Over two years ago, as a fresh graduate desperate to make an impression that will get me through the sky shattering career path that I always wanted, I took a volunteer job at a TV station and matched it with an internship at a startup.
A startup is a young company that is just beginning to develop, and as with anything that is young, there were enough challenges to help me decide whether to consider growing with a startup, or set my eyes on the bigger companies.
In my first month at the media consulting start-up, the job was heavy on research and I didn’t understand the purpose of bringing results on some of the things I was asked to research. While this was an interesting starting point, I did not find immediate value in what I was doing.
I asked many questions, like, how does summarizing articles written by and about female entrepreneurs bring any value to the company? How will a research on the number of operating dry cleaning agencies in Nigeria bring additional income to the business? or even, how will a research on agricultural apps in Africa and finding those that created them help raise my salary after three months?
I was genuinely confused and questioned if an internship meant that I will be kept busy for the sake of it.
As I progressed, I began to understand that if our client was to launch a dry cleaning business, it was important to know competitors, what they are doing right and what our client cannot afford to do. If we needed to market an agricultural product in Africa, we needed a list of apps that were doing well in the sector and partner!
The open system meant that I had access to read emails on campaigns that performed less than expected or how a client was short pricing a service, and why a lesser fee could be a big deal in the long run. We scrapped creative services that were not in demand. My ideas mattered and I was cautioned on mistakes, but allowed to make them and learn from them.
In the space of three months, I developed work confidence that enabled me complete more challenging tasks and lead major projects to success. Personally, I doubt that I would have led some of the very exciting projects if I were to start at a bigger company. A bigger company means a climb through levels and having to learn skills as this progression happens. A startup allows the opportunity to thrive rapidly, sometimes learning many skills at once.
In many cases, a startup will teach you how to grow very fast. It will teach you enough to be self-sufficient, to be prepared to attack failure (if you choose to use the word), but most importantly, it will teach you to grow!
While my immediate advice to a job seeker will be to give the startup job a try, the reality is that working at startups can be very complicated. In my experience at startups, I have seen employees start passionate to achieve the vision they are employed to pursue, but the lack of structure, the ‘start then scratch and start again’ method, the uncertainty of place or future of the business might lead to a few resignation letters. Even with no other job to run to.
While sending that CV, it is important to be certain about your career goals and your personality type, and how a startup can help you achieve a rapid growth or slow your career journey.
Courtesy of my experiences at a few startups, here are a few things you should have in mind while applying to work at a startup.
You might experience a lack of structure
Nigeria is booming with startups and as a young graduate you might run to the first opportunity that calls.While you might be packing on the corporate wears and expecting that work will require you behave in a certain way, you might not start this way at a startup.
Many people desire to experience some form of structure which is a missing factor in many startups.
Ordinarily, you should expect a standard for how things should be done at the work place. For many, starting with a structurally unsound foundation might affect general process of getting work done and if you eventually move to a bigger company, you might need to learn how to exist in a structured work environment.
It is a usual activity for those of us that do not intend to be doctors to write how we want to work at Chevron, Shell (name all the oil companies) the big banks, Google or Microsoft.
Many startups are aiming to be as big as those companies. There is hardly a long history to the name, which means if a startup is listed on your CV, you could attend an interview where the interviewer tries to figure out where your company is placed on the internet. Nobody will do that if you are coming in from Shell, First Bank or Google.
You will also find yourself contemplating a lot of things
What if I am working for a bigger company, will I earn more and do less? Will I scream TGIF and not have the work-related calls on a Saturday morning? Will I go on company sponsored trips or gain prestige when I mention my work place. Maybe my former school mates will stop trying to figure out how to pronounce the name of my company; and if I were to say something like Shell instead of a name that my startup driven boss took some time to come up with, they will not ask such deep questions like what I intend to achieve by working there.
A startup could be a territory of insecurity
You will get advice on why you are better off working for a company with a longer history or with branches in other countries so that you eventually leave Nigeria to work elsewhere. The key to overcoming all of these is to ensure that you are passionate about the dream and be confident that success is achievable, even while working at a startup.
Irregular work hours
At startups, work could go on for more than the usual Monday to Friday schedule. When your friends are posting TGIF photos, you are usually thinking of what needs to be done on the sixth day at work.
The startup situation expects a lot of sacrifice of personal time. This time could also be late nights or public holidays. Before sending your CV, you must be ready to accept that this sacrifice will be required at some point.
You might have many job titles, the idea is to get the job done
Job titles are never what they seem to be at startups. Your area of expertise could be Social media but you will find yourself doing more than a social media related job. Your operational effectiveness and how fast you can get the job done and then move to the next is very critical.
Many startups will hire a candidate with multiple skills because multitasking eventually becomes a need at startups.
Your work will not go through a repetitive circle which means your weaknesses will shine. If you take criticism personally, you might find it difficult working at a startup.
If you choose a start-up, never say “I am building another person’s dream”
Personally, I consider this a selfish statement to make. Selfish because it is only another person’s dream if you are unable to see the market problem and the solution that the startup is there to provide. It is only another person’s dream if you are not passionate to learn, to help build and to realise that your own dream needs more than you to be achieved. If you are one of those constantly thinking that by working for others, you are building another person’s dream then a startup is not where to start.
When choosing to work at a startup, be ready to be open with your ideas. If you are comfortable enough with your employer, challenge some decisions and come with solutions rather than point the problem all the time.
You never really have a boss
The interesting thing about starting my career journey at a startup was that the only other workers that I knew were the founders. They were very willing to teach me all they knew. I was to enter and treat everyone as a workmate. Titles of superiority were wiped out, we had extremely friendly chats, some days were stressful but work didn’t feel like work. While this could be good, you must know when to draw the line.
Your employer might also be unavailable most of the time, running other businesses to sustain the startup. This means that your access to approval on tasks might be limited. You must learn work independence. Most of the time, you are your own boss and that can be difficult for many young people to manage.
Be Ready to Learn and Unlearn
We have had situations where we went at goals with a clean and clear strategy and a projection for success, but it does not always work as we hope. It is easy to restart a process again and again, at startups. Failure can seem bigger than it is. Just be open about knowledge.
Always look at the startup journey in two ways: the venture could be very successful, and you go on to be a part of something that becomes really big; or you grow in your experience and move on to impact another business.
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