For most of my college career, I was convinced I was going to take a pretty traditional path and work in finance. I took the necessary classes, I did the related internship, and ultimately was setting myself up for success in that field.
But as the end of college approached, I realized that I hadn’t taken the time to deeply think about what I wanted to do with my career. Something about the structure of the finance world didn’t sit well with me, and there was another world that was increasingly calling my name: startups. Whereas finance seemed like a very structured, even rigid, career path where I might not be able to make a true impact for a while, I loved the idea of finding a small company tackling an issue I was passionate about, and getting to help build it from the ground up.
So, I took a leap of faith, stepped off of the path well-traveled, and joined a startup after graduating. I understand why this is a less common choice: Startups are inherently riskier (some stats say as many as 90% of them fail), and there isn’t a prescribed path upward, as this is on more traditional career paths.
But I think there’s no better time to take some risks in your career than when you’re young. Ultimately, the decision has paid off for me in so many ways — from rapid career growth to feeling like I’m making a real impact quickly — and I would love to inspire more college seniors to consider this opportunity for themselves.
As we head into the season where so many folks are trying to figure out their post-graduation plans, I wanted to share a few of the reasons a startup job could be a great first step for you — and how to find and land the perfect one.
What’s Great About Entry-Level Startup Jobs
I’m not here to tell you that working at a startup is the perfect first job for everyone. Particularly, people who are looking for a lot of structure, formalized training, or a clear growth path may not fare well in this world. But if you’re pretty self-motivated, can deal with the ambiguity that comes with working for a growing company, and don’t mind (or even are excited by) the idea of things changing as the company pivots, you’ll get to enjoy the following benefits that come from working at a startup.
1. You Don’t Need to Know Exactly What You Want to Do
So many seniors leave college still unsure of what they want to “do with their lives” — and in startups, that’s completely okay! Part of the benefit of these jobs is that you’ll be exposed to so many different roles (many that you may not have even known existed), and learn on the job what’s a good fit for you.
While I started primarily in customer support, I’ve also had the opportunity to work on projects related to community engagement (specifically, helping launch our Metabolical Book Club), partnership building, and internal process and product development with our engineering team — simply because I was interested and took the initiative to ask to be involved. Along the way, I’ve been empowered to gain exposure to the work that other teams across the company are doing, and to work with pretty much whoever I want to learn from.
Part of this is due to Levels’ unique culture of documentation and transparency, where I can easily read a memo or hear a recorded conversation about just about anything we’re working on. But pretty much any startup you join will have more of a flat structure with fewer divisions between departments, giving you real-world insight into all the places you could make an impact. Plus, “that’s not your job” typically isn’t part of the startup vocabulary — most early-stage companies will happily support you pivoting your role or pitching in on various teams, particularly if you work hard and prove that you’re dependable.
2. You’ll Make an Impact
More than just learning by exposure, you’ll learn so much by being handed real responsibility with the expectation that you can work autonomously. Something I noticed when I was exploring finance career paths was that it didn’t seem like I would feel any ownership over the work I was doing anytime soon in my career. There was much more of a culture of starting at the bottom of an established path, “paying your dues” until you prove yourself enough to get handed autonomy and ownership.
In startups, there’s no time for that. Every day, there’s way more high-value work than the team possibly has bandwidth to finish. So, as long as you’re willing to push yourself out of your comfort zone a little, it won’t take long until you’re doing work that’s truly interesting to you and helping solve problems that have a real impact — on the company and the world.
I started working in the support queue on day one, sitting next to our Head of Operations and working through my first questions while soaking up everything I could learn from watching him in action. To this day, I’m regularly thrown into tasks that feel a little out of my league and — with the informal mentorship of the high-performing people around me — am able to learn so much by trying things, making mistakes, and figuring it out. It can be uncomfortable to take on projects outside your area of knowledge, but it’s fulfilling to have a sense of ownership over your work and see the impact of what you do.
3. Your Career Growth Will Be Unmatched
These two things together make startups a hotbed for early career growth. Just a year in and I’ve already gotten to interface with leading experts in the metabolic health space, have had the chance to work across ops, growth, and partnerships, and am now leading a project to improve member onboarding. I know that these opportunities have accelerated my rate of learning in a way that couldn’t be matched by a traditional path.
For me, there’s really no better way to learn quickly than this combination of being thrown into the deep end while also being surrounded by the smartest people in the industry. Every day, I get to learn how to solve problems and how to become comfortable tackling things I’m not good at (yet) — which is an invaluable skill no matter what I do in my career. But I also get to constantly work beside people with much more experience than me, closely observing how they do things, how big decisions are being made, and other learning opportunities that I would never have access to in a large, hierarchical organization.
How to Get a Great Entry-Level Startup Job
Sold yet? If you think startups might be the path for you, be prepared for a very different job search than those taking the more traditional paths. You probably won’t find startup founders at your college career fair (they’re too busy for that) — and you’re unlikely to find success just blasting every startup you find with your resume. Instead, here’s how to approach the job search to land the startup job for you.
1. Target Your Search to Industries You Care About
Startups are most excited to hire people who are passionate about the problem they’re fixing — and you’ll be most motivated to do the hard but high-value work if you truly care about what the company is doing. Instead of applying to a lot of companies, I spent most of my time identifying and trying to get a job at the couple of companies that interested me most. As someone who’s always been interested in my own health and wellness, Levels was my main focus from the get-go.
There are job boards that curate startup roles (such as AngelList, First Round Talent, and Y Combinator Jobs) but — as we’ll talk more about in a minute — you may want to find companies that don’t even have jobs listed. So, expand your search to any resource that helps you learn about startups out there: tech news sites, directories on startup accelerator websites, or even following people building companies you find interesting. Dig until you discover the companies doing work that really excites you.
2. Pay Attention to the People Behind the Company
Once you find companies that excite you, dig a little deeper and spend some time learning about the team, such as by checking out their LinkedIn, following them on social media, or googling to find bios, talks, or published writing. This is valuable for a few reasons.
For one, you’ll gain insight into the company culture, making sure it seems like an environment where you can thrive. But more than that, you want to make sure the founders and other early hires are people you’re excited to learn from. As mentioned above, the informal mentorship you get from the team at startups is one of the biggest benefits, so be sure their backgrounds are exciting to you.
Plus, by focusing on choosing a strong team, you’ll be kicking off your career with a powerful network no matter what happens to the startup or what you choose to do next.
3. Reach Out Even If There’s No Job Listed
So you’ve found the perfect company — and they have no jobs listed that you’re qualified for. This shouldn’t deter you! In fact, one of the best ways to land a startup job is to get on their radar long before they list a role that you’d be a fit for. That way, as soon as they do have a need for your skills, you’re top of mind. (Levels has an easy email for reaching out about general job interest!)
My first outreach to Levels was a cold email to one of the co-founders, sharing that I loved what they were doing and would love to help in any way possible. To differentiate yourself, make sure to:
- Show that you’ve done your research: I referenced a podcast Josh was on and why the vision resonated with me.
- Have a specific ask: I asked if there were any opportunities to join the operations team, but mentioned I was also open to doing anything (I even offered to do unpaid work to get started).
- Look for ways to offer value as soon as possible: In one of our early emails, I shared a document with some of my thoughts on how the company could grow. While I may not have come up with anything revolutionary, this showed my initiative and investment in the company’s future.
4. Stay Patient and Persistent
Finally, just like any job search, landing a startup job may take some time. Startups hire very thoughtfully, and may not immediately have a need for your skills. It was almost six months from my initial outreach to when I first came on board — and I started as a part-time contractor. By keeping the conversation open over time, regularly reiterating my interest and demonstrating ways I could provide value, it eventually paid off.
I was in a privileged position to be able to take that time, but if working in startups is interesting to you, plan for it. Start your job search as early as possible to allow for plenty of buffer, stay patient and persistent, and get excited for an entry-level job unlike any other.