Working at a start-up: what it’s like and how to get hired

Guest blog written by James Boreham (BA Economics, 2014)

James graduated from The University of Manchester in 2014 with a BA in Economics. He is now the Sales Director of a high-growth software start-up in London. Find out below his experience of working at a start-up.

My degree set me up perfectly for my first graduate job in the Finance sector as a Front Office Analyst – but I was always interested in working at a start-up. I wanted to start my own business someday and the start-up environment was what I needed to gain a better understanding of what it takes to be a founder. Most people I speak to are not aware that working at a start-up is even an option – and those that do know about start-up life are deterred by misconceptions, like:

  • “It’s unstable – most start-ups won’t last beyond the first three years”
  • “You won’t get paid well until the business succeeds”
  • “You work endlessly, day and night”

I’ve found these to be untrue; I worked at several start-ups following my role as an analyst and ended up at Juro in August 2020, as their Director of Sales. Juro is a software company that helps fast-growing businesses automate the contract process.

Here’s why I prefer the start-up life.

Start-ups are meritocratic

If you work hard, you progress quickly – it’s as simple as that. When I worked at large banks, it often felt like no matter how much work I got through, the impact was hard to discern – and it was just another day of ‘grafting’ with no clear reward.

By comparison, start-ups are structured to reward employees based on targets they’ve managed to hit and exceed. It’s incredibly satisfying, knowing your hard work will pay off. I’ve always liked the appeal of working at a company where you can easily demonstrate your value. And similarly…

Every person has an impact

In a large business, you might feel like another cog in the commercial machine. When you can’t visualise the results of your hard work, and there’s no tangible consequence to your efforts, it’s easy to feel disengaged and unmotivated.

When you join a start-up, you might be the 10th employee on board. You’ll know everyone’s names and get to know everyone in the company. Everything you do has a direct, tangible impact on the business – there are no passengers, and when you win, you win together.

I really enjoy this level of gratification – especially in a role like sales, where the team is driving commercial growth, and we’re involved at every stage. Turning leads into paying customers makes everyone feel invested in the business and crucial to its success.

It’s much easier to map your career

In the early stages, post-graduation, you know exactly where you are, and (probably) where you want to be. What might not be clear is how to get from one to the other. I battled with this when working as an analyst at a bank; the work I did wasn’t quite setting me up for my goal of leading a sales team, and ultimately founding my own business. The career journey wasn’t clear, and I wasn’t sure how to move into a role that I found more fulfilling.

At Juro, I don’t have this problem – and this is especially true if you have a strong working relationship with your manager. At a start-up, it’s much easier to shape your career path, figure out where you want to be, and set out the steps you need to take to get there. The chances are, you’ll get an opportunity to wear many hats and try different roles (if that’s what you want) – especially in the early stages of the business.

How can graduates secure roles at start-ups?

If I’ve convinced you, then hopefully you’ll be looking at start-up jobs right now! Start-ups are on the rise – as of 2020, 1843 new companies are founded every day in the UK. Of course, competition for roles at a start-up is also on the rise, fuelled in part by successful start-ups like Deliveroo making the career path seem attractive. So how can you make sure you stand out from the crowd? Here are a few tips:

  • Build your network. Connect with relevant people on LinkedIn, and reach out to introduce yourself. This will help you stay in the loop with relevant jobs, but also stand out to anyone looking to hire graduates.
  • Try specific recruitment channels. For example, at Juro we hire our sales roles through a recruiter that specialises in jobs in the tech industry, especially for small software-as-a-service (SaaS) businesses.
  • Learn more about the industry. If you’re looking to join a tech start-up, look into companies you admire and understand why those businesses are successful. This knowledge will help you understand the start-up environment in the long run.
  • Remember: core competencies are key. Juro’s a contract automation platform but we’re realistic in that not every graduate can be an expert on non-disclosure agreements! Instead, make sure you emphasise your value through core competencies, like communication, ambition, adaptability, coachability, organisational skills, and so on. At a high-velocity start-up, these skills are a great starting point.

And finally, sell yourself at every stage of the application process by answering the following three questions: why the company; why the role; and why you?

The person with a wide range of experience and a star-studded CV might not necessarily be the one who is best suited for the role, so make sure you can answer those three questions, highlight your commitment, and make sure that enthusiasm shines through. Hopefully you’ll find the path as rewarding as I did.

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