Some Career Tips for Joining The Start-up Economy

  • by , Featured Contributor, August 13, 2009

Earlier this week, we learned from the Federal Reserve that the U.S. economy appears to be stabilizing. That's the very good news. The not-so-good news is that many analysts expect the recovery to be a "jobless" one, at least for the next two years, and likely longer. Thus, while the economy may start coming back later this year and early next, we shouldn't expect real job growth for some time.

This is not good news for folks looking for jobs or thinking about career changes -- particularly for those in the media and ad industry, since our sector generally lags behind the overall economy by the better part of a year. However, as media and marketing companies continue to be disrupted by the Internet and digital technologies, we will certainly see a lot of "green-shoot" growth at small companies, particularly start-ups.

I generally spend between 10% to 20% of my time talking to folks about their careers -- either giving advice about potential job moves, talking up opportunities in new media and start-ups generally, or specifically recruiting folks to Simulmedia. I like doing this. I think it's important to do. Given how key start-ups are to the future of our industry, I thought it might be helpful to share some of the career tips that I give those who are considering joining start-up companies. Here they are:



1.    It takes more than heart. So many folks that I talk to about leaving a big company to join a start-up tell me that they are a "start-up person at heart," and can't wait to be part of a more exciting, innovative and employee-centric business culture. While I applaud this attitude, I always have to caution them that success in start-ups takes much more than desire. It's also about what you do with your mind and body -- it's about throwing yourself at problems and solving them over and over and over again, no matter how crazy the situation is, or how badly it is going.

2.    It's not about just relationships and your Rolodex; it's about delivering results and renewals. Lots of folks think that great relationships and a fat Rolodex are keys to success in transitioning from big companies to small, particularly if you are in sales or business development. It's not that simple. When you work for a big company, everybody wants to work with you. When you move to a small firm, the value that you carry in your bag every day is measured by the actual results that you can deliver for customers and partners. Renewals define value in start-ups, not first-time test sales. Delivering renewals require much more than glad-handing. It requires really understanding your customers, their needs and your product -- and obsessing over customer service.

3.    Add value every day. No one in a start-up should ever be surprised if they are fired or laid-off. You are too close to the marketplace and your product offering and your management to be caught unaware, unless you're not paying attention.  You have to ask yourself every day how much real value you created that day, and make yourself essential. Small companies can't support the dead weight that big companies tend to get bloated with.

4.    Create your own feedback mechanisms. Most start-ups don't have the same kind of rigorous employee evaluation systems that big companies do. In start-ups, you generally have to create your own mechanisms to judge how well you are doing. You have to ask for feedback, not wait for it. You have to be self-aware. Most of the biggest failures that I have seen in folks who couldn't successfully transition from big companies fell short in this area. Years of pleasing bosses created an emotional need for systematic (and frequently substantively empty) feedback that is not replicated at most start-ups.

5.    Be both tactical and strategic. In big companies, you can be great at strategy and be successful. Likewise, you can be great at certain tactics and be successful. Not so in most start-ups. You need some degree of expertise in both. Tacticians who don't see the big picture will find themselves building things that the market doesn't need, waiting for feedback from a manager that may never come. Strategists who can't get stuff done on their own find themselves doing deals that will never see completion -- and a company full of people too busy to hear about their next great idea.

6.    It's worth it. Yes, it can be very hard to transition from a big company to a start-up. It can be scary, aggravating and emotionally wrenching. But it can also be extraordinary. You can get things done that you could never do at large companies. You see personal contributions get noticed and rewarded. It can be very tough, but the upside outweighs the downside if you have the patience and fortitude to work your way through it.

What do you think? What other lessons about startups can you offer? Please share them in the Comments section.

13 comments about "Some Career Tips for Joining The Start-up Economy".
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  1. Jason Krebs from Tenor/Google, August 13, 2009 at 1:50 p.m.

    7) Get used to taking the subway to meetings and not your chauffeured Mercedes.

  2. Eric Porres from SundaySky, August 13, 2009 at 2:05 p.m.

    Nice write-up today.

    5.1) Ship captains and ship builders are often two different people; when making hiring decisions in a start-up, be prepared that not everyone can fulfill both roles simultaneously.

    7.1) Get used to Krebs not in a suit.

  3. Bill Matthews from eHealthcare Solutions, August 13, 2009 at 2:17 p.m.

    As usual, great synopsis Dave. In 1996 when I moved to the online advertising start-up world (I/PRO) following 17 years at A.C. Nielsen, it was like diving into a juice blender from a warm glass of milk. You can't hide and you must have the thick skin that comes with the territory -- being nimble, creative, proactive, and rolling up your own shirt sleeves every single day. Five start ups later, I have never looked back -- most rewarding career move I ever made.

  4. Gl Hoffman from LINKUP, August 13, 2009 at 2:24 p.m.

    Hello...this is a great post and very helpful. Here is a reference on ths same subject...100 attributes of a successful startup person. It is on

  5. Judith Anderson from Zaiss & Company, August 13, 2009 at 3:17 p.m.

    I always enjoy your articles, Dave, but his one really is a blueprint for anyone working in a small company. The mindset is so very different. Great article!

  6. Norm Page from Grapeshot, August 13, 2009 at 3:29 p.m.

    Great stuff! I really agree with point #2. Many start-ups get excited when the market shows initial interest in what they're doing. And that's great! But the hard part is getting from tire-kicking to renewal. And within that sometimes painful process a sales organization is born - with the scalability, process, methodology, roles & responsibilities, and Best Practices that will be required for a start-up to grow and prosper long-term. (PS: better to do it now in start-up mode than later when fixing a broken sales process will take time, energy, lost revenue opportunity, and a ton of money to fix.)

  7. LLoyd Berry, August 13, 2009 at 5:01 p.m.

    I have done 5 of them, get ready not to make your future or fortune. Get ready not to be able to pay your bills. In most start ups VC funding is what it takes and guess what that 15% ownership that you sign up for will be a billion to one share swap. In the end, you have to be built for the start up - MOST people are not! SO unless you have this overwhelming urge to kill your self, stay with your day job. IF you think you can hang in the online interactive space contact me...

  8. Dave Morgan from Simulmedia, August 13, 2009 at 6:56 p.m.

    A really strong addition from my good friend Chris Marrow:

    "I would add one trait to it:

    '…the understanding of and the desire to take risks, combined with the ability to do so'

    Many folks think they are cut out for start ups or believe that is the"next step" for them. But when it comes down to the aspect of taking a financial risk.....they ultimately cannot stomach it."

  9. Michael Senno from New York University, August 14, 2009 at 12:40 a.m.

    Your last comment moves toward the point I wanted to make. You need to take initiative. Your first point about being a start-up person "at heart" is great - prove it. Your last comment, prepare to take risks, then do so.

    As someone paving my career path in this industry, as a career changer, I take every opportunity I can to work on projects with anyone and any company that relates to my interests. The passion has not naturally drive production. Be prepared to walk in somewhere with marketing plans, a presentation to provide ideas and supporting evidence, research on how a company can improve something or take a new angle on a product - and always understand how they earn revenue.

  10. Miten Sampat from Feeva Technology Inc, August 14, 2009 at 1:13 a.m.

    Dave, i couldn't agree more... thanks for writing such a thoughtful article.

  11. Jim Dennison from DigitalMediaMeasures, August 14, 2009 at 11:20 a.m.

    Good article and good comments, based on my experience in four start-ups. Lloyd Berry's point about not making a fortune, even when the VCs do, is a very good one. I'd add to #4 that start-ups are a team sport, so evaluate how well your your teammates work together, and bail if they don't, because in a small start-up, toxic relationships are more lethal than in a large organization (relates to #5).

  12. Hana Daddy from, August 14, 2009 at 1:18 p.m.

    Well The most biggest worry I may have is how to support my family during the initial start-up when not enough income comes in. This is very scary thought.

  13. Brooke Farrell, August 16, 2009 at 4:37 p.m.

    Well, after spending the last 17 years in advertising, I just joined the start up economy! So, I hope I have more than just heart for it! Thanks for the tips. And, feel free to email me with any feedback for my new feedback loop. =)

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