ITEA presentation

Last week, I was invited to speak to an audience of international students at the 2016 International Talent Event Amsterdam (ITEA). The goal of this event is to help young people figure out how they want to start their careers, and my job was to give them an idea of why they might (or might not) want to pursue life at a tech startup.

Startup Q&A

I presented alongside Ruben Nieuwenhuis of StartupAmsterdam and Mariette Ruggenberg of Upstarter, both Dutch natives and veterans of the Amsterdam startup community. My story was a bit different, as I’m an American who before now had only worked in Silicon Valley. I’m also an engineer, which is a very different perspective from life as a startup founder.

My Background

As for my story, the first part of my career focused on huge enterprise organizations - we’re talking corporate behemoths like McAfee, Microsoft, Intel and VMware. The second was focused solely on early-stage startups - companies you’ve probably never heard of working out of a tiny co-working space in the Mission district of San Francisco.

So, what is my advice for students considering a startup?

Find out what founding or working for a startup really means

Myth 1: Funding comes first

Q: I have an idea. How do I get funding to build my business?

A: By building your business.

Unless you are well-known to investors or are a serial entrepreneur, you will need a prototype up and running and your founding team put together before you ask for funding. This is the time where you rent out your mother’s basement, survive on ramen noodles, and work your ass off for free until you have something that makes an investor think, “ok, these guys are at least worth a shot.”

Sure it’s hard work, but so is anything worth doing.

Myth 2: You don’t need to be technical

This one isn’t necessarily a myth, but think of it this way: You have two choices. You can spend months or years searching for that special someone who will build your dream for free (and possibly never find them), or you can spend a few weeks teaching yourself a bit of JavaScript.

If it were up to me, I’d learn that JavaScript. Being “technical” does not mean that you need a PhD in compiler design. You can hire experienced engineers to clean up your mess once your idea gets off the ground. And for that, all you need to learn are the basics - just enough to get a working prototype out into the world.

Myth 3: You must be a designer, coder, or growth hacker

A couple of law students asked this question during our panel: “I’m a lawyer, but startups don’t really hire lawyers. Should I learn to code?”

This struck me as an odd question, seeing as every startup I’ve ever come into contact with has in fact hired lawyers. They just haven’t hired full-time lawyers on staff. (Though I’m sure legal startups like fixed certainly do.)

If you’re not looking for a career switch, don’t feel like you need to change paths just to fit into the “startup box.” Broaden your view to the entire ecosystem that thrives in places like Silicon Valley to support the growth of small business.

Are you a lawyer? Check out firms that specialize in helping small businesses get off the ground. Are you a marketing professional? Plenty of agencies contract with tiny startups before they’ve grown large enough for an internal marketing team. And of course, if you’re a recent MBA, you can always try your hand at the venture capital game.

Myth 4: Startups are better than big companies (or vice-versa)

The awesome and irritating part about this is that it’s 100% up to you. To figure out which is “better,” you just need to figure out what you want from your next job.

Both startups and big companies come with pros and cons, and you’ll need to weigh those options against your current career goals. For example, big companies are known for offering generous salaries, growth opportunities, and senior mentorship - but also for prohibitive bureaucracy and skill stagnation. A startup, on the other hand, will give you the opportunity to take on new roles every day, and there’s no question that your work will make an impact. But with that usually comes a drop in salary, free time, and job stability.

TL;DR: Your career is what you make of it

Startups and large enterprise companies both have their place, and eventually one will morph into the other (hello Google and Facebook). So students, stop stressing! Building your career is a lifelong process, and you have time to pursue both worlds. In fact, I’d argue that the more experience you have in all sorts of career environments, the more valuable of an employee (and human being) you will be.