Recently I had a conversation with a friend of mine who was interested in doing product management at a startup. He was working as a consultant, but wanted to join a company like foursquare as a PM. However, he wasn’t getting any return calls and was becoming frustrated, and wanted my advice on why. I told him this:Guess what? Everyone thinks they are the next Steve Jobs, but they aren’t. The odds are you aren’t God’s gift to product design. And even if you are, no one will be inclined to believe it, because you have no evidence: you’ve never 1) started a startup, 2) worked at a startup, 3) worked in product management, 4) designed products as side projects. All your experience is in another irrelevant field; why should a successful startup give you a chance?
The risk that each party takes has to be equal. You are taking a risk in tying your career to a startup: the less proven the startup is, the more risk you are taking. The startup is taking a risk by assuming you will be an effective producer: the less direct experience you have, the more risk they are taking. Many times I see younger would-be employees not understand this: they think they should be able to get a job as a PM at a Dropbox or Airbnb, not realizing that they are taking practically no risk on the company. At the same time, they have no PM experience themselves, so the risk the company would be taking on them is quite high. Consequently, they rarely get the jobs without exceptionally good self-salesmanship.
Sometimes these young people watch The Social Network or read stories about other Millennials founding companies with no experience and think they should be able to join a startup with little domain background. After all, they’ve seen their friends leave their jobs and start companies in completely different industries, right?
This is a fallacy, however. Only one person gets the benefit of the doubt at a startup: the founder. That is because the founders of a company are taking the most risk, and consequently the company is by necessity willing to take the maximal amount of risk on them. This doesn’t apply to later employees, where risk has been vastly reduced.
So what should you do if you want a career switch to a job at a startup you don’t have any experience in? In traditional industry, you might go to business school, after which it is socially acceptable to switch job tracks, but everyone knows having an MBA doesn’t go too far in a startup.
Instead, I’d recommend a couple things. First, consider looking at startups where you can get in on the ground floor; generally, companies with less than 10 people. These companies are unproven and won’t likely have throngs of experienced people banging down the doors. By matching yourself to a company where you’ll be taking on as much risk as it will be taking on you, you’re likely to be higher up in the candidate pool than you would be at an already successful startup.
Second, consider applying for a job in an area you have experience in, and then once you’re in, work your way into the area where you want to be. For example, if you have experience in sales but want to work on product, join a company that needs sales, prove that you are competent in sales and then you will be taken much more seriously internally when talking about product. Eventually, you might even get the opportunity to do product directly: companies are much more likely to give chances to employees who are already doing well in another area. This is because you’ve reduced the risk associated with you. When considering a new employee, there are many risk factors: will she be productive, have a good attitude, fit in culturally. By being a competent existing employee, you’ve just removed several of those risk factors, making it easier for the company to take a chance on letting you work on something new.
Third, spend much, much more time and effort on your “application” than you would for a traditional application. To startup founders, it is always flattering and attention grabbing when someone takes the time to think in depth about their relatively unknown business. Sometimes, job applications are more like a series of conversations about the vision and future of the product. That’s how we hired Jacob, our first designer for Justin.tv / TwitchTV, who did several rounds of mockups for the product without even being hired as a contractor. That’s how Tristan Walker secured his position at foursquare, by sending a series of emails to the founders and flying out to NYC on his own.
Lastly, try to give yourself some experience. In your spare time, design something. Almost anything goes a long way to differentiating yourself from the throngs of people who want to work on products but have never done so. Even an unsuccessful web application is better than nothing; it shows that you at least can produce something basic.
You can get your dream job at a startup and get into the tech world, even if you have limited experience. You just need to expect to go above and beyond, and be flexible in where you are starting out. No one is going to go out of their way to make it easy for you.
Image credit: Shutterstock/IKO