So, you just graduated and are in the startup job market. If you were wise enough to pursue a degree that is in demand amongst startups, which then landed you a job offer months ahead of your friends: congratulations!! Despite the common hesitancy amongst your peers, you took the adventurous route and accepted a position amongst a small group of people trying to change the world, and hope to be successful in the process (Instagram, anyone?).
This is the exact path I embarked upon one year ago. Now, though, I can safely say I have survived 12 months working at my first startup job out of college, and wow, what a learning experience it has been. If you’re like me and are starting sometime this summer: 1) Congrats, really. You’ve beaten out a ton of other hopeful candidates and have now made it to a point where you can truly gain some valuable work experience; and 2) Get ready to work.
Transitioning from college classes and homework to ‘real life’ and project deadlines can be a daunting challenge for twenty-somethings. To help make the most of your first year, I have listed below the top ten lessons I have learned in my first startup job out of college.
1. Take Advantage of the Seasoned Veterans Around You
Chances are there are some really talented people at the table next to you. No, seriously, take a few seconds away from being glued to your monitor and just look around your office. You’re guaranteed to find experienced co-workers who have all worked on a great product at one company or another. Introduce yourself and be sure to talk to these people early and often! At Luminate, I was fortunate enough to be graced with the presence of engineering brilliance from the original browser development team at Netscape and Mozilla. In your startup, be sure to find these amazing resources and don’t be afraid to ask questions. They’ll be happy to hear how interested you are in their past, and you might just get some funny stories out of them.
2. Find a Passion Outside of Work
Now that you’re done with homework and studying every night, be sure to find something to keep yourself occupied outside of work! For me it was a foray into photography, but for others it could be reading, taking a cooking class, traveling, or learning a new skill. When you’re left without labs, group projects, homework and tests, this is a sure fire way to have fun and keep yourself active during the weeknights of your first full working year.
3. Be Active and Get Healthy
Too often I have watched peers graduate college and all of a sudden think they don’t have time for the gym. Believe me, if you could balance a full college course load and find enough time to work out at your university’s rec center, you can definitely find time to exercise while working full time. My trick is to always go to the gym on my way home from work. Unlike those freak fitness-a-holic types, I’m one of those people who will get home from work telling myself, ‘I’ll go to the gym later’, then two beers later I’m still glued to the latest update on SportsCenter. Instead, I pack my bag the night before I leave for work and leave it sitting on my bathroom counter, guiltily forcing me to take it with me in the morning. Who knows, you might just develop a new habit! Bonus tip: I’ve actually found that I do some of my best brainstorming while at the gym. In fact, this article was mainly written from the Stairmaster at Mountain View’s 24 Hour Fitness!
4. Never Think You’re Too Junior
The beauty of startups is that they’re small… typically no more than 30 people. So while you may have been hired as an entry level employee, there’s usually no more than two degrees of separation between you and your CEO. Use this flat firm organization to your advantage and go ahead and spark up a conversation with your CEO, CRO, or CTO. You’re not at Google, Facebook, Visa or any other large firm which is restricting you to your single role or position, so use this to take on tasks which wouldn’t ordinarily be assigned to you in a very linear position. Which leads me to my next point..
5. Constantly Challenge Yourself
You’re young, enthusiastic and just left college full of energy. Use this first year to show your managers why you deserved that opportunity rather than the 90 other candidates who applied. With more college graduates living at home and looking for work than ever before, don’t be complacent once you’ve snagged your first gig. We had a simple saying on the UC Santa Cruz Men’s soccer team which our coaches ingrained in our heads – ‘Raise The Level’. Every day, every practice, every drill- make your actions faster, cleaner and more refined than the last. This couldn’t be more applicable in the business world. Be it a sales call, an email, or answering a customer’s question; constantly challenge yourself to make every action a learning experience and constantly raise the quality-level of your business interactions.
6. Learn About Every Part of Your Company
The growth potential is limitless in any given startup, so learn every part of your company. Given the size of your startup, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find out how the entire business ?functions. From sales and business development, to product design, to engineering, to customer support and more… be sure to start learning about every moving piece in your company. The golden opportunity we twenty-somethings have working in a startup is the option to grow with the company, and potentially into the department that we truly are passionate about. Start this scoping your first year, and it’ll pay dividends in the longrun.
7. Grab a Good Pair of Headphones
This is simple: buy a good pair of headphones. And, no, I’m not talking about using the tinny-sounding pair of Apple headphones that come with your iPhone. Go out and splurge on a pair of good noise canceling headphones. With most startups sporting an open office atmosphere, it can get noisy in the office. Between board members, investors, flying fish, remote-controlled
8. Never Limit Yourself to One Role
This goes hand in hand with number 6. After you find out how your company works, start talking to the people in the department you might be interested in, or, have a particular skill set for. Ask what you can do to help, given you’re in a startup and we’re always short-handed in every department. I’m sure your fellow start-uppers will be happy to see you’re so enthusiastic about that part of the business. Plus, it gives you a taste-test of what you can expect in certain roles! Since we college grads are all fluent in social media, why not try talking to the marketing folks to see what you can offer? Took a few classes & interested in accounting? I’m sure your billing department & CFO could definitely use an extra hand!
9. Don’t Be Afraid to Propose a Change
Look at your CEO, now back at yourself. Then back to your CEO, now back at yourself (Can you tell I use Old Spice?). What are some of the key differences between you? Well, besides a few zeros on paychecks, and having a company in your name, age is probably another big one. While your managers and CEOs bring wisdom, strategy and leadership, there’s something that you probably have that they don’t. Youth.
We just graduated college, amongst a peer group that is one of the most connected in history. We’ve been using computers since we were old enough to walk and talk. Given that our generation is online and using mobile or web applications more than any other age group, having this perspective in a startup is a huge help to many companies. So next time you’re in a meeting, a one on one, or just simply talking with your coworkers, don’t be afraid to offer your young, fresh perspective on an aging task.
Who knows, your proposal, idea, or suggestion could just be the next, next big thing for your company!
10. Work hard, but work smart
Be sure to take a step back on whatever project you’re working on and make sure that you’re applying your energy towards the most needed task at the time. That is, make sure you’re working on projects that are worth your very valuable time. In my first year I frequently saw myself throwing 100% of my time and energy at projects which definitely weren’t at the top of the priority list. It’s great to have enthusiasm and a hard work ethic in whatever project you’re working on, but make sure that the project is aligned with your company goals, your quarterly goals & your personal goals. Learn from my mistakes and always step back from what you’re doing to make sure that it is, indeed, the most valuable use of your time for both yourself, your project team, and your business. In essence; work hard, but work smart.
Brian LaFaille works at Silicon Valley startup Luminate, where the web’s images are becoming interactive. For more information on how Brian can help budding startup-ers achieve their goals, contact him here.