We often rely on frameworks, skillsets, and mindsets – many of which we can acquire in the classroom – to prepare us for a successful career. Even at Lilie, we emphasize the importance of entrepreneurial thinking and design processes. Yet we hear repeatedly that this notion of "luck" propelled notable individuals through startup careers and exits.
But after talking with Merci Victoria Grace, Partner at Lightspeed Ventures, I'm confident success isn't mandated by the fortuitous sprinkling of this magical "luck" dust. Rather, success is linked to tactical habits and relationships we foster. Merci, with a degree in fictional writing (doesn't exactly scream Silicon Valley titan), co-founded a venture-backed company at the age of 22. From there, she held various PM roles (Couchsurfing, Gigwalk) and went on to be the first Head of Product at Slack. Most recently she has been on the other side of the table in venture capital.
It wasn't luck that drove her career, rather her grit and other actionable habits. She has been immersed in Silicon Valley for the entirety of her career, and she had some nuggets of wisdom for those who are flirting with the idea of working at an early stage tech company.
Do some soul searching. Corporate v. startup?
A career growing in larger, more established corporates will certainly look different than a career growing at various startups. In order to set yourself up for success, you must ensure your personality is one that would jive within a startup.
Your learning style:
- Corporates: You like to be told what to do, and taught how to do it. You like to follow processes and standards that are already established and widely accepted. You like to work within the bounds of the current structure. You are not bothered by politics and bureaucracy that may hinder innovation.
- Startups: You learn by doing. It is easier for you to figure "it" out as you go as opposed to being told what to do. In fact, you may not like being told what to do at all! You aren't intimidated by ambiguity, but rather you like to chart uncharted territory and set up the processes as you go.
Your appetite for growth:
- Corporate: You want to know what is expected of you, and agree to offer the explicit skills you bring to the table. There are usually no surprises in your job functionalities. And while there are resources and budgets for professional development, growth can be hampered by clearly defined boundaries preventing you from acquiring responsibilities outside of those bounders.
- Startups: You may not like predictability or routine. You seek out new projects and challenges because you know these stretch opportunities help you grow. You aren't intimidated by doing things that are seen as "outside of your job description." Rather, you are willing to do what it takes for the greater good of the team, and you appreciate the learning opportunity associated with the task.
Your career aspirations:
- Corporate: You most certainly want to be successful, but are willing to take the more traditional route in climbing the corporate ladder. At larger companies, they tend to hire for the role they need to fill, and some tend to do less promoting from within. That makes exponential growth in a short period of time more difficult.
- Startups: You want to gain leadership experience as soon as possible. You are willing to enter on the ground floor of a startup because you know that being an early employee will allow for rapid growth within the company (if the program is growing). And if that early-stage company is successful, your stint is viewed as a badge of honor which will open up future opportunities.
Startups are for me. Now go gain control of your destiny!
Merci shared insight into how early-stage companies function and how to land a gig at one. There are norms and etiquette we should respect, as well as a mindset we must adopt if we are to be successful within these early-stage companies.
How to get your foot in the door:
- Use your network! Hiring is HARD, and hiring good talent is even harder. Founders (who are most likely the hiring managers) are juggling many moving parts, and I can guarantee the hiring process is their least favorite part. So, they are going to turn to the people they know because there is a base of trust. So, keep your contacts warm and follow up with them as they are launching new ventures.
- Don't know many entrepreneurs? Keep tabs on TechCrunch, AngelList, and ProductHunt. Check out companies starting to get traction. Cold email them (…usually email@example.com…) and ask to connect. Contact them via LinkedIn, Twitter, or other social networks. They are more receptive than you may think.
- Be direct. Founders are busy, so tell them why you are interested in working with them. And let other folks in your network know as well. Have them keep feelers out.
- In your conversations, try to identify their pain points. What is keeping them up at night? What are the biggest roadblocks they or the company is facing? And then figure out how your skill set will add value there. Feel it out, but it may require prepped work such as strategy you could present.
- When connecting and making introductions, use these email tactics:
- Double opt-in: ask permission to introduce Sally to Kim. Don't just assume Kim is okay with connecting to Sally because Kim is your friend, and so is Sally. Kim doesn't owe Sally anything. Usually, people say yes, but you should ask.
- Forwardable email: while your job hunt is consuming your time, don't put the burden on others. If you are Sally and you want Joe to introduce you to Kim, send Joe a thorough email that explains who you are and why you want to talk to Kim. Then, Joe can easily forward that on to Kim. Easy peasy.
Qualities to elude:
- Working at a startup can be messy. Founders don't have time to micromanage you (or even manage you at all!). Demonstrate that you have the ability to pick up social cues and can execute on [the right] projects and priorities without having to be asked.
- Have a propensity for action. Act as opposed to asking for permission. You have to be socially intelligent for this to work (see point above), but if you have an idea, try it out, get data, and then propose next steps.
- Don't complain. Ever. ESPECIALLY not in an interview.
- Be a team player. Everything is your job. Nothing should be beneath you.
- Take responsibility for mistakes or missed goals. Startups are ever-evolving and pivoting and learning from failures, you should too.
Be encouraged that there is no magic to the equation. Success within startups and early-stage companies stems from hard work, strong networks, and ensuring there is a good "product-market fit" for you within this world.
This article was written by Caitlin Bolanos, senior associate director of Lilie, and originally appeared on Liu Idea Lab for Innovation & Entrepreneurship's blog.