Maximize Your Startup Work Experience
Blog post by ELP Student Deepti Pandey (Human Computer Interaction | Class of 2021)
Are you considering working at a startup? Wondering how to convert your upcoming startup internship into a full-time job? Or a segue to your own venture?
I have spent all my student and professional career in the startup space. In this post, I’ll articulate my journey in the ecosystem since my sophomore year (2014) to today. If you said yes to any of these questions above, you might benefit from my learnings.
1. Join for the right reasons
Working at a startup could mean intense work and comes with the risks of early burnout. So it is important that you enter into space for the right reasons. Some reasons for joining a startup are better than the others. For example, it seemed “glamorous” in the HBO show Silicon Valley is not the best reason. Ask yourself why you want to join the startup. If you hear yourself saying something along the following lines, you might be on the right path:
- XYZ company is working toward a technology space that interests me.
- Person Q is a great person to work with and I want to learn A, B, C from them.
- It prepares for a job market that I am currently not eligible to enter.
- I envision my own venture and I want to gain experience in the domain.
Personal Anecdote: In early 2014, in the sophomore year of my undergraduate course, I led the marketing team of a student venture, CopyEd. It gave me immense joy to tell my peers about my adventure, the amount of money we made, and all about being a hustler. As fun as that was, it was not the most satisfying experience of my career so far. Primarily because I didn’t feel connected with the vision. In early 2015, I was the second employee of an early stage non-profit company working toward alleviating sexual harassment, Durga India. Working with Durga India was a much more satisfying experience because I felt connected with the cause and the vision. If I ever talked about my work at Durga India, it was never to brag, and working long hours seemed worth it. Working at Durga India had a much more profound impact on my professional development than that at CopyEd, because I believed deeply in the vision of Durga. I learned more about software development, content, and outreach at Durga India than I did with most of my undergraduate courses put together.
2. Hustle to find yourself
Small and new companies work at a swift pace and to earn the most out of the experience is to adapt to the pace. Working with a compact team means that you have to demonstrate your value. The best way to do that would be to do what you are hired to do and more. With quick iterations comes a steep learning curve, and it can be a constructive habit to develop early in the career. This is especially relevant if you are unsure of the track you want to pursue as a career. The startup mentality of “Fail Fast” can be helpful in figuring out your path. Be cognizant of opportunities you might find interesting.
Personal Anecdote: In 2016, I joined Tapzo as a full-time software engineer. My fresh Computer Science education seemed to point me in this direction, but I was not sure that it was my calling. So while I was busy shipping the iOS app for Tapzo, I also looked out for other opportunities within the team. Because the team was small and work was plenty, I was able to thoroughly try out Software Development, Software Testing, Product Management, SDK Development, Client Engagement and Product Design within a span of only two years. I used these opportunities to weed out my interests that did not seem fit and zero in on the ones that did and learned a lot about myself in the process.
3. Embrace change and ambiguity
Startups, especially in their early stages, tend to change gears often. This could mean that major changes are not limited to products, they could also include team, management, and ownerships. It is easy to get overwhelmed with them and undergo a negative spiral. Be prepared to embrace these changes and be on the lookout for opportunities that result from those changes. Keeping a handle of your well being is paramount on a journey like this.
Personal Anecdotes: When I joined Tapzo in 2016, they called it Helpchat, a chat-based personal assistant. This is what I thought I had to work on when I joined. But early on I found out that chat was no longer the base of the product and instead, I now had to work on an all-in-one service integrator platform. At first, this sudden news took me by surprise. But in the coming months, I realized that there were more game-changers in the making for the product. It soon got renamed, rebranded, heavily marketed, and then went from being an independent application on the mobile stores to being a Software Development Kit to eventually get acquired by Amazon Pay, India. These changes came with their trials and had a massive impact on the professional paths and emotional well-being of employees.
I soon joined the Indian team at Branch, a California based startup in the mobile growth sector. Within the one year of working there, I witnessed big changes in personnel, massive expansion, and Branch’s acquisition of one of the biggest competitors: Tune. This acquisition meant handling clients of a very different scale and when changes are at scales like this, unforeseen factors are bound to come in. While these events can be complex, they are also occasions for you to shine. The first few months of the acquisition resulted in tremendous changes in teams and for me personally, resulted in handling a larger number of clients. Those very stressful months helped me push myself to the limit and taught me a lot within a very short while.
4. Look at the bigger picture
In a high-paced work environment, it is easy to fall in the trap of a myopic view. Be sure to regularly take a step back and ask “Why?,” especially if your goal is to apply the learnings in your own startup someday. When concentrating on your task, no matter how small it is, be sure to understand how it fits into the company vision. One of the biggest advantages of working in a startup over a giant is that upper management is more accessible than in a large, established firm. It gives you the opportunity to ask yourself and others why the company is making a certain decision, how your work affects the development of the vision, and what you can do to directly help out. It can help you follow the thought process of the founders. It helps you be better in your immediate task and learn the process of the company’s journey. Don’t hesitate from reaching out to your favorite CXO to ask for feedback on your work and learn more.
Personal Anecdote: At Tapzo, the way things worked was that the product manager would walk the developer and QA engineers through the feature we had to build in the coming sprint. For a long while, I would use those sprint plan meetings to only understand the details of the product, for instance, “Is this data supposed to go on a horizontal or vertical list view?,” “What fields are covered in the API payload?,” etc. At the end of these six months, I learned that we were adding a “Horoscope” section to Tapzo, and this was the first time I asked why. Until that point, my focus was only on the specific features of the product and never on what my work contributes to the vision. Here, for the first time I asked, “Why are we adding a free for use horoscope section to an app that (I presumed only) wanted a higher number of transactions?” That was when I learned that user engagement was also a top priority in that phase of the app and horoscope boosted user engagement. Spending time with the product manager gave me deep insights into what these sections and features intended to achieve.
5. Build your network
When you work with small teams where most people are hardworking, be sure to invest yourself into valuable professional connections. Your internship supervisor could later be your full-time mentor. Your fellow interns could be your future cofounders. Learn from individuals around you, to see if you can pick up good professional habits from them. Notice their working styles to match with your own. Watch out for talents that augment or complement your own. More than anything else, make sure that your hard work is visible to your new network so that in future they think of you for their requirements. This means being good at what you do and being approachable for when you both need each other.
Personal Anecdote: In the time that I spent working on these wonderful projects, what I am most grateful for is the people and the connections that I was able to make. I found myself incredible mentors, peers, and advisors. These are people who reach out to me when they are looking for advice they know I could help and it is a two-way street. When I was switching roles, considering schools for my graduate course, looking for recommendations, and now cofounders, these were the people who had my back. I am grateful to tap into this network. Having a professional support system is priceless and I would encourage you to keep that in mind as you work your way through your journey. Through the pandemic, it warms my heart to see how individuals of this strong network are helping each other out and help me realize that we are in this together.
And don’t forget to have fun with these people!
I hope some of these tips work out for you. If you want to know more or collaborate for an opportunity, check out my website for contact and more info.