Congratulations, class of 2015! You're young and you have the world ahead of you. The job market is looking up. You're attracted to the world of startups, and you've taken all the necessary reality checks to ensure that you'd thrive in this environment. Now all you need to do is find the startup of your dreams.
There's just one problem: you don't code. You spent the last four years studying sociology. Or Himalayan art. Or South American liberation theology. Furthermore, the idea of attending Codecademy makes your soul die a little. You're a "people person," not a programmer.
But you still want to work for a tech startup.
The good news is that there are tons of non-tech roles at startups. I would know--I help people recruit for them at HireArt. The work just may not be what you expect. At a startup, a salesperson is not just a salesperson, a marketer is not just a marketer, and a customer service associate is not just a guy exchanging that terrible cat sweater from your Aunt Minnie for store credit at Target.
The startup sales challenge: "Who are you, and why should I trust you?"
One huge difference between working in sales for a larger company and for a startup is that in a larger company, you have existing clients to work with. Sometimes you can make money by up-selling these clients to bigger deals. When you're trying to sell at an early-stage startup, nobody has heard of your company. This means you have to work your ass off to convince prospective clients that 1) your product is awesome and 2) they should trust you.
Another difference is training. Larger companies typically offer structured training programs. At a startup, though, you could be first salesperson in the company, and more often than not you're expected to hit the ground running. Here's your quota; get us some clients.
That said, the benefit of selling at a startup, or performing any role at a startup, is that you learn a lot on the go. You're often owning the entire sales process, from prospecting to closing. You learn how to get from point A to B with a client, and then from B to C, and so on.
At the end of the day, selling anywhere is tough and requires extraordinary resilience and stamina. But despite the added challenges of selling at a startup, a sincere passion for the product can make it that much more worthwhile.
The startup marketing challenge: "What do you do, and why should I care?"
As with salespeople, the big challenge facing startup marketers is lack of brand familiarity. This isn't to say that marketers for larger firms can rest easy on brand recognition: luxury marketing and PR exec Lilian Raji writes that "regardless of how old or well known a brand is, that brand must continuously find ways to stay relevant or see itself fade into obscurity. Older brands have an established audience, but as that audience ages, it is necessary for them to create strategy to attract a younger audience."
At a tech startup, you're not just trying to stay relevant; you need to become relevant, and then stay relevant. In essence, nobody has heard of your company and unless it really is the next Uber, nobody cares.
Furthermore, there's no department-set checklist—no tweet schedule, no corporate "voice," no talking points—to figure out how to go about it. Startup marketing requires ingenuity, experimentation, and persistence. The fun part of all this is that you get to play a mad scientist: you tinker with all the marketing playthings (social media, SEO, content marketing, etc) and measure everything that's quantifiable to see what actually drives growth. You're not just a mouthpiece for your brand; you're the architect.
The startup customer service challenge: going above and beyond the "complaints department"
At any company, terrible service drives customers away, and great service can mean organic word-of-mouth growth.
One Quora user recounts a positive service experience:
"My favourite CS story is about applying for a job at Typhoo tea. I didn't get the job but rather than silence they sent me a letter and some tea bags. I've always looked at them fondly."
Microinteractions author Dan Saffer calls these "signature moments." Startups take customer service incredibly seriously, because stories like this can give them a much-needed edge over established firms in the same space. As a customer service representative, you have the power to deliver these signature moments. It's not just about service; it's customer success, and you own that result.
Furthermore, your feedback as a customer service associate goes directly to the startup's product team, and the client comments that you relay help drive product decisions.
Bottom line: A great customer service rep at any company can make a huge impact on brand loyalty, but at a startup, you're blessed and cursed with a reputation tabula rasa. You are building the startup's customer-facing reputation from scratch, as well as influencing product direction with your feedback. You're still answering tons of complaints, though. So make sure you really love solving people's problems.
Go forth, and apply!
A final word of caution: the recent adage that "startup people wear many hats" tends to attract recent grads who don't really know or don't want to make a decision about what they "want to do." But even if you work at a startup, you still have a job to do, so once again, make sure you're going to love both your company and your work. A startup salesperson may see a different workload than that of a salesperson in a larger company, but the requisite skills (energy, persistence, etc.) are roughly the same.
That said, your first job out of college is your next big learning opportunity, and you should pursue the career that allows you to learn what you want to. If working hard and achieving a sense of ownership appeals to you, then startup life is probably not a bad direction.
So once again, congrats! Go forth and find your dream job at the next "social-mobile-disrupt Uber for X"!
Cyndi Chen works at HireArt, the Uber for...well actually it's not like Uber at all. It's a tech-enabled recruiting firm that uses video interviews and work samples to screen the best non-tech candidates for its clients. Twitter: @cyndithinks
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