THE BLOG

Making The Career Switch To A Startup

06/02/2015 10:51 am ET | Updated Jun 02, 2016
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By Phil DeGisi, CommonBond

Been at your corporate job for a few years and looking at a potential switch to a startup? Graduating from business school and considering a fast-growing team? You're far from alone. With the number of startups getting funded, well-publicized valuations and exits, and millennials generally looking for more meaning from their jobs, startups are attracting a substantial number of applicants from a wide array of backgrounds.

I was in your shoes a few years ago. I remember reading every article and blog post, and listening to every podcast that I could find for advice on how to make the switch. And I learned what most people learn: there is no magic trick to getting hired at a startup. But I picked up a few other lessons along the way, from the interviewing process and my current experience making hiring decisions at a 30-person, post-Series A student lending startup, CommonBond. If you follow the advice below, I can't guarantee that you'll get your dream job. But I can say, unequivocally, that you will significantly increase your chances of finding a great new gig at a startup.

Network with people in the field

This is obvious, and you will hear it a million times: if you're going to find the right startup role, you need to network. While it is something you've heard before, there's a reason: it's the single most important thing you can do to enable a career transition to a startup. I can trace back finding most of my roles over the past six years to networking. When I was an MBA student, an alum at Walmart.com helped me find my internship there. While it wasn't a startup role, it clearly showed me the power of networking, since that internship turned into a full-time role and led to two great years of experience.

When I was looking for my next opportunity, I heard about an opportunity at Quidsi, a fast-growing specialty e-commerce company that was acquired by Amazon shortly thereafter, through a friend from business school who knew a hiring manager there. Through my friend, I got on the phone with that manager and two months later was working on a team building their pet e-commerce business. Three years later, I felt that I was ready to move to an early stage startup, and a former colleague that I had stayed in touch with from Quidsi made an introduction to littleBits, where I eventually joined full-time to lead their e-commerce efforts.

Without my network, I likely wouldn't have found any of these roles. If you're relying on recruiters or applying for jobs on LinkedIn, you may get lucky, but you are substantially lowering your odds if you're not building out a personal network.

Recent hires here at CommonBond further demonstrate the importance of networking. I've been fortunate to hire a great colleague I had kept in touch with from a previous employer, as well as someone who reached out to me through a mutual friend. It's a competitive market, and finding a way to stand out is critical. Your odds of getting a hiring manager's attention is far greater if you get a warm intro or attend a startup networking event than if you just apply online.

Build your skillset

Your career is a marathon, not a sprint. Looking back, I can't imagine trying to go straight from Walmart.com to CommonBond. Although valuable, the skillset I had built at Walmart.com was specific to just one area of marketing. Compare that to joining CommonBond when the company was 16 people; it was all hands on deck (and still is) to execute across a variety of initiatives. The thing that prepared me the most for my experience at CommonBond was the time I spent at Quidsi, where I had an incredible opportunity to execute across direct response marketing, impact brand awareness campaigns, vendor negotiations, and more, at scale.

Getting that combination of hands-on experience but at levels of national scale is something I draw from daily in my current role as Head of Marketing at CommonBond. The co-founder of Wealthfront, Andy Rachleff, wrote one of my favorite posts on this topic that I always refer people to when they tell me they want to transition to a startup. He advises recent MBAs to work for mid-sized, fast-growing, privately held companies, and I couldn't agree more.

Demonstrate passion for the industry and role that you want

If you want to prove that you have what it takes, demonstrate the passion that success will require by learning outside the office. If you want to break into product management, take a class at General Assembly. Start a blog or a site of your own if for no other reason than to start monitoring traffic sources and thinking of low-cost ways to acquire users. Volunteer your time helping entrepreneurial friends and get real experience. Attend Meetup events related to the industry you're interested in. Don't see one that compels you? Create your own! These things signal to a startup that you are proactively managing your career and are passionate about what you're doing. And many of them will also provide networking opportunities as you get involved. (See, it really does always come back to networking.)

No one of these things will guarantee you your dream job at a startup. But they are great signals of dedication. And dedication is by far one of the biggest drivers of success for anyone at a startup.

Have a question or want advice on managing your own transition to a startup? Message me on LinkedIn.

Phil DeGisi is Head of Marketing at CommonBond, a student lending platform that provides a better student loan experience through lower rates, superior service, a simple application process and a strong commitment to community. CommonBond is also the first company to bring the 1-for-1 model to education and finance.

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