Almost a year ago to the day, I was sitting in my apartment contemplating skipping a guest lecturer in my Venture Growth class.
It was one of those bitterly cold December evenings where it got a little too dark a little too quickly and my motivation to go listen to yet another guest speaker was unsurprisingly low. I had snacks; I had on sweatpants. The chances of me moving from the couch hovered around zero percent.
Luckily, a friend in the class far more studious than I convinced me to get off the couch and drag myself outside. I say “luckily” because—and I’m not being dramatic here—that lecture wound up being the most important of my college career.
Let’s back up. I’m Matt, and a year ago I was one of several-hundred UW business students dealing with the difficult process of figuring out what the hell I wanted to be when I grew up (or, at least, after I graduated). I was double majoring in Finance and Management, and nearly all my peers were stressing themselves out jockeying for investment banking internships or consulting jobs—after all, the UW-Madison is well-set-up in terms of placing business students into Fortune 500 companies, especially the ones that donate.
I participated in the shuffle, but deep down I felt rather lackadaisical about it all. While part of me felt compelled to follow the crowd, the problem was that I knew I would hate the kind of life all the people around me were competing for. I likened the typical day-to-day role common in the financial industry to that of an assembly plant worker—repetitive, unchanging, and monotonous. Like with many industries, the financial world’s freshman hires are expected to do their piecework, keep their head down, and hope they get noticed for the slim chance to move up and work on something meaningful. While I’m fully capable of making damn good spreadsheets, that kind of environment wasn’t for me.
As the winter semester was concluding, so were the final rounds of hiring at the major banks. I was feeling particularly frustrated that I couldn’t find a role that I was passionate about, even with all the education and resources UW had to offer. I felt unmotivated, disillusioned, and close to saying “screw it” and going with Plan B: start a small sailing charter company in the Florida Keys and survive on rum and conch fritters (I still might do this).
Which brings me back to that bitterly cold evening where I almost didn’t have the motivation to get myself to class.
The reason my decision to go proved so important was because that guest lecturer talked about something I hadn’t really been exposed to before: the need for analytical thinkers in growth-stage companies. He outlined the problem of attracting quality talent given a startup’s inherently-limited budget, and how many companies were looking to younger employees as a possible solution. He convinced us of the great opportunity to launch your career trajectory a few years ahead of schedule by betting on yourself early.
I felt genuinely rapt by his talk, and it was the first time I felt a real glimmer of genuine interest in a post-college job. Afterward, I asked if he’d be willing to grab a drink to continue the discussion. Four valuable and interesting hours later, I was all set to be introduced to Niko Skievaski, the president of a local tech startup called Redox. The following week, I walked into the Redox office unsure if I was interviewing, network building, or just hanging out at some new hot company. Whatever the case turned out to be, I had a nice crisp resume and had made sure to press my shirt (turns out, both those things would be unnecessary).
My “interview” at Redox lasted about 20 minutes and didn’t include ANY of the things I was led to believe were commonplace in an interview—no canned questions, no need to regurgitate numbers or demonstrate that I had googled the company prior. Nothing. Instead, Niko sat down, showed me Redox’s automated marketing system, and said, “How do we optimize this?” Thinking of ways to improve existing workflows and deliver an improved, functional solution to a real-life problem was somewhat of a curveball, but it piqued my interest more than any typical interview question ever could. It was obvious they were looking for someone who could solve problems given a set of constraints, and more importantly, they were looking to see if I could solve this problem with scaling in mind. Call it luck, but I was intimately familiar with the system they were using from a previous internship, so this turned out to be something I could most definitely do.
I’ve always said that if someone floats a pitch you can hit, it ought to land in the seats. A few clicks later and we had a fully functioning, fully automated customer communication platform live on the website. More importantly, I had a job.
I started as an intern last January and came on full-time in May. I was able to wrap up school in the summer and fall terms of this year and graduated just this last Sunday (thanks, Mom and Dad). Now, as I approach my one year anniversary at Redox, I can’t help but think that there must be plenty of students in my shoes, students coming out of business schools who don’t want to go into a corporate rotational program for their foreseeable future. Students who want to contribute more than a well-polished spreadsheet to the overall goals of their organization. Students who don’t know what else to do because they’re being pushed down their expected road whether they like it or not.
Luckily, there is another option: start at a startup.
But You Just Graduated College, What Do You Know?
If you’re a college student looking for alternatives to the corporate roles you’re being pushed towards, I urge you to consider joining a startup. Here’s what I’ve learned so far:
- You’re going to be relied on immediately. Burn rates are burn rates regardless of your experience or whether you feel “ready”. This is a good thing.
- Startups have very flat organizational structures. This allows for you to make much larger jumps up the ladder than working for that bank. Want to be a VP at 27? Crush it with a young company and make yourself indispensable.
- You have time to fail. Worst case, your company runs out of money and closes shop. Now you’re in your early twenties, have a wealth of entrepreneurial experience any company (even a big one) would value, and still have relatively low personal burn.
- You won’t be pigeon-holed into your major. Particularly for business students, I think that this is the best value prop on the list. You might be a finance major, but working at a startup will force you to learn marketing, account management, product development, and contract law. In many ways, I consider Redox my “applied MBA.”
- How many twenty-somethings can go into an interview and say “I helped build a fully scalable sales and marketing system that grew a company to X revenue?” If you happen to hit, the personal return is immense.
- You learn to think at the margin. Time and money are constant and very real constraints, and you’ll learn to optimize your systems to maximize what you can get done in a day. You’ll also be forced to learn how to prioritize a seemingly endless number of tasks.
- You will fail—and not in the “I didn’t get my report in on time” way. Your mistakes will be very real and very immediate, but you’ll quickly learn how to correct them and you’ll be better for it each time.
Alright, So What Does Any of This Mean?
My role at Redox, much like the company itself, is constantly evolving. I started with social media and marketing automation, moved into building our first outbound campaigns, and then took on a more traditional sales role. At the end of the day, though, I consider myself a problem solver. I find value in my work because I know that my solutions to problems are going to enable other much smarter teammates to crush their work. That’s the tradeoff in working for a startup: you get a lot of freedom and a lot of responsibility, but everyone is completely interdependent on each other to keep the train rolling, so you sure as hell better perform.
If you’re college student, or even a confused post-grad, check out your local startup scene. A year ago, I was convinced that my salary and my title were the most important aspects of my career, but I was so wrong. It turns out that finding value in my work and having the ability to grow nothing into something is incredibly fulfilling. Add to that a super close team who truly care about each other and, to borrow a phrase, now you’re cooking with gas.
In all, 2017 is going to be a phenomenal year. It’s going to be the year you see Redox become a national name, and in many ways, a real company. In the same light, it’s going to be a year full of opportunities for unique personal growth that my friends starting at large corporations won’t have the opportunity to experience. There is no safety net, but there also is no ceiling.
As someone who has always thrived under a bit of pressure, I can’t think of a better place to start.