Are you a startup vampire or a werewolf?

- June 13, 2014 4 MIN READ

The question I get asked the most, other than “Are you dancing?” is “How can I get a job in startup?” Many people ask me how I got started; they want my “foot-in-the-door” origin story. Unfortunately, there is no fairy tale, boy-meets-girl, tie-it-up-with-a-bow story behind it.

My startup journey was more a result of aversion: I wanted to run as far away from “agency land” as possible. So seven years later, here I am, shoulder-deep in the innovation world. Many of us have made the transformation from corporate to startup. If you’re anything like me, the change becomes pretty permanent. Startup is something that you live with for the rest of your life. Not unlike herpes.

I have spent a big chunk of my career putting together teams for startups and welcoming former corporate talent into the the fold. Many people come in wide-eyed and bushy tailed; others walk in jaded and glazed-over. The difference often depends on how far up the corporate ladder they were before they made “the change” and of the expectations they put on this new role.

WIth the proliferation of tech in the media, more and more people are making this jump.  In fact, if you are reading this and are over 30 and currently working on a startup, odds are you have gone through this transition at some point. In the spirit of Friday the 13th, I have a question to pose to you:

Are you a startup vampire or a werewolf? 

There are two categories of people who transition from corporate to startup: the startup werewolf and the startup vampire. Werewolves transform every full moon and go crazy being werewolves and it’s all fun and good while it lasts. Once the moon goes away, they return to their original forms and go about their lives until the next cycle hits. This means that someone, perhaps disillusioned by their current role, wants to try something different and join the exciting world of tech startups while he or she figures out what’s next.

Or you have recently graduated from your MBA and want to “practice” on a startup before someone hires you at a “real job” in a blue chip company. You’ll spend a little in this world and then return to your original form when you’re done; you might come back later on if the conditions are right. That’s a startup werewolf.

On the other hand, startup vampires get bitten and they are changed for life. You’ll never go back to being whom you were and you’ll try to bite and convert everyone else around you. You’ll become a creature of the night; you’ll never see sunlight again;  you’ll get inexplicable bags under your eyes. You’ll get paler. You’ll start hanging out only with other vampires. Instead of a cape you’ll wear a hoodie, but you get the idea.

Regardless of which fantastical category you fall in, getting into this world is very tricky. The process of getting hired is very different and a lot harder to navigate than the “normal” corporate recruitment exercise.

Timing is key – I have seen people get hired over a coffee and, conversely, have had to wait months to make an offer to a candidate because of delayed funding rounds or pivoted business models. There are few patterns in startup recruitment, which makes it even more exciting to newcomers.

So if you are still excited to join us in this magical world, here are the 3 keys questions to answer before making the change.

1. Why do you want to get into startup? 

“I loved The Social Network” or “I spend a lot of time on social media” are not acceptable answers. And if you even try to pull out “I want to change the world”, I’ll kick you out of the internet right now. The startup universe has been mythified and glorified through the media and Hollywood. Being a founder now has the same cache that being a DJ had in the early 2000’s. The illusion stops there.

Knowing why you want to dive into a very precarious environment and change your entire professional landscape is key to securing a spot in the ecosystem. For example, I wanted to work in a world where speed and impact are the main drivers.

In the startup world, there is a lot of autonomy and very little hierarchy, which allows me to access to sides of a business I would not be able to see in a corporate setting. Also, startups are usually small enough to interact with the whole team; you get to know whom is impacted by your work every day. That’s why I got into startup.

2. What problems do you know how to solve?

Very few people can answer this question with nuance and purpose. In fact, most people confuse it with “What experience do you have?” The answers often comes in the form of “I have a strong project management background” or “I am a great communicator.” Neither of those are good. It’s always a good idea to reverse-engineer this answer. Try to imagine what would happen if you suddenly stopped showing up at work; what problems would appear? What wouldn’t get done? What decisions would fall behind? Who would be impacted?

3. What’s next? 

This is particularly important for startup employees. Odds are that startup founders will go off to found another startup once they are done with the current one. However, employees need to come in knowing what their endgame is.

This is the lean canvas equivalent of the “top right”: what do you ultimately want to get out of this? Are you coming into this wanting to learn enough to start your own thing? Do you want to gain experience in a different field? Are you looking for a workplace with a different culture? Chances are you didn’t leave your corporate job for the money, so you’ll need to know what the reward is before you get started.

Transitioning from the corporate world to startup is as much a re-education as it is a professional change. It is confusing and rewarding; risky and incredibly fun. The fact is that we need more talent crossing the line and taking the risk with startups.

Our ecosystem is bleeding talent on both ends – we are losing great people to startups overseas and to the trappings of corporate life. Whether your transformation is for good, or will change with the lunar cycles, it’s worth a try. You never know, you might get bitten.

Image: hqwallbase.com