appear when you start to look at less tangible qualities, such as the culture, environment, and pace.

Startups, especially young ones, are at a stage where they’re rapidly learning about the market, trying new experiments, and iterating fast. Failing to do so would mean failing to survive. In line with this requirement, the kind and calibre of people a startup must hire is also very different from that in a corporate company.

Whether their primary focus is on building the product, designing, marketing, sales, or operations, team members must be capable of adapting quickly and taking on a diverse set of responsibilities, unlike a fixed job role at a multinational corporate company. They also need to show a healthy bias for action to deploy experiments and fail in ways they might not be used to – especially in the early days of the startup.

This makes startups a good challenge for freshers who want to test the waters and explore multiple job roles under one umbrella to figure out what they’re really good at. But this also means that startups aren’t for everyone: lots of freshers stepping into the job market out of college are looking for the prestige and tags that come from working at a global MNC, which would then help them in their further education.

To contrast the prestige and repute offered by corporates, startups offer the possibility of making serious wealth by offering equity to their employees, along with years worth of valuable work experience in a span of months. If you manage to pick the right startup early on in the right market, it will bestow you with the experience, adventure, glory and the bragging rights associated with wealth creation.

The startup sector in India has been growing rapidly over the last few years. Just in 2021, India has seen the rise of 36 Unicorns. The demand for good business, operations, and product people in startups is booming, and with venture funding, these startups sometimes offer better salaries than their well-established corporate counterparts. Even if you are a mid- or senior-level corporate professional currently, if you can offer the skills needed while fitting into the culture, startups will hire you relatively quickly. As an aside, good startups are known for hiring extremely fast, sometimes within the span of a single day!

In this article, we’ll first explain what a startup business role is, address some of the most important skills and traits needed for them, and then offer some advice on networking with the people who can help you get hired into one of these roles.

What is a business role?

A business role is a role that needs some amount of business know-how and a cross-functional understanding of how various parts of the business come together to make it work. Think about some of the most common company positions you hear about: Chief Financial Officer (CFO), Chief Operating Officer (COO), Sales Manager, Operations Manager, Product Manager, Project Manager, Marketing Manager, etc. These are just a few common business roles that are found across domains – others are more specific to a certain industry or field. For example, Sales Engineers are a common business role at startups that offer a complex B2B software product.

For the purposes of this article, we’ll use a Project Manager (PM) business role as an example. Project Managers help keep business initiatives on target by keeping track of deadlines, managing contributions from multiple team members and/or stakeholders, and facilitating communication between the right parties. Working as a startup PM will require a faster pace and the ability to juggle more projects than you typically would at a large enterprise or traditional business.

Characteristics required for a startup business role

Besides a quicker-paced work environment, there are some other general attributes you’ll need to get a PM role at a startup – or any other kind of business role:

Optimism. Startup projects sometimes call for timelines that feel nearly impossible, or things that you think are outside your abilities. If you can stay positive in these situations, you’ll do well at a startup.

Adaptability. The process you were using last week may not be suitable for the type of project you’re managing this week. You have to be able to quickly adjust your working style based on what is best for the current project you’re working on, which might be completely different from the last one.

Value-driven mindset. The best business employees at a startup are the ones who always keep the company’s customers in mind. With everything they do, these team members are considering how to maximize its value for end users, knowing that this will ultimately move the needle most for the entire business.

It doesn’t cost anything or require any special training to adopt these traits – you just need to practice them continuously until they become second nature.

Transitioning from a corporate to a startup

Your personal skills are important, but you should also be aware of some environmental changes when you shift from a traditional corporation to a startup.

First, you should prepare to show proof of value with everything you do. It’s true that startups tend to be less rigid and offer more employee freedom: as long as the actions you do take are providing business value. Make sure you can draw upon data and hard metrics to support projects, especially ones you decide to pursue.

You must also prepare to work at a faster pace than you might be used to. In a typical corporate environment, new projects or initiatives often require several layers of review and approval before they can be executed. In a startup, it’s not uncommon to find instant approval for a new initiative – even one that’s critical to the business. From week to week you might have to completely pivot the project you’re working on, and this may happen multiple times.

Learning the needed skills

Once you have a good grasp on the broader traits required to be a valuable startup business employee, the next step is acquiring technical skills. Thanks to the prevalence of the internet and the development of alternative forms of education, there are many different ways to get technical training depending mostly on your budget and the time you have available.

Traditional business schools

Many people are most familiar with well-known business schools such as the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) or the Indian School of Business (ISB). These schools are well-recognized among all kinds of business employers, but are also difficult to get into and expensive. They are designed for a tiny minority of people who are in the 99th percentile and can afford to quit their jobs to attend college full-time.

Moreover, startups today focus on skills more than business school degrees, so going to expensive business schools doesn’t seem like a good option for the majority of professionals, especially if you have 2-3 years of valuable work experience already under your belt.

Organizational certification

For those who are a bit further in their careers or are looking for more specific training on a business role, a certification is an excellent option. This type of training is designed to help you learn the technical skills needed for a specific kind of job. For a Project Manager, you might consider pursuing a PMI Agile Certified Practitioner certification or a Certified ScrumMaster course.

Online education

Somewhere in between the traditional university education and a certification course is an online education. This type of education is more broad than a certificate but more focused than a 2- or 4-year traditional university program. In recent years, the hybrid MBA model has become popular. This method involves part online and part in-person training and is usually much shorter than a traditional MBA program.

You might also look for training from specific software companies used often by startups. For example, Atlassian University is an online education program created by the parent company of popular PM apps like Trello and Jira.

Networking into startup business roles

Having the right skills and attitude are very important, but they are only the foundation for finding success in a business startup role. The second part of landing this kind of job is putting yourself in front of the right decision-makers, people who are either directly responsible for hiring or have a direct link to the person who will make that decision.

We suggest three different tactics to help make these stakeholders aware of your interest in a role.

Joining startup communities

It’s likely that the company you want to join is part of a broader industry or sector. Try to immerse yourself in this field as much as possible: participate in relevant forums, join their Discord communities, and attend both virtual and in-person events. This helps you stay current on issues affecting the industry and the specific role you desire.

Engaging on social media

It’s very common today for executives, investors, and other top thought leaders in the startup world to discuss business issues and solicit help on social networks. Twitter is popular for entrepreneurship and marketing. Project managers specifically may also find resources on LinkedIn, especially by following the feeds of important organizations like the Project Management Institute (PMI). Remember, don’t just follow and observe popular posts and threads – chime in with questions or opinions you may have.

Cold emailing and Direct Messaging

Many people are intimidated by reaching out to a stranger, but business owners and leaders in the startup community are likely used to receiving these messages. Keep in mind that most people – especially busy managers and executives at startups – have gotten used to ignoring most emails and social media messages from people they don’t know.

When sending cold emails or DMs, keep your message brief! Be clear about the outcome or action you are seeking. A good example is in this Twitter thread, where a young student cold emails Evan Spiegel, CEO of Snapchat, to find out how to intern at the company. Remember to do your research about both the company and the individual – understanding their pain points can help you create a more effective first message.

It’s best to use a mix of these three techniques – the specific blend will depend on your communication preferences and the industry you’re looking to break into. Try to think of networking as a positive habit instead of a means to an end. Even after you’re hired, interacting with your community and important figures in your industry will help advance your career.

Final Thoughts

There are ultimately two distinct parts when breaking into a business role: giving yourself the skills and knowledge needed to fulfil the job’s duties effectively, and putting yourself in places startup employers look when they need talent.

Trying to break into a business startup role can be difficult if you have work experience and skills that are not very relevant to what a high-growth startup needs. But if you really want it and put in the work needed to signal your fit, it can be one of the best and most rewarding professional decisions you ever make.

This essay — although not comprehensive — should be enough to put you in the right mindset and get you started towards building an effective plan to break into a startup. With enough patience and commitment to your goal, you can earn yourself a great opportunity to begin a career in one of the most meaningful things you can do with your time and your life — creating wealth and value for millions.


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