How to Get a Job Even if You Don’t Have a College Degree
In 2014, sometime after dropping out of college (or getting kicked out, depending on whom you ask) and being dumped by my girlfriend, I started getting my first job offers and freelance clients.
I had no degree and no more than a bit of sporadic work experience from my family’s company, yet opportunities started coming my way from industries ranging from commercial real estate to technology.
I was able to get these opportunities by testing two assumptions:
1) Most job “requirements” are negotiable. What employers mean when they say “degree required” is really “value creation ability required.” They want someone who they trust will create more value for their company than they take out in wages. There are better ways to show this than a degree.
2) The common sense job getting strategies are nonsense. What worked in a world where degrees and education were scarce no longer applies when everyone and your grandma have a bachelors degree, volunteered to build a pipe in South America, and did a summer internship. When everyone is getting mediocre results doing something one way, maybe it’s time to try it another. That’s what I did.
Within a year or so I’d made over $100,000 and not long after became the Director of Marketing at a startup. Life has been a bit of a fairy tale since.
The steps I took to get from 20 year old college dropout to everything that has come my way in the past two years are simple, reproducible, and scalable as you continue you career beyond your first job.
Some may be counter-intuitive to what you’ve been taught, but what worked when I got started still works, and I’ve added considerably to it as I’ve gotten more experience in the real world.
In fact, they’re more relevant than ever.
How I Got My First Job As a College Dropout
I remember one of the first times I landed a really great opportunity. The company had put out a post on Facebook that they were looking for someone to do social media for them.
Skipping ahead for a moment to after I got hired, I got the chance to read over the hundreds of applications and inquiries they’d received for the job I’d gotten and previous jobs they’d listed in the past.
Every one of them included a resume and a brief note that went something like this:
“I’d love to know more about the position. Here is my resume.”
They all had college degrees, they all had internships before, their resumes all said the same indefinite nonsense about being “passionate, hardworking, and organized,” and none of them got hired for one simple reason: they commoditized themselves.
From the perspective of my employer, they were all exchange grade coffee beans sitting in a barrel without even a salesman pretending those beans were special.
And if you know what those are, you know thats NOT what you want to be when you apply for a job.
My approach was different.
I suspected I could sidestep the entire application process, decommoditize myself (decoffeetize), and land the job when everyone else would have told me I was under-qualified.
Instead of applying, I asked the founder to lunch.
During that lunch I got to know him, asked him questions about his business, and let him get to know me. We didn’t speak about the job opening at all.
A few days later, I shot him an email with a proposal.
While I don’t have the original email, it went something like this:
Hi Mr. X,
I really appreciate you taking the time to have lunch with me the other day. It was fun getting to know you and your business.
I wanted to say, I took a look at your social media profiles last night and I had a couple thoughts on how you might be able to improve it.
- (Idea Number One)
- (Idea Number Two)
- (Idea Number Three)
If you’re interested, I’d love to help implement these. It shouldn’t take long and I’ll do it for free. The experience would be good for me, so you won’t be taking advantage of me, and if you don’t like the work I do on it, no hard feelings at all.
Let me know what you think!
What was the worst that could happen? Sure, he could have taken my ideas himself and go on to make millions while I fed pigeons in the park. He could have told me to go back to school.
The results were better than I could have predicted. He offered me $1,500 per month of remote contract work and I got the gig.
Goodbye dropout, hello drop-in.
Rules that Change the Rules: How to Sidestep (or Tapdance) Your Way Into Any Job Whether or Not You Have a Degree
I’ve spent the last year meeting and working with young people and reading about others who do things similar to and beyond what I did to get my first job.
Case studies include 17 year old high school dropouts working full time at tech companies to college optouts making more money at 22 than most people make at 30.
All of this has helped me systemize what I did above into a set a reproducible steps with predictable (and even better) results.
The bar is really f***ing low.
Step One: Launch a Website and Start Building Your Digital Paper Trail
If I could go back in time and bully a young(er) Derek into doing just one thing, it would be to start his website earlier. It’s been the single most important thing I’ve done for my career (aside from dropping out) and it has led me to countless personal and professional opportunities.
A personal website gives you a place to showcase your learning, prove yourself a competent writer, establish yourself as an authority, and leave a digital paper trail that will follow you wherever you go.
To illustrate the importance of this further I would tell him a simple story:
Picture two job applicants for a marketing company, neither of whom have much work experience.
Applicant #1 has a degree in marketing and a star from one of his professors.
Applicant #2 has no degree, but he’s written 10 articles on topics ranging from social media marketing to customer acquisition. They’re novice, but they show he has an interest in the field, the ability to research and write content, and some real ideas. His website has an about page that shows who he is in a way a resume never could.
Here’s an example from a college dropout:
Who do you think would get hired?
Evan Le or the Exchange Grade Coffee Bean with a marketing degree?
Step Two: Focus Your Search to the Informal Job Market
No, “Informal Job Market” is not codeword for becoming a drug runner. It’s a term I, and others, use to describe the jobs that are typically not filled by responding to recruiters or job listings.
Most people, when they begin their early job searches, focus exclusively on bigger, more prestigious, even brand name-type companies that have a heavy presence on college campuses and recruiting sites.
It’s not hard to understand why, but there are unsung benefits to working at small businesses, less established companies, and startups. Most of my best opportunities have come from it for a few reasons:
- The barrier to entry is normally lower and the opportunities for creativity are higher. I.E, the informal job market is much more likely to respond kindly to outside the box thinking than some middle aged HR person at a larger company.
- There’s less competition from the Exchange Grade Coffee Beans, which individually don’t pose a threat but in large enough quantities can be distracting.
- You can often work closely with the founder or CEO, getting an invaluable apprenticeship in your field. A formal job market can’t offer you this. Relationships > Everything
- You can test your hand in various departments and see the big picture of how a business is actually run. Try doing this at Deloitte.
- Just like Ryan Holiday’s ideas on media manipulation, you can use your role in the informal job market to springboard your way into something much better.
Don’t worry if a company isn’t hiring, that’s where the next steps come into play.
Step Three: Create a Value Proposition; Create Your Own Damn Job; Decommoditize Yourself
Most people are too busy padding their resumes to ask the really important question: “how can I create value for this company?”
Your Value Proposition is where you burn that little white paper with Times New Roman font and academic merit badges and you make a direct sales pitch to an employer.
I’ve used it to get myself in even when no formal hiring was going on. It works that well.
The goal is to prove the following:
- You’re worth more to them than the money they’ll need to pay you.
- You can create value for them on day one and you have an action plan to do it (more on this later).
- You have the skills, experiences, and/or mindsets to do the job you are hired for. (Emphasis on mindsets)
How it looks like in practice is up to you, but here are some real world examples:
Noah Kagan got a job as the director of marketing at Mint: Money, Bill Pay, Credit Score & Investing by sending the CEO a 90 day plan of what he would do if he got the job.
Charlie Hoehn was able to create his own job for Tim Ferriss by sending an email that included a specific, deliverable action item that he could take for Tim, a plan to achieve it and demonstration of his capabilities, and a value add statement, i.e., why Tim should care.
I myself got started working with my current job Praxis (even though they weren’t hiring) after I proposed to some marketing projects that saved them tens of thousands of dollars that would have gone to another firm.
A recent reader of my ebook was able to get himself an apprenticeship in the precious metals industry at a company that wasn’t hiring:
How to get started:
- Identify 1–2 projects you can do for the company in question. One of the things I proposed to do with Praxis was provide video and photography support for the team.
- Prove that this is valuable to the company. Offer adequate reasoning why this would help them. Maybe even show why what they’re currently doing isn’t working and why your solution is better. It’s okay to criticize as long as you can back it up by creating.
- Demonstrate that you’re capable of delivering on your promise. If you don’t have previous work, your personal website and online content will be essential.
- Send this directly to a connection at the company in an email. The more specific you are, the better.
Do this and companies will be lining up to work with you.
I’ve created a simple template you can follow for this here.
Another great example I’ve seen of this is a microsite called Nina4AirBnb.
Step Four: (Optional) Do the Job Before You Get the Job
Meet Tristan Walker.
In 2009, Tristan decided he wanted to work at FourSquare. He’d applied on the website, sent emails to the CEO, sent more emails, and got no response. Finally, he did the unthinkable: he decided to sell advertising space on FourSquare anyways.
Tristan spent the next few weeks calling companies and getting them ready to sign on with FourSquare.
Then he emailed the CEO again and said: “I’ve lined up a few advertisers for you.”
This time, the CEO replied. They met the next day. Tristan went on to run Business Development at Foursquare.
He did the job before he got the job.
In some ways, Tristan’s approach is even better than a standard value proposition because it offers stronger proof that you can do the job. Here’s an actual email a Praxis participant sent me which can be considered a good template for this:
From: Brad Matthews
Date: Tue, May 19, 2016 at 2:15 AM
Subject: Image for Praxis Opt-In Sumome Overlay
To: Derek Magill
After listening to Nick’s Praxis Group Discussion today where he mentioned that the Praxis opt-in lead magnet popup could benefit from an image I decided to throw these together. Knowing 3D converts best from past tests given its perceived tangibility and ‘physical’ presentation, I went for that perspective.
I’m not sure if you’re using a SumoMe template (which may not allow for an image), but figured this would be worthwhile so I know how to do it for myself in future anyway. I’ve been playing with perspectives of product screenshots in Photoshop for a sales page I’ve been working on for work, but this gave me a chance to practice doing the spine aspect as well.
Brad already has a job through Praxis, but if I ever need someone to do a 3D image for me again, he’ll be the first person I go to.
Getting a job does not have to be so hard, it really doesn’t. Just create value for the person you want to work for, whether they ask you or not.
Step Five: Make It Worth Their While and Offer to Work for Free or Cheap If Needed
Most young people, degree or not, price themselves all the way out the interview door. The sad truth is that years of sitting under fluorescent lights listening to academics sound off have left them with few skills or experiences that make them worth hiring.
I was no different.
When I pitched the company I currently work with, I knew they weren’t hiring, I knew I was largely unproven, and that they wouldn’t have a budget to pay me for a while even if they wanted to. I also knew the opportunity was too good to pass up.
So I did the only thing I knew to do: I offered to work for free.
How could they refuse? There was literally no downside for them. If I didn’t do good work, they could end the relationship and they wouldn’t be any worse off.
I started working with them and, a few months later, they offered me a full time-time, paid role.
Step Six: Do It All Again
The above steps and strategies can be used with incredible results, but they are not definitive. Doubtless there are others.
Resolve now to test the concepts, add new ones, and repeat when necessary.
I’ve found they can be used at companies small and large, and in industries ranging from restaurants and real estate to technology and startups.
Employers are tired of lifeless college graduates coming through the door expecting to be handed a job.
Be the person that consistently offers them something different.
Choosing Your First Job as a College Dropout: A Brief How-To-Guide
Many of the young professionals I see today are either unemployed, underemployed, or unhappily employed.
Most of it is a function of one simple thing: they follow outdated advice given to them by parents who experienced their careers in a different world or professors who have never had to go through the job market at all.
They chose their early jobs because the pay was well. Or because the industry looked good to their family and friends. Or because it was a prestigious name.
I didn’t want to be that, and still don’t, so I came up with a couple of guidelines that I used to get my first job after dropping out of college and any job after that.
1) Optimize for Transferable Skills and Experiences Over Specialization and Income
A) As a general rule, you want to optimize you’re early work experiences for things like education, networking, value creation opportunities, and rapid growth chances. Oftentimes a $60,000 salary can be a sort of “copper handcuff” as my friend Isaac Morehouse says that can prevent you from taking low pay but high yield opportunities elsewhere.
There’s plenty of time to make money. Youth is for learning and establishing a name for yourself — i.e, building the Startup of You — and people put it first will see more massive long term income gains.
B) Don’t let “I want to work at a marketing agency” prevent you from taking an existing job offer in the marketing department of an ecommerce company.
You can learn many of the same skills at both places.
Likewise, don’t let your desire to open a software company prevent you from starting your career in customer service if that’s the best opportunity available. There are highly transferable and necessary skills that can be learned at almost any job and those are going to be the ones that are most valuable to you in the future.
2) Choose People Over Companies
Here’s a secret that I haven’t told anyone: before I accepted my full time job with my current company (Praxis), I was offered another position at a company that well exceeded what Praxis could pay me at the time, being an early stage start up and all.
I turned it down and haven’t regretted it one bit.
My colleagues at Praxis are some of the most interesting, dynamic, “well rounded,” people I’ve ever met. They’ve inspired me to become better in ways that would not have been possible if I had chosen to go work for another company, and the opportunities they’ve passed on to me far and away exceed what I could get elsewhere.
It’s tempting for us, especially early on, to go with the best financial offer or the biggest, most prestigious company, but if there’s one thing you take from this section of the post, please let it be this: the people you work with are more important than the company you work for.
3) Get an Apprenticeship
We tend to associate apprenticeships with blue collar work, but the truth is you can apprentice in almost anything. Author and strategist Ryan Holiday apprenticed under Robert Greene after he dropped out of school at nineteen. Charlie Hoehn studied under Tim Ferriss. The best way to grow professionally is through on the job training under people who are 10, 20, 30 years your senior. If you can find a job that will allow you to be, for example, an assistant to a CEO, TAKE IT.
If you’re interested in some apprenticeships currently available through Praxis, click here.
On Not Going it Alone
One of the things that can be frustrating about being a dropout in the early stages of your career path is that there are not a lot of other people you can talk to about how to move forward with your life.
With that in mind, I’d like to make an offer to anyone who reads this post and finds it interesting or valuable.
I’m happy to expand privately on any of the strategies listed above, on my life, or anything else that might help you take the next steps.