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Where Do You Fit In? A Beginner’s Guide to Startup Roles

Posted by Duke Lee on 2014-04-17

For many people who are considering a jump into the startup industry, there is one often mysterious question they must answer: "Where do I fit in?" As Jason Freedman says, "We startups are collectively still really bad at helping them break into our tight-knit community."

, is the founder of 42Floors, a search tool that helps tenants discover and create their dream offices, and was named one of the Founder Institute's top mentors at the 14th Founder Showcase

The blog post, "I want to get into startups, but I don’t know where to start", originally appeared on the 42Floors blog and has been republished with permission below;

"I just chatted with this great guy, Alex, out of Boston who wants to get into startups. He graduated from a good college a couple of years ago. He’s bounced around a couple of times in corporately jobs that aren’t the right match and he is ready to take the leap.  He took a couple of classes in computer science, so he’s familiar with code but he’s clearly not an engineer.  He doesn’t have (at least not yet) that founder’s spark that propels him to build something on his own.  Alex wants to join a startup. He just doesn’t know where to start. 

I should mention that Alex is awesome – super, super smart, with both natural analytical abilities and good social skills on the phone. Even from my brief conversation with him, I can tell he is ambitious and passionate. He’s the type of guy lots of startups would like to have. Clearly he was low on experience, but he seems to be a fast learner so whatever he decides to do, I bet he’ll pick it up quickly.

I realized after hanging up the phone with him that the startup community needs more people like him. For years when startups weren’t cool, most top graduates went into finance, consulting and other big company jobs.  Finally, our sector is on top and these young people that want to come and join us. That’s awesome!

But we startups are collectively are still really bad at helping them break into our tight-knit community. Compare Alex’s experience on his college campus a couple of years ago. Throughout the year, there were career fairs and on-campus interviews.  While a few tech companies show up at the career fairs, mostly those are really big companies like Google or Microsoft or Yahoo.  Virtually, no startups showed up unless it was a large startup and the founder herself had gone to that school.

It’s no surprise that Alex mistakenly chose a big company over a startup straight out of school even though he was already interested in startups. There were literally hundreds of other companies ahead of us pitching careers in consulting and banking, or whatever. And those companies all have workshops where they teach you about their industry and what it’s like to be a first time employee. There are career help books written about each industry.

The schools have learned all of this and repackaged it into career centers that give tailored advice. It’s this whole machine that makes it easy to know exactly what you’re doing as a new entrant into the job market.  And when they do get that job, these big companies have expansive training programs to help their newest employees hit the ground running.

It’s no surprise that Alex mistakenly chose a big company over a startup straight out of school even though he was already interested in startups. There were literally hundreds of other companies ahead of us pitching careers in consulting and banking, or whatever."

And we have nothing.  Startups are nowhere to be found on campus colleges, maybe with the exception of Stanford and MIT.

If you’re a recent or soon-to-be college grad, this post is for you. I thought it would be helpful, to show exactly what roles are available in a web startup and what you should do to prepare yourself.

Startup Roles

The Engineer

The largest gap between supply and demand is for engineers.  Specifically, hackers that like to build stuff. Hopefully within your computer science courses you’re learning the right principles, but make sure you’re building stuff in modern languages and frameworks outside of class.  The biggest thing we look for at 42floors is evidence of side projects. Side projects are when young hackers build things the way they want to build them. We love to see that people have gravitated towards the best tools for the job and are naturally creative.  In most cases the people we like to hire can’t help but build things for themselves in their spare time.

Out of all startup jobs, getting a job as an engineer has probably the most clarity. Spend your time honing your craft and you’ll do just fine.

The Product Person

This is often called the product manager or PM for short, but you should probably omit the word management for the time being. If you’re looking to break into startups for the first time you’re not going to be managing anyone no matter how experienced you were in other jobs.

A product person loves building stuff and analyzing traffic. Often times they’re also engineers or have some level of coding abilities but may lack an extensive background/interest in computer science.  Product managers can usually do a little bit of each of these tasks: designing in Photoshop, customer development, working with engineers, rapid prototyping, analyzing conversion metrics and project management.  And usually you’ll be really, really good at at least one of those.

If you’re interested in being a product person, you should just look at that list and fill in your own gaps. Focus specifically on the concrete skills like Photoshop or prototyping. Photoshop is an essential skill and you should just have it.  And by rapid prototyping I mean the ability to build mockups of whatever idea you have in your head, either through writing your own code or by using any of the various SaaS products that make rapid prototyping easy.  Being really good at using lots of different  SaaS products to get stuff done is in itself a totally awesome skill to have.

The Salesperson

Sales people are non-stop hustlers. When you’re entry level sales at a startup, you’re picking up the phone 70 to 100 times a day.  I find a lot of ex-athletes are both interested and good at this type of job (sorry to generalize, but it’s true).  They love the thrill of working hard and seeing a result. They’re not afraid of repetitive tasks and they’re fundamentally competitive with other sales person, which is intrinsic to a good sales culture.  If you want to break into sales, think about joining a slightly larger startup because it’s really helpful to have learned inside of a really good sales operation. There is no need to go really big like Salesforce or Oracle.  Those will teach you bad habits.  But doing sales at a reasonably sized late-stage startup, like Box.net, will teach you all the right skills that you can then take anywhere.

Regardless of where you decide to go, the single best preparation is to get good at getting the job itself. Sales people must be persistent. So demonstrate that in your job search process.  Learn how to find that balance of respectful persistence.  The very best junior salespeople get their start simply by not accepting rejections.

If this you, you should contact us—we want you on our team.

Business Development

While often lumped together, business development is slightly different than sales. These are for people that love networking, building relationships. They have a sense that they can nab a meeting with anyone, but they wouldn’t last if they were expected to make a hundred phone calls a day.  A few courses in business are super helpful because fundamentally business development people need to be making deals.  If you take any one course to prepare you for this type of job it would be negotiations, and if your school doesn’t have negotiations, there are plenty good books out there. I’ve never met a good biz dev person who doesn’t consider themselves awesome at poker, monopoly, settlers, etc.

This is a harder job to get for an entry level candidate, unless you’re working at a really early stage company and have a personal relationship with the founders.  Most people get into higher level business development by proving their skills at basic sales first.

Marketing

There is still a little bit of traditional marketing left in startups, but not much.  The stuff where you talk about brand and marketing messages and whatnot – those jobs have mostly gone away already.  It still happens, but not by one dedicated person.  If you want traditional brand marketing, stick to bigger companies.

Every good startup I know is currently hiring a growth hacker, which is really just a marketing position for a technical or mostly technical person.  This could be a good role for you if you’re super analytical about metrics and the first time you used a spreadsheet it became second nature. You want to be practiced in SEO and SEM.  But more than anything, you need to be naturally good at pulling off shenanigans. I don’t mean doing unethical stuff, I mean being able to hack together experiments quickly to see if they’ll work.  The best prep for this type of role is generally side projects as well. Do something that generates tons of adoption. In the course of it you’ll learn all the tips and tricks.

Account Management/Customer Service

These can be great entry level roles.  The two big skills you have to bring to the table are empathy and organization.  Empathy can’t really be taught, so if you don’t have it, don’t go down this road. But if you do have it you’ll naturally be good at working with clients and helping understand their needs.  And then organization is essential because in any good role, you’ll have to do it at increasingly high volumes.

So really good account manager/customer service types are a little OCD about organization – they love experimenting with various CRM ticketing products like Zendesk, Streak, etc.

By the way, our little commercial real estate startup would love to have you join us.

Office Managers

This can be a super-fun job that can grow into a substantial career. The startup office manager, especially if he joins early on, gets to do a thousand different things.  It’s part office design, meal provider, HR exec, accountant, and more. Even more than the account manager, the office manager needs to be obsessed with organization.  I also find that this particular position seems to almost always get filled by personal connections. There is something about having the right personality fit for that particular startup that is especially important. So, if you are interested in doing this, the most important thing is that you spend time around lots of startups.

***

There is a lot more we in the startup community need to do to make easier to join a startup, but hopefully this post at least helps get you started."

For more insight from Jason, check out the blog at 42Floors and on Twitter @jasonfreedman.

 (Company organization image via Shutterstock)

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