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In the last couple of weeks, I’ve met with 3 people who want to leave professional services for start-ups. All were graduates from top universities. All are about 5 years into a successful career. One is a ‘magic circle’ lawyer. Another is an asset manager. The third is a management consultant. Each of them had recently looked at their boss and their boss’s boss and thought “I don’t want to do that”.

So what did they want to do? They wanted to join a start-up. They wanted to join one because they wanted freedom (from a large corporate structure), real responsibility (for producing and selling a product), excitement (being part of something that’s new and growing) and to be part of a small team. Ultimately they all wanted to ‘do’ and not to ‘advise’. And they came to me to ask ‘how?’.

The problem with landing a job in a ‘start-up’ is that none of them had experience in a ‘start-up’ or indeed a ‘business’ (as opposed to an advisory firm). So to get hired you need to have someone take a gamble on you. That’s the most important thing to keep in mind.

Here’s the advice I gave them in order to find someone to take that gamble.

A genuine start-up won’t hire you

This is why I’ve been shrouding start-up in inverted commas. I think of start-ups as very young companies: let’s say 1 to 20 employees including founders. Any start-up founder will tell you that their first hires are for core business functions: sales, marketing, product development, accounting, admin. And that they hire people with great track records in those functions; which none of these guys has. So unless you can co-found the venture, you’re unlikely to land a job.

A young, fast-growing company will hire you

I think of these as ‘adolescent’ companies. They are beyond start-up but still have that vibe (young, exciting, non-bureaucratic, everyone wears jeans). Often VC-backed having raised their 2nd or 3rd rounds of funding. They need to hire smart people to develop the business (think international expansion, new product areas). They also need people to take the load off the founders. This week we met with a new ‘adolescent’ client who said: “Smart people can make their own kingdoms here. And that’s great for the business. It doesn’t matter if the person has no experience in ‘marketing’ or ‘sales’. Smart people will pick that up quickly. (There are many other things you can also do to improve your chances of being hired) The 3 most important things for us are: are they smart; are they entrepreneurial and ambitious; and will they fit in with our culture.”

Networking is key to finding these companies

By their very definition, they are unlikely to be household names. So you’re not going to visit their website and search their job opportunities! You need to meet everyone and anyone you know and ask for introductions. We’ve written an article on 5 major networking mistakes to avoid them

These companies might be winning awards

And that means you can find a long list of them and directly email the ones that interest you.

They’ll want to see that you can ‘do stuff’

If you are in professional advisory services – and even if you haven’t been there for very long – you have already been pigeon-holed as a ‘thinker’ and not a ‘do-er’. So you must be able to prove that you can ‘do’ as well as ‘think’. Two things will help

  1. have an active life outside of work; keep up your hobbies, organise events, join clubs;
  2. tailor your CV to show what you’ve done at work – you might be surprised how different this looks to the current version.

They’ll need to see that you’re passionate about start-ups and their space

So make sure you are clued up and have a genuine interest and track record to demonstrate that interest. You may need to quit your job and go and do internships (possibly unpaid) in start-ups to demonstrate that you’re really keen and committed and also now have some direct experience.

Adjust your salary expectations

Start-ups are more often than not, un-profitable. Some of them may not even have any revenue (yet). Secondly, start-up jobs are hugely over-subscribed. The net result is that they won’t – or are very unlikely to – pay you what you were earning in professional services. So adjust your expectations and also think about your wider package (e.g, work-life balance, how much you enjoy your job, options to grow with the company, equity, bonuses, commissions, free beer, a trendy office etc etc.)

Put a really awesome application together

As I’ve just said, these jobs are incredibly popular. And they are popular with really exceptional candidates. Trust me when I say that there will be many other people from top universities and big brand employers applying for good start-up jobs. So please make sure that you really take the time to tailor your application and bring it to life.

If you liked this, we have a number of start-up based articles that you can find below:

What happens to your salary when you leave consulting for a start-up? 

6 tips on how to break into the start-up scene – by Pockit COO 

Are you ready to work for a fast-growth start-up? 


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