Question: Does having a start-up or early-stage experience help or hinder your resume’s appeal?
The answer: Depends on the reader.
I know that’s a crummy answer, but it’s the truth.
If the reader has a background with firms that were with startup/early-stage, entrepreneurial, fast growing or rapidly changing business (regardless of company size), they can appreciate how the experience will impact what you can offer a potential employer. If not, it’s more difficult.
Think of it like working outside your home country, it’s tough to truly appreciate until you cross the border.
Since you may move between established firms and start-ups, understanding how to position your experience to a non-Startup audience is important.
Having worked in and with start-up/early-stage firms for the past five years I can share some of the key upsides and downsides. There are loads of both, but these items that come up most frequently in either discussion with colleagues or what I’ve experienced firsthand.
These are the items to emphasize in a cover letter, pitch or within body of resume.
Fine tune your view of the customer: Without all the meetings, processes, etc. this is where you focus all of your attention on understanding the need, design a product to fulfill it, understand their motivation to buy, how to find them and convince them to put money in your wallet. There’s not a company on the planet that does not want to serve their customer better. This is the best thing going for a start-up, that ability to get to the absolute essentials of bringing revenue into the business.
Visibility to the entire business process: This is the second best thing going for a startup; you get to see the entire delivery process to a client – from product, pricing, operations through collection of cash. You learn both what’s truly essential to running the business and when to add functions to your company.
Expand and Understand Your Skills: Titles are given, but generally optional when it comes to getting the work done. Those skills you were good at become great; those skills you were okay at become better. My titles have been CFO, but my tasks have including designing web pages, developing a social media plan, creating sales tools, and operating manuals. I’d never say you’ll become an expert, but you certainly learn to use what you’ve got and how to deal with situations where you have little past experience. In a small firm, you are pretty open about your strengths (also it’s hard to hide) and when to ask for help – which makes you a more effective member of a team to accomplish a given task.
Speed of Decision-Making/Risk Taking: Due to a variety of constraints, you learn to move quickly with less information. More importantly, you learn to focus on the ‘right’ information. How you approach risk is also finely tuned, because you learn to balance the need to move quickly and the risk that a bad decision can sink the firm. You move to try new ideas quickly, but you move to shut down rotten ideas with equal speed.
Problems = Innovation: There’s always some problem or roadblock to overcome. Whether it’s too little capital, change in client behavior, your solution did not work exactly right, or new competitors, you learn to adapt your original vision of what you bring to market. Because of their frequency, you become enamored with what you can deliver, less on how it’s delivered. Innovation extends well beyond the initial idea into how to make the idea commercially viable.
A non-startup audience may often view the following items as less than favorable because of how they differ from their typically established company perspective. I describe the traits and how to offset it in your pitch, etc. When it comes to the downsides, my advice is to assassinate the assassin, by directly addressing the issues that may derail your chances.
You could not get job in big firm: There is a common belief that established firms were not interested in you, so you went to a start-up.
Offsetting argument: The reality is that given the risk of capital, the investors, board and management tend to be very choosey as to who gets hired. They have both capital and reputation on the line, so everyone wants a team that can bring success to this deal and for fundraising in future deals.
Failure or non-performance of start-up: It’s the nature of the beast and no one is immune. You are defining a new product, new market or both and with this come higher risk.
Offsetting argument: It’s this risk that enables the upsides noted above, however, without a roadmap, processes or history – you are likely to make mistakes. When you compare a start-up’s success rate against that of an establish firm’s success rate on new products (success being either on time, on budget and hitting expected returns) – it’s clear that the risk applies equally to all firms.
Nomadic lifestyle: People will see that you may have worked with a number of start-ups in a short period of time. There are three primary reasons why this might be true. First, it can take several tries to find the right deal and you may have to jump in to figure it out. Second, not every start-up needs your skill full-time after launch; your work can be a project to get the business launched. Third, the business does not succeed or grow, so it’s time to try a new one because they cannot afford you or there’s no upside.
Offsetting argument: Start-up investors lay bets on a large number of start-ups with the belief that 1 in 10 or 20 will have a significant return that more than offsets the deals that goes sideways. They go into deals knowing that many will not succeed; the tough part is that they don’t which one up front.
Before pitching someone, learn their background and their firms. For their firms, remember that big does not always equal stodgy, and may be very entrepreneurial for their size.
The non-startup audience is not wrong in their view of skills, simply different than your own. It’s your responsibility to help them appreciate the startup experience.
Your experience will vary in scope and depth. Before you head out to pitch yourself, take an inventory of your experiences – you’ll be surprised at what you’ve learned!
If your start-up hit it big, then skip the above and promote the end result, you’ve punched your ticket.
Good luck today.