'Don’t Show Up Empty-handed' and Other Tips for Finding the Right Job at a Startup

New Book: Finding a job at a startup is not the same process as hunting employment at an established business. Titles? Who needs titles?! Jeffrey Bussgang's new book, Entering StartUpLand, is an essential guide for getting a job and being productive at a new company. Includes book excerpt.
  • Author Interview

Starting with a Startup

Interview by Sean Silverthorne

Plenty of books offer advice about how to start a business, interview for a job, or develop a career, but Jeffrey Bussgang’s new work offers something else: a methodological approach specifically on how to find work at a startup.

Entering StartUpLand: An Essential Guide to Finding the Right Job explains the unique opportunities and challenges that can come at a new company. Are you cut out to be an effective contributor in a chaotic and pressure-filled atmosphere? How does a career progress in a quickly developing enterprise? How do you find the right job? What are startup owners looking for in job candidates?

Bussgang is a good person to listen to on the subject. In addition to experience as an entrepreneur and consultant, he is a senior lecturer in the Entrepreneurial Management Unit at Harvard Business School and a general partner at Flybridge Capital Partners, an early-stage venture capital firm. He studies lean startups and the strategy and management challenges faced by founders. Bussgang also teaches the Launching Technology Ventures course. 

Sean Silverthorne: How did you come up with the idea of writing a book for joiners of startups?

Jeffrey Bussgang Over the years, students in my HBS course would ask me the same questions about how to navigate their way into startups. I began to realize that while there was a growing amount of quality information and resources for founders, there was little for joiners.

Silverthorne: How much difference is there in finding a job with a startup versus joining a more established company? What’s different, what’s the same?

Bussgang Unlike more established companies, startups are less likely to have structured hiring processes but are also more likely willing to take risks with a younger, less experienced executive. What’s the same: your personal narrative as to why you’re a good fit for the role and the company needs to be compelling.

Silverthorne: What are the top two or three warnings you would give to startup job seekers?

Bussgang First, don’t come in cold. Pursue a warm introduction, even if it takes a little extra time. Second, don’t show up empty-handed. Come bearing “gifts”–i.e., insights into their business so you can be articulate about both their challenges and opportunities.

Silverthorne: Can you generalize to say who is cut out to be in a startup and who is not?

Bussgang I look for three attributes: a) comfort with uncertainty and ambiguity; b) an owner’s mindset–always thinking big picture, caring and willing to invest in the overall success of the company; and c) test the limits–always pushing on assumptions and thinking about how something can be improved.

Silverthorne:  Entering Startupland includes a methodology for identifying and evaluating opportunities at startups. In general, what’s the best advice you can give here?

Bussgang Have a strategy in your approach. Map out the best companies that fit your criteria: city, domain, and stage, and then go find the handful of winners that meet these criteria.

Silverthorne: You’ve had a varied and successful career: VC, two-time entrepreneur, consultant, and now teacher. What’s the best career advice you have for your readers?

Bussgang Follow your passion. Don’t do something because others think you should or because it’s what you think people like you should be doing. Do what you love and everything else will work itself out.

What do you think about this book?

What tips can you offer to find a job at a startup?

  • Book Excerpt

Roles and Titles

from: Entering StartUpLand: An Essential Guide to Finding the Right Job
by Jeffrey Bussgang

Particular roles and titles can be a messy topic in StartUpLand, and being aware of this up front can reduce some of the confusion you’re bound to encounter in your job search.

First, at a company just starting out—in the jungle—everyone needs to be comfortable doing all different things. Functional boundaries and definitions are constantly changing. As a result, early-stage companies may forgo job titles for a while. In fact, I recommend this approach. To explain why, here is an excerpt from a blog post I wrote on the subject, called “Why You Should Eliminate Titles at Startups”:

Because a startup is so fluid, roles change, responsibilities evolve, and reporting structures move around. Titles represent friction, pure and simple, and the one thing you want to reduce in a startup is friction. By avoiding titles, you avoid early employees getting fixated on their role, who they report to, and what their scope of responsibility is—all things that rapidly change in a company’s first year or two.

For example, one of my first bosses in the company later became a peer, and then later still reported to me. Our headcount went from 0 to 200 in two years. Our revenue grew from 0 to $60m in 3 years. We went public only two years after the company was founded. We were moving way too fast to get slowed down by titles and rigid hierarchies. Over the course of my five-year tenure, I ran a range of departments—product management, marketing, business development, professional services—all in a very dynamic environment. Around the time that we went public, we matured in such a way that we began to settle into a more stable organizational structure and, yes, had formal titles. But during those formative first few years, avoiding titles provided a more nimble organization.

In other words, when you are approaching a young startup, expect loosely defined roles and some dynamism and flexibility. Titles and functional units can create rigidity: No, no, no. I don’t do that. I’m in the marketing department, or I’m the Director of Sales, so that’s not something I would handle. As a company grows, the distinctions can cause even more problems: I thought I was the VP of Engineering, but now we’ve grown and I only manage a third of Engineering.

After growing to twenty or thirty people, however, or after the first year or two, the company will probably start to need titles. What titles exist at a startup can be a clue as to what stage it is at in its development. Even then, it’s often more about the individual and about the company than it is about matching the titles in larger corporations. If I am trying to recruit you and you have ten years of relevant experience, I’m going to have to be aggressive to lure you in. I might have to give you a VP title to get you to join the company. If you’re fresh out of school, I don’t have to make you a VP; I can call you a director, or simply a product manager. It tends to be more individual-based than role-based. Being the VP of Product at one company may involve the exact same work that is being done by the Director of Product or a product manager or even a senior product manager in another company, but one may have more experience than the other, which allows him or her to earn a bigger title coming into a startup.

The title is often a signal of what is expected of the individual when the company grows rather than what the job looks like at that moment. In other words, if you expect the employee to be an executive team member throughout the jungle, the dirt road, and the highway phases, she might be designated a VP. If you expect that a more senior person will be hired above her as the company scales, she might be designated a director.

The Organization Chart

It is helpful to know how a typical startup is organized so that you can navigate your way around the organizational chart (org chart) and move into a position that is right for you. There are a few models. First, there’s the functional work chart where each major function reports directly to the chief executive officer (CEO). Those major functions typically are Engineering, Product, Business Development, Marketing, Growth, Sales, and Finance, and each function has various sub departments. In this book, I will cover each of these major functional areas, including the growth function, which sometimes is a direct report to the CEO and sometimes sub department of either Product, Marketing, or Engineering. I do not cover Engineering because that function, and how products get developed at startups, is so expertly covered in many other books.

There are a few variations of a startup org chart. In smaller companies, not every function may be filled (e.g., the sales and finance departments typically get filled in the dirt-road stage, after the product is fully developed and ready to be sold) and each of these has various sub departments.

How the people are distributed across each function also varies over time. In the early jungle days, the focus of the organization is on building the initial product, so most of the initial employees will be in the product organization. In other cases, particularly once a company finds its product/market fit and is in the dirt road phase (after the product is fully developed and is ready to be sold), the focus of the organization tends to shift more toward adding more staff in Sales and Marketing so the company can begin to scale revenue. Sales and Finance are typically filled in the dirt-road stage…

In a growing startup, it’s important to know who the founders are and what roles they play. Their titles may not match the typical pattern either in a startup or in the world of a large corporation. Misunderstanding the founder’s role can result in internal political missteps. For example, a founder or cofounder may not have anyone reporting to them, but be very influential in determining product strategy. Beyond that, just know that job titles may vary wildly from one company to another.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Entering StartUpLand: An Essential Guide to Finding the Right Job . Copyright 2017 Jeffrey Bussgang. All rights reserved.

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