Not a hacker or a hipster: How I got my first start-up job
I was first introduced to start-ups as a career choice during my post-uni “I’m not getting a city job” phase. Although that’s still going strong I know a whole lot more about start-ups than I did back then.
One of the things I love about start-ups is that every founder I’ve ever spoken to wants to inspire others to build or join something exciting. They can explain that the dog years pace at early-stage companies means you learn a lot in a very short space of time. The percentage increase in employees, changing aims and customer growth means the company is constantly shifting beneath your feet. There’s always a lot more work than people available to do it so anyone can broaden their skill set. Ideas can come from anywhere in the organisation and quickly be tested.
I was completely bought in. I wanted to be part of building something too and working with lots of smart, passionate people.
The thing was at first I couldn’t find one start-up I wanted to devote the next year or so of my life to building. I also wasn’t even nearly qualified for most start-up roles (hacking and hipstering weren’t my skill set). Then I came across Crowdcube. It was start-up that existed to fuel people to grow other start-ups. I think people should do work that matters to them and wanted to be part of making that happen for those businesses. I would also get a crash course in the start-up world where I’d meet with founders, learn the rules of investment and understand the parts of the industry (VC’s, event runners, angel investors, professional “networkers”). The job was technically sales but offering money to early stage start-ups isn’t your traditional sales role. People are always pleased to hear from you.
And then they said no…
I was helping at Escape the City events a few evenings a week and signed up to work at the talk the Crowdcube founder, Luke Lang was speaking at. At the end of the event I bounced up to him and asked if they were hiring. I got his email address and promise of a reply. I felt the role was a perfect fit, though I was inexperienced, and I sent in my application. I then received this email back from their Head of Investments:
“Unfortunately, we are looking for someone with very plugged in start-up ecosystems and we feel in relation to other candidates you don’t have the same exposure as of yet.”
As I’ve said before, failing at something you really care about it is not fun.
Slightly disillusioned, I went to speak to Escape the City founder Rob wondering whether I should walk away. Maybe the role wasn’t right after all etc. Rob told me not to treat it as a no, and that I should show them I’d be capable of what they needed.
Hmmm ok. Worth a try.
Hi Head of Investments,
Key word there being ‘yet’. How about I spend this week making some calls on behalf of the company and I’ll bring you 5 warm leads for you to follow up by Thursday next week. Then, if I do, you guys can at least give me an interview for this role.”
Not totally expecting a reply. The following day I was surprised to receive this back:
Alright. You’ve won me over.
Let’s have a call next week. When suits?
After a quick phone interview I was left with 3 working days to find these leads and show how I could grow a start-up network before my interview the following week.
Types “Start-ups” into google
My initial idea was to go online and pull together a list of growing start-ups from jobs boards — hiring would imply they were scaling — and then call them up one by one to see if I could get them to agree to a phone call with someone who actually worked at Crowdcube.
After about 30 minutes of intense googling, I realised why this wouldn’t work:
- Start-ups don’t have phones. Or at least phone numbers on their website. In a previous intern role I was used to contacting big companies who have a reception and a call board to divert you to the right person. Wrongly I assumed this was the same for all companies.
- If there was an email address it would be a generic firstname.lastname@example.org. From hearing various founders talk about how everything was often on fire, I knew how unlikely it would be to get a response from the generic email within my 3 day deadline.
I sat back and looked around the coffee shop I was in near Old Street. I then started looking more closely at the people in the coffee shop. Mostly 20–35 years old, sitting on their laptops, in the middle of the day. Too old to be students but not exactly unemployed. I got up and started approaching people, opening with:
A. I wonder if you could help me out with a job interview?
B. I’m doing some research on start-up founders and was wondering if you knew anybody I could speak to?
C. Can I sit here + (A or B)
I spoke to 5 people and everyone was happy to help. I got 1 Crowdcube-able contact out of that session. (the other 2 were start-ups but one was intl. and Crowdcube was UK only, the other linked to a really well known start-up which didn’t reply to their email).
I quickly realised this technique got faster results (or rejections) and started looking for start-up events held the following day. It’s harder to be ignored by people if you’re literally in front of them. Working from this assumption I then:
- Went to Escape the City knowing they had a co-working space on the floor below. The owner, Paddy Willis, intro’d me to 3 of the cohort and I found myself in one on one conversations on the benefits of crowdfunding with the founders solely based on what I’d heard Luke say in his talk. By promising I’d find someone more knowledgeable to get back to them I got all 3 email addresses.
- Headed back to Old Street in the morning (back then I didn’t realise how prolific start-ups were there), laptop in hand and went into Pret. I started walking up to people with sticker covered macbooks and repeated the routine.
- Walked into Silicon Drinkabout and spoke to as many as people as I could handle that evening. I got a whole list of names (15+) from some incredibly interesting people. A few beers later I headed home, email addresses in hand.
After some more standard interview prep and a short interview at Crowdcube a few days later accompanied by my newly filled little black book I got taken on for the job.
I later found out that they’d already decided they would hire me after I sent that first email back saying I’d get the contacts.
Things that surprised me:
- If you talk to people around you, they’re surprisingly willing to be involved in what you’re doing if it’s interesting and not too onerous for them. Counters the general assumption that if you talk to strangers they’ll think you’re crazy.
- Apply for jobs you’re a bit under qualified for. Most job descriptions describe the perfect candidate. Those features are a wish list not a must have. This applies even more in start-ups where genuine passion for the company gets you a long way.
- If you think you really would be great at that job then it’s on you to show them why. I was apparently hired above people who had more experience because I showed that I had the initiative needed for that role.
I’ve been at Crowdcube for a year now and helped a whole host of exciting start-ups raise nearly £7 million between them. Yesterday was my last day there as I’m now moving on to something new — planning to develop my currently non-existent technical skills full time. Eventually I’d like to be building things like all those start-ups I’ve helped fund too.
I’m sad to leave behind the start-up that took me on early in my career and have pretty much made sure I can never go back to considering a corporate job.