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“Figure shit out and make things work”
Encouraged by the huge success of Tech Titans I, on 30th March movemeon held a second instalment. Speakers from Pockit, UENI and JustEat kindly joined our founder, Nick, to answer audience questions about joining a start-up. In this article, you’ll find a summary of their excellent advice.
Ben Sanders, COO of Pockit, Melanie Aley, Senior Product and Partnership Manager at UENI and WenLin Soh, UK Head of Delivery at JustEat
“Figure shit out”
Q1: When it comes to start-ups, it can be very hard to understand a job from the outside in (especially from a consulting background), based on what it is on paper. What consulting skills have you found most useful for your new roles, and what aspects of your job did you least expect?
All of the speakers agreed that the first thing you should do is ignore what the role/company is on paper. As Melanie explained from personal experience, start-ups change so rapidly that by the time you start the job your focus could be completely different from what was described when you applied. In a similar vein, Ben found consultants’ stake-holder management skills most useful, as they make for an ability to move things along fast. Wen approached the question from the start-up’s point of view: the consulting skills that are most useful to businesses are often the seemingly menial ones. Consultants’ aptitude at Power Point and Excel. Their ability to write short, concise emails with sections and bullet points instead of long rambling paragraphs. Their clear communication skills, and the fact that they are used to being thrown into different and often hostile environments. This means they can “figure shit out and make things work”.
As for challenges, Melanie found the need to get your hands dirty the biggest culture shock. Ben‘s biggest surprise was how long the everyday, nitty-gritty tasks take, and how many there are. Consultants are by training very good at coming up with a vision and a high-level strategy, but don’t realise how many steps are involved in getting to that vision. What Wen least expected was how much more uniformly motivated consultants are compared to the wide spectrum of motivation you find in industry.
Q2: Many of the people in the room are consultants because they want to get things done. That is much harder in a large-scale company, so joining a start-up definitely makes sense. But when picking that start-up/a role in one, how do you work out whether you’ll actually fit in and enjoy the work?
The answers were, once more, very similar. Wen’s experience is that it’s the interview that really gives you a sense of whether you could and would like to work in that start-up. So try to get to interview before you make up your mind. As for deciding where to even apply based on roles on paper, focus on picking jobs you could plausibly do. However, there is a quasi-caveat – women need to remember to apply even if they feel like they are only 50% qualified because a man with the same skills will believe he is 100% qualified and apply. This ties in with one of our own articles about application patterns by gender – have a look if you’d like to find out more.
In Ben’s words, don’t question whether you can do it (too much); jump in. Articulate what you want to be able to make the role to the people interviewing you – progression will, after all, determine your enjoyment of your role. To decide whether you’d fit in in the first place, work out your compatibility with your direct supervisor and the people you are going to be working with. If you can tell the interview is going well, ask to meet people from the team, and try to talk to as many as possible. Melanie also backed up this advice, arguing that it’s best talk to as many people as possible and ask them the strategy, the biggest risks and the goals of the start-up. If you get too many different answers, there are probably problems with the company, even if the people are great!
Our very own Nick highlighted that start-up teams are built around the people instead of rigid job descriptions, so just show that you can offer something and have leadership tweak the role to you.
“Be shameless but polite”
Q3: If you want to work for a start-up, how can you reach out – aside from applying through movemeon, of course?
When it comes to start-ups like Pockit, growing fast so constantly hiring, the best thing is to contact someone directly on LinkedIn. But Ben warned would-be applicants that it’s not enough to just reach out with a generic email. Show what you can offer and why you are interested – and show it pretty quickly as most popular start-ups get a lot of emails! Melanie had a similar warning – use your network, but know when to stop. Pushing and pushing when a start-up clearly isn’t interested is not likely to work out well for you.
Following up on this, Wen described the correct approach as shameless but polite – offer to take people out for coffee and pitch your meeting as wanting to learn about their business – or even helping it overcome a problem you’ve identified! However, when it comes to coffees, there is way to do a chat & way really not to according to Ben. What you should really not do is the “so tell me about Pockit” approach. Instead, show your interest. Come prepared, having researched the company/app/industry. If you are just trying to work out whether working in a start-up would be right for you, don’t waste start-up time and yours. Only ask for a coffee chat if you really are passionate.
Q4: I went from management consulting to investing – what do you think makes a good tech investor?
Ben and Wen agreed that the key is that the investor should bring more to the start-up than just money. If they have a network they can leverage for the business, great. Or they could just give people a kick up the bum at the right time. But there should definitely be a personality fit, and they should be hands-off, not micro-manage, and really believe in the vision and values of the company.
Q5: How interested are start-ups in using freelance consultant for short-term tasks?
All three speakers agreed that this depends on the stage the start-up is at. (Would you be a pro-bono freelancer for a start-up with no cash?) Companies that have a lot of money and a specific need might turn to freelancers – this is actually one ways that Wen has previously worked for a start-up, so it can happen! According to Ben, this need will often have to do with marketing or product, which is where most start-ups struggle to find good people. It won’t be strategy, as a whole consultant just for strategy is considered a luxury by most start-ups. In Melanie’s experience, it will often be to do with a specific growth initiative, when there is the money to really drive distinct projects.
We hope you found the event as insightful and enjoyable as we did. Feel free to get in touch with us by following the instructions on our contacts page if you have any questions or feedback!
Feedback from the evening:
“I had a really positive experience with movemeon – with the gig I got, and also with the applications where I didn’t actually end up getting the job”
Looking for more start-up advice?
How do you define “company culture”? The atmosphere that is created by how people behave when at work. So what’s a “good culture”? An atmosphere in which people are happy and able to do their best.