Can You Work in a Start-up?

The idea of working for a start-up tends to be glamorized in the media.  Candidates need to carefully consider if they have what it takes to survive and thrive in this unique environment.

 Changing Priorities

You may be working on a mission-critical project when something changes and you are asked to stop and take on a completely different project.  If you are energized by that you could do well in the start-up environment but if that causes you significant frustration you may want to steer clear.  Priorities change frequently in the early stages.  An investor may have an urgent need that trumps whatever you were working on.  Based on focus group feedback your presentation to the board tomorrow may have to be completely revamped.  Change is a given in a start-up operation.  Candidates need to honestly assess their comfort level with constant change.

Limited Resources

In a start-up employees often have to wear multiple hats.  There are not unlimited resources or highly specialized roles, you may be asked to do whatever is most needed at the moment.  Some candidates thrive on that variety but others need a more predictable and focused work plan.  Think about how you do your best work to determine if the variety is a positive or a negative for you.

Comfort with Risk

A start- up come with inherent risk.   Not all start-ups succeed.  Brilliant ideas for new products or services don’t always predict a successful new business venture.  Can you live with the risk of the company going out of business?  On a more daily basis can you tolerate the risk of trying something that may not work?  If you try and fail, do you learn something and eagerly explore the next option to see if that will work?  Sometimes the risk is that you have to make a significant decision on your own, in the moment and then have to live with the consequences.

Believe in the Mission

Working to make a start-up successful is hard work which can be both rewarding and frustrating.  To commit to working this hard to make it a success, it is important to believe in the mission.  If you are not aligned with the mission it is likely not going to be a good fit for you.  You can’t convince others of the value of your product or service if you don’t truly believe it yourself.

See the Impact of Your Work

In a start-up you are able to see the direct impact of your work on the success of each initiative and on the company as a whole.  If you want a clear sense of how you are impacting the outcome, this could be the perfect opportunity for you.


Mind the Gap

If you have ever been to London you hear repeated announcements reminding you to “mind the gap” as you navigate The Tube.  While it is helpful advice, minding the gaps of your resume can significantly impact your job search.

Life happens.  Candidates end up with gaps on their resumes for a variety of reasons – some under their control and others completely out of their control.  What is a job seeker to do?

Be Prepared – Many interviewers will be drawn to the gaps on a resume and are likely to ask you directly about it.  If you are prepared to address the gap, it will likely not be perceived as an issue.  However if you fumble through a weak explanation, it tends to raise more questions than it addresses.  Have your story ready.  Focus on any positives that came out of this experience.

Be Honest – Do not list starting your own consulting company in the gap unless you actually did that.  If you never had a client, you never had a consulting firm.  Be honest and own the gap.  Employers do employment verification and background checks.  If you own the gap it is often not an issue.  If you misrepresent it, your integrity is then questioned and you could easily lose the job.

Do Not Bash A Former Company or Manager – Positively explain your gap without maligning a former company or manager.  Sure it stinks that they laid you off after two years of positive reviews.  It likely had nothing to do with your performance but more the cost structure of the company.  If you talk about what a jerk your manager was to eliminate your job, it raises a red flag about how you interacted with your manager.  Be honest but frame it as positively as possible.  Things happen.  Differentiate yourself by how your respond to those things you can’t control

Assessing Company Culture

A critical part of the interview process is assessing fit – does the candidate fit the company culture and does the company culture fit the candidate?  How can a candidate accurately assess the culture of the company they are considering?

Do Your Research:  Don’t just look at the company website.  Social media will give you much better insight into the culture of the organization.  Look at what they post on Twitter or Facebook.  Check out their videos.  Also look at independent sites such as Glass Door to see feedback from employees.

Network:  Even with social media there is some level of company control over messages.  Talk to current and former employees.  Leverage your Linked In connections and alumni contacts to identify contacts who can tell you what it is like to work there.  Ask them why they chose to join the company.  What keeps them there?  What do they like most about their work there?  What do they like the least?

Observe:  Arrive a few minutes early for your interview.  While you are waiting in the lobby pay attention to how employees interact with one another.  If there is no interaction, that certainly tells you something about the culture.

Pay Attention to Heavy Emphasis:  If everyone you talk to in the interview process mentions the pool table in the lounge or the summer outing, you should do more probing.  If they are all talking about the same thing is the emphasis on the wrong things?  Do their actions support the scripted message?

Before you decide to spend several years of your career with a company, it is critical to gain insight into the culture to determine if this is a place where you would choose to spend your days.



Interview Feedback – Believe it or Not

You just can’t make this stuff up!  I often hear interview feedback that is hard to believe but unfortunately things happen.  Hopefully you can learn what not to do from these stories while I’m confident some will make you chuckle.

Make Yourself Comfortable   – An employer called to inform me that he would not be hiring the student they just interviewed.  While disappointed, I wanted to use it as a learning opportunity so I asked why.  The hiring manager was upset that the candidate put his feet on the manager’s desk during the interview.  I called the student to my office and asked how the interview went.  The student thought he had all the right answers but said he got a bad “vibe” from the manager as the interview ended.  I had to ask more detailed questions and was told “yes, I put my feet up on his desk.  He told me to make myself comfortable.”  Apparently the student did not realize that “make yourself comfortable” means it is ok to remove your jacket or even loosen your tie.

Expletive Not Deleted – In an interview you are putting your best forward to convince the hiring manager that you are the best person for their open position.  I had never occurred to me that we had to specifically tell students not to swear in an interview.  Clearly I was wrong.  I had a distraught employer share feedback that a student had used inappropriate language several times during the course of the interview.  When asked, the student explained that the hiring manager talked about the collaborative work environment so he felt he should just be himself.  Professionalism is certainly expected in most business settings and always in the interview.

White Socks –  We spend time in career management class talking about appropriate professional business attire.  We work to be very clear about our expectations to ensure that students are meeting the expectations of our employers.  You can imagine my horror when I saw a student leaving the interview room with an impeccable, well pressed suit, coordinating shirt and tie, and bright white socks.  I called the student to my office and closed the door.  The student was quick to explain that they were brand new socks.  He bought them for the interview to ensure that they were as clean and bright as possible.  We reviewed the dress code again.  He still thought he had done the right thing and asked if it mattered.  I asked him, “Do you want to be remembered for your experience and skills or for wearing white socks to the interview? “ I never saw him in white socks again.

Weakness with Emphasis – Students are often asked the question “what are your weaknesses?”  We practice that one in class so they are comfortable talking about a developmental area and how they are making progress in that area.  An employer asked that question of a student and she explained that she has a habit of never finishing anything.  She went on in great detail to talk about the closet full of unfinished projects and how after getting started she loses interest and doesn’t go back to a project.  Instead she starts something new and then adds to her collection of unfinished projects.  Not only did she go into significantly more detail than was appropriate she also failed to positively talk about how she was overcoming the issue.  Worse still, she didn’t consider the key skills required for the job – it was a project management job and keeping multiple projects on track and making progress was critical to success in the role.

Overstating Your Abilities – Anything on the resume is fair game and candidates should be expected to be asked about it in an interview.  One student listed proficiency in Mandarin on her resume.  Little did she know that the interview was fluent in Mandarin.  When asked a question in Mandarin, she was unable to answer.  Her credibility was blown early in the interview.  Another student claimed Advanced Excel skills.  When asked by the hiring manager questions about pivot tables and V lookup, the student was not able to respond.  Your credibility is too important to risk it by overstating your skills.

Legal Mumbo Jumbo – Some job applications ask if you were ever convicted of a felony.  It is critical that you answer honestly.  I had a student respond no on the application but the background report showed a conviction.  While there was an explanation and the conviction was eventually cleared, the company would not even consider the student for the job because of integrity issues.  You have to be honest.  If he had disclosed the conviction on the application is would not have been an issue.

Thank You Note Nightmare – I am a strong advocate of the importance of writing thank you notes.  Usually employers are very impressed when they receive thank you notes from our students.  While visiting an employer I had my first sense of doom when he said he wanted to show me a thank you note he received from a student.  My stomach sank as he reached into his drawer.  At the top of the note, his name was spelled incorrectly, crossed out, spelled incorrectly again, crossed out again, and spelled a third time incorrectly.  His reaction was two-fold – clearly attention to detail was an issue for the student but he also felt insulted that he wasn’t worth a fresh notecard instead of sending the note with two crossouts.  Definitely not how you make a positive impression.

Lack of Focus – While candidates should be selling themselves in their interviews, managers continue to report examples of students emphatically stating that they hate the functional area they are working for, the industry the company is in, or the type of work they would be asked to do.  It is important to review your feelings before you decide to apply for the job.  When in an interview you should know what is important in that job and not go out of your way to tell them you don’t like doing that.  Be positive.

Star Attire – We are very clear with our students that professional business attire is a suit.  One young woman with a strong desire to stand out in the crowd chose to wear a glittered mid-riff top under her suit jacket.  Employers to not want to see glimpses of her stomach during the interview and certainly questioned how she would dress in front of clients or prospects.  She stood out but not in the way she intended.