Want to Accelerate Your Learning Curve? Work Hard, Be Patient, and Join a Startup

It was May, 2016, my sixth year at a company in which I had grown quite fond. A meeting was added to my calendar. I went. End of story.

Just kidding. I’ll continue…

The meeting was with our Chief Heart Officer (the company had recently gotten a Chief Heart Officer), Claude. A lovely woman who garnered most everyone’s admiration and respect, I was excited to finally get to meet her.

Now, rather than have you try and guess where this story is going, let me just explain that this meeting went extremely well.

In fact, aside from the usual meet-and-greet, I received what she referred to as an ‘off-cycle’ raise — a hefty sum added to my yearly salary on top of the regularly issued annual raise I had just received that past November.

Not too shabby, Steve.

I was blindsided by this news, but in a good way! It was well beyond anything I anticipated or expected from such an encounter.

As I looked on in bewilderment and sheer amaze, Claude gave me her rationale:

“You’re the bricks of this company,” she said. “You’re part of its foundation and you deserve to be compensated.”

“I thought this article was about accelerated learning,” you’re probably thinking to yourself about now. Well, before we get too far ahead of ourselves here, let me just tell you what she said next:

“You’ve been here 6 years. That’s incredible. I’m sure you’ve seen so much. You probably feel like you have two Ph.D.’s.”

And that’s when it dawned on me. This wasn’t charity. I had earned this raise a long time ago and, if anything, the company was just catching up.

About Those Two Ph.D.’s…

To fully understand the thoughts that were passing through my mind as all of the above transpired, we first need to turn back the clocks to 2010.

Two years removed from higher learning at the time (where I admittedly hadn’t even earned a real Ph.D.), I found myself driving all over the state (as well as a few neighboring ones) in search of a job.

But the job market was atrocious.

In fact, there was no job market at all in America at the time. Unemployment was a staggering 10%. I found myself interviewing up against men and women who had tens of years worth of more experience than I. There was nothing to be done. The country was in a “Great Recession.”

Great.

So, I decided to think smaller. I started looking at startups.

I had little interest in venturing all the way out to Silicon Valley at the time, so I figured I’d focus my efforts on Silicon Alley instead.

Nothing. Nothing I felt I was qualified for, anyway. At least on paper.

I needed experience on my résumé. So, I decided to manufacture some…

What I did next was build my personal brand.

I started actively trying to grow a following on Twitter and LinkedIn, I began writing a Social Branding Blog (which you can read all about here), I started networking in different forums and communities… I started doing all the little things I thought might help separate myself in an interview.

Then, as fate would have it, I came across a CEO and startup company I knew would find all of these things valuable: Gary Vaynerchuk of VaynerMedia.

I sent a very candid email stating that I was a fan of their work (I had been following Gary for a while, having read his first book Crush It!) and asking if there was anything I could do to help their cause, internship or otherwise.

I even attached my newly reworked résumé.

No dice. They thanked me for reaching out but ultimately mentioned how there weren’t any current openings at the time.

Then, I got another response, in which I was offered an unpaid internship. As I would come to learn later, they were impressed with my social presence.

I took the opportunity, borrowed money from my family, and moved to New York City, where I had never been, but could afford to live and work for 60 days.

And that’s what I did. Despite being told I could come in at 10 AM and leave at 5 PM, I showed up to work from 7 AM to 7 PM every single day. (I tried my best to, at least…)

At the end of my 60 days, I was offered a full-time position as employee number ten. My starting salary? Less than half of what I ever thought I’d make coming right out of school.

I accepted without hesitation. The experience itself was worth it in my mind.

Then, I proceeded to grow, with the company, at an accelerated pace over the next six and a half years, and I emerged with “what felt like two Ph.D.’s.”

Startups: They Tend to Have a Lot of Upside

Over that short period of time (which seems even shorter anytime I meet somebody who’s retired or has worked at a company for 20-plus years), I underwent seven title shifts and five promotions.

I worked on dozens of accounts. Fortune 500 companies. Global brands.

The company, based in Manhattan, also relocated its office headquarters (because, frankly, we ran out of room) five times under my watch. There were over 700 employees there by the time I left.

There was a lot of change, and certainly a lot of growth.

That’s a lot of transitioning for what was just a small, ten-person startup not that long ago, and I’ll be the first to admit that it’s definitely lightyears above the norm.

But, no matter the circumstance (now we’re getting to the really valuable part), startups are great for accelerated learning — and I truly believe that — because of a few key reasons…

3 Reasons You Should Consider Working for a Startup:

1.Everyone has tremendous responsibility. Even as an intern, I didn’t spend time getting coffee. I was handed the keys to some major accounts.

2. Everyone wears a lot of hats. In a startup, there’s no time to define hyper-specific roles. Everyone does everything at any given time.

3. You work harder, faster, longer. Startups are bred to do more with less, and in less time. That said, 10-plus hour days still tend to be common.

Now, when you work for a company like the one I did, then you can bet that all of these things are true to the absolute extreme. However, I believe they’re also true of the average startup — on some level — as well, because they all share one inherent thing: they’re practical.

When you work at a startup, you don’t often have a creative department at your disposal, much less a dedicated design team. If you need to post an image on a client’s Facebook page, you make it yourself in Photoshop. If you don’t have Photoshop, you figure out how to get Photoshop (or a free alternative). And once you get it, if you don’t know how to use it, you learn.

This is true of specific tasks as it is of entire workflows and processes. You often have incredible freedom in this environment to accomplish tasks however you please. And if you’re successful, people around you notice.

Startups are chaotic, yes, but there’s hardly an environment better suited for fast-paced learning and general growth.

At a startup, you can be in your mid-twenties and already be managing a team. Hell, you can even carry a title like Director or VP.

Startups are practical. They do more with less. They come up with unscalable ideas and then execute on them anyway to gain any sort of upside or competitive advantage they can.

You can learn an awful lot in an environment like that, and sometimes you don’t even realize it until much later because of how fast you’re moving.

The pay is bad, sure, but you generally expect that when you sign up, and it stays that way for a while. A startup company may not even have an HR department at first, much less a 401k. But if you’re lucky, the company will succeed, grow, and you’ll end up with those things and more.

When you find success, the company scales, new departments get created, you go through funding rounds, you go on a hiring spree… the organization grows and you and your experience grow with it.

Then, one day, you lift up your head and realize you’ve been grinding for six and a half years, and your hard work and patience finally pays off.


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