How to break into the startup world as a college student
Blog post by ELP Student Andy Reed (Computer Science & Business Admin | Class of 2020)
How to Break into the Startup World as a College Student
“You want to work where?” is frequently the response I receive from my family, friends, and colleagues when I talk about my career goals. For many students at Michigan and other universities, the path to landing a dream job is fairly straightforward. Study hard, beat the curve, network with alum, kiss a little bit of ass, and crush the interview when the Fall rolls around. Big names offering solid pay and benefits are almost always the target, frequently ranking in the Fortune 500. For those keen on investment banking, the big banks on Wall St. are the target. For software engineering, the tech giants of Seattle and Silicon Valley await. While scoring a job with one of these bigwigs is the dream for some, the idea of working in the corporate world is less appealing to others.
If you’re like me and fall into the latter category, you might be wondering, “What can I do as a student to prepare for a startup career?” Well, in my opinion, while there is no secret sauce or one-size-fits-all recipe for success, there are a few things a college student can do to prepare to succeed in the startup world. Before we get into the thick of what you can do to get ready, I would like to clear up some common misconceptions about working in the startup world I have personally encountered.
Three Misconceptions About Entrepreneurship and the Startup World
- A “startup career” means you need to start something yourself.
- Wanting to pursue an entrepreneurial career does not mean that you need to drop everything and start something yourself. Let’s face it, the chances you’re going to be the next Zuckerberg are slim, so you’re probably better off soaking up some experience first at a startup that has gotten its wheels off of the ground.
- Anyone can work at a startup
- While the media has depicted startups as laid back work places with ping pong tables and other amenities, a startup career is not as glamorous as it looks, and is certainly not for everyone. Oftentimes startups lack the structure that some people desire and hours don’t fit the 9-5 model. Behind every successful story about a company that you see in the news, there were probably dozens of failures. Though sometimes joyous and extremely rewarding, working at a startup is often a grind and not as sexy as it sounds.
- Entrepreneurship can be taught like any other subject
- This could be a whole other blog post, but I am a firm believer that it is difficult if not impossible to try to teach anything beyond the very basics of entrepreneurship to students in a classroom environment. Challenging students to start their own business offers some valuable lessons in ideation and customer discovery, but I feel that only by interning or working at a startup does a student gain the knowledge and perspective necessary to succeed.
Keeping these things in mind, I’m happy to say that I do believe that there are ways that a student can prepare themselves for a startup career. I’m going to divide these things into coursework, extracurriculars, and networking, and speak to the value of all three.
Major in Other Things
Whereas your accounting, anatomy, or computer science sequences of courses may prepare you for a more traditional path, there is unfortunately no standard schedule that will grant you success in the startup world. In my opinion, it’s not so much your major that matters, but rather that you have found something that you are eager and willing to dive deep into. If you are really intrigued by sustainable fashion, learn who the industry leaders are and what materials they use. If you’re interested in cryptocurrency, immerse yourself in the underlying technology. There may not be a major that explicitly teaches you what you want to learn, but there are insightful individual courses and professors who are eager to discuss their areas of expertise. While studying something you care about matters, I believe that you should really focus most of your attention on where you invest your time outside of class.
For example, I joined several groups on campus such as CHISL, Wolverine Blockchain, and Net Impact, that allowed me to further explore my interests of design, emerging technology, and environmental sustainability. I’ll be the first one to tell you that most of the educational value I have gleaned from college has stemmed from my extracurricular involvement rather than my participation in the classroom. While I have extremely enjoyed some of my courses (Architecture, Sustainability, and the City was a favorite), the organizations I dedicate my time to in the evenings and weekends have taught me about myself and have given me the knowledge and opportunities that allowed me to get to where I am today. Part of the reason why I was hired this summer to work at Virtru, a data privacy startup based in Washington DC, was my ability to translate deeply technical concepts into language that the average joe could understand, something I gained experience doing through blogging for Wolverine Blockchain.
Gain Some Technical Literacy
While I definitely don’t believe that you have to understand the inner workings of blockchain technology to succeed in today’s startup world, I would strongly recommend that you consider learning some technical skills while you are a student. I don’t mean forcing yourself to major in Computer Science, but rather learning more practical skills, be it R, Python, SQL, and Tableau for Data Science, or Illustrator, Sketch, and InVision for design. Being competent in some other pieces of software besides Excel and Powerpoint goes a long way. There are plenty of courses both in person and online (check out Coursera, edX, Udemy, and Lynda) that cover skills like these, so I encourage you to step out of your comfort zone and try something new.
Network, But Play the Long Game
Speaking of stepping out of your comfort zone, I would like to talk about what I believe to be the most crucial way students can prepare themselves for a startup career, and that is by building a strong network of entrepreneurial peers and mentors. Unfortunately, startups only look to hire new talent when the company absolutely needs it, oftentimes well after the understaffing becomes apparent. So to wiggle your way into a position at a startup in your field of interest, you need to embed yourself into the greater entrepreneurial community and form meaningful connections. Despite sites like AngelList growing in popularity, most startups don’t post jobs in very visible and obvious places, so it is up to you to put yourself on a company’s radar well before you’re seeking a new position. Through attending meetups in your region (check out Meetup to find some near you) and events held by your company of choice, and by reaching out to influencing entrepreneurial figures within your community, you could become the name that gets recommended when the CEO of XYZ startup is looking for a new hire. I’ve found connecting with alumni in the startup space to be incredibly helpful, as I not only received some internship offers through continued connections, but also gained some mentors that I continue to turn to for advice. While established entrepreneurs make for great connections and mentors, having friends that are deeply immersed in the startup community can also be helpful. I tend to pass on a lot of opportunities I find to my colleagues, whether they’re actively looking for work or not, and many in turn do the same for me (especially with anything sustainability related). The bottom line is, don’t be transactional in your networking, play the long game.
Leverage Your School’s Resources and Opportunities
A great first step in forming meaningful entrepreneurial connections is to tap into the entrepreneurial ecosystem at your school. The University of Michigan has a plethora of student organizations and academic programs that relate to the world of startups. Groups like StartUM Entrepreneurship and some of the university’s ENTR courses teach you the basics of entrepreneurship while challenging you to bootstrap your own startup, while other notable organizations like MPowered celebrate entrepreneurial minds through putting on events. Other units like the Center for Entrepreneurship (CFE), the Zell Lurie Institute (ZLI) and Innovate Blue offer specific mentorship, events, and funding for students looking to work on or at a startup. The CFE runs the Entrepreneurs Leadership Program (ELP), a fellowship that invites students to engage in coursework with other bright aspiring entrepreneurs, and offers opportunities to attend startup career treks and speak to venture capitalists and founders alike. All of these programs are great opportunities for Michigan students to prepare themselves for a career in the startup world, and similar resources are popping up at other universities.
Fail Early and Often
All in all, the path to a startup career is no walk in the park. While I wish I could provide a “secret recipe” or standout characteristic that will lead to definite success in the fast moving world of startups, I think that the ambiguity of it all makes finding the startup job of your dreams that more satisfying. In the startup space, you might often hear entrepreneurs talking about how you should fail early and often, learn from your mistakes, and keep charging ahead. The same is true for breaking into the startup world as a student. As long as you maintain a positive and resilient attitude, dedicate your time to fields of study and organizations that you are genuinely interested in, and never stop growing your social and entrepreneurial networks, you’re bound to end up in the right place.