Wanna Join a Start-up? Check these Out!
By Dilip Saraf on 22 Feb 2015
Having a career coaching practice in the Silicon Valley has its demands! Although I have clients in 23 countries, it is only some (about 10%) from the Silicon Valley who engage me have the desire to either start their own venture or to join one. This is not to suggest that those in geographies outside the San Francisco area do not yearn to go into start-ups or to launch their own venture; it merely means that they find other avenues to seek guidance when they do. Many career professionals, after being in the corporate jobs see the glamorous world of successful start-ups and yearn to be part of that action, filled with adventure, excitement, and occasionally, lots of money, if every thing goes right for them!
It is easy to see a fresh graduate or an MBA finding themselves a partner from the dorm or final-year business project launching a venture to try out an idea, while their curiosity is still fired up and their risk tolerance is high. However, when one gets in their mid-career, having mostly spent their professional years collecting W-2s (annual tax forms to file with your IRS returns to report your annual salary), I ask them some tough questions to qualify them for getting into the start-up world. Here is what I look for:
1. Career Arc: If you have stayed in one (or just a few companies) during the past 15 years (you are now in your early 40s) then the mere “optics” of your career is against your being seen as “start-up-ready” candidate for your first venture. This does not mean that you cannot have an idea worth pursuing at that age, it merely means that you must have that idea so compelling and so well fleshed out that your odds of success and the time it takes to achieve it are in your favor. Despite the common misapprehension the median age for an entrepreneur is not 25, but it is 39-1/2.
2. History: Despite your Gold Medal or being the class valedictorian your past must show your penchant for adventure. Although brain smarts are mere table stakes to be a part of a start-up team, it alone is not enough. You must demonstrate more. What does this mean? Did you have a business during your high school or college days? Did you take an idea to create some business that may or may not have been successful? Whom did you associate with in your early days? Even writing a regular blog on a topic of interest and establishing yourself as some authority in some technology/business areas can be seen as having entrepreneurial spirit.
3. Resilience: Early stage start-ups go through major shifts in how they change their mission (“pivoting”) as they learn what works and what needs work. Showing grit and resilience in your past is a critical factor in your being seen as someone the start-up team can count on to withstand and deal with the uncertainty that is integral to the start-up zeitgeist. So, during your interviews if you are able to showcase how you bounced back in adversity this can be a plus in your being seen as your being a potentially valuable member of a start-up team.
4. The Grrr Factor: This has to do with your ability to not get bullied by those who have the power or the authority to bully you. Holding your ground in adversity is a critical element of having the courage of your convictions. This factor must come through as the interviewers challenge you in your statements and you are able to hold your ground with conviction.
5. Curiosity: Most start-ups succeed because they challenge the status quo and shift paradigms of technology, applications, and business. Elon Musk of Tesla and Space-X challenges every assumption that conventional businesses base their existence on. When it came to justifying his new $4B factory for battery manufacturing he and his team challenged every assumption about the costs of different parts of a battery that goes into its BoM (nearly 80% of it) and realized that different assumptions helped them reduce that cost almost by a factor of 10.
6. Swagger/Humility Balance: Although start-up founders need to be confident and convinced of their idea they must not come across as “know-it-alls.” Swagger can be seductive, but arrogance a turn-off. In a start-up during its early stages so much is unknown and so much must be improvised that unless one is able to swallow their pride, pivot quickly, and admit their learning (“mistakes”) a start-up can go no where. So, learn how to show humility, if you have already mastered the swagger part.
7. Ethos: Each start-up team has a unique ethos. For that team to bring another member in its fold they must make sure that the new member is compatible, so as not to disturb the team’s fabric and how it works without communicating every aspect of their functioning. In a start-up this is very important, as not every aspect of the intent can be articulated, communicated, and disseminated. Yet, the core spirit of the start-up team is something that can be sensed unmistakably. Sensing what that is and then assessing if you can thrive in that environment can be a critical factor in choosing the right start-up and making a go of it.
The above factors are just a partial list. Not all items that are required to be qualified as a start-up or founding team member can be articulated, but this list should be a wake-up call to those who are thinking of quitting their W-2 jobs to join a start-up!