What does a startup career look like?

Kanav Bhama (Business Operations, Dovetail), Tim Rossanis (GM, Head of Growth - Retail & New Verticals A/NZ, Uber), Jess Rogers (Strategy and Operations Manager, Snap Send Solve), Ellen Dinsmoor (Head of Operations, Vow), Rhiannon White (Chief Product Officer, Vend), Tim Atkins (COO, CancerAid), Will Dennis (APAC Commercial Finance Director, Afterpay), Matt Thurin (Growth, AirWallex), Lee Lubner, Emer McCann (Manager, Talent & People Operations, Simply Wall St), Darryn Rabec (Venture GM at BCG Digital Ventures), Chris Quirk (Investment Manager, rampersand), Rebecca Evans (Marketing Manager, Sonder)

Authored by startup leaders from Uber, Vow, Snap Send Solve, Dovetail, Vend, CancerAid, Simply Wall St and Sonder
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Tim Atkins (COO, CancerAid)

This post answers the question 'How does career progression happen within a startup?'

There are three themes in these answers:

  • It’s entirely possible to change roles/pathways (i.e. Operations into Sales into Product)
  • You can potentially move ‘up’ within a different pathway quicker than at a corporate
  • Depending on the stage of the start-up and its growth, you may quickly end up with more responsibility than you thought possible

Kanav Bharma (Business Operations, Dovetail)

As an overarching perspective I’d say role progression is a lot more driven by the person and their career ambitions, and there is little to no dependency on a structured and tiered development environment - each person is a master of their destiny. I’d then probably look at this from an early vs later-stage startup lens. 

In earlier stage-startups I’ve seen role progression to be more flexible to how the business needs and products evolve. Often you’ll find people assuming responsibilities to fill gaps and making sure the wheels don’t come off the business. These can then over time be clarified and formalised as responsibilities that are reflected in roles.  

In later stage startups where there are more specialised teams forming the progression can happen in a more structured manner and the growth paths are likely within those specialised teams. However there are exceptions, many high-growth companies in the scale-up phase often present with growth opportunities in adjacent teams or leadership roles too. 

Jess Rogers (Strategy and Operations Manager, Snap Send Solve)

The great thing about start-ups is that progression is often self-directed. If there is an opportunity or new area you want to pursue (and there’s a need for it), you’ll often be supported to seek it out and rewarded for your initiative, too. 

Career progression is also less linear than in a corporate setting. The smaller and scrappier a start-up is, the less likely there will be predefined pathways to leadership positions. It’s often all hands on deck, with less emphasis on seniority or titles. 

As a result, you’re likely to have space to create your own opportunities and play an active role in crafting your career. It pushes you to be thoughtful and intentional and allows the space to pursue new interests and broaden your skill set over time. 

Ellen Dinsmoor (Head of Operations, Vow)

Two thoughts on this:

  1. Progression can happen in terms of breadth or depth. In terms of breadth, you can have continuous access to new types of challenges, new products to build, etc. This doesn’t necessarily make you VP of anything, but it gives you an amazingly diverse skill set that is certainly one form of progression. With regards to depth, as a company grows, there will be increasing opportunities to go deeper in specific areas as well (vs testing out different functions, challenges, etc). If I’m the only marketing person right now, odds are that I can continue to go deep in this skill and function area as we grow and gain skills more related to depth of scaling out this specific area.
  2. Progression is contingent on where and how you add value. If you want to progress, you need to show that the area you’d like to progress in provides inherent value for the company. That may sound simple, but it’s true. Let’s say, for example, that I aspire to create a People Ops function and to lead that function. If that’s the case, then what I should do is go above and beyond to show the potential value that this team and my role in leading it could bring. Lead with data on this. Let’s say I can hire 2x as quickly and that my hires have a much stronger first six month performance than any external recruiters. I’ve made a strong business case for why this is not only a meaningful progression for my career, but also for why this adds immense value to my startup.

Rhiannon White (Chief Product Officer, Vend)

Role progression tends to happen more organically in a startup. There is less likely to be a defined ‘career ladder’, with clear frameworks for progression. It’s an environment where you can make a mark very quickly. Equally, if you like the clarity and structure of a defined ladder, you might find the lack of that uncomfortable. 

Will Dennis (APAC Commercial Finance Director, Afterpay)

Role progression is generally less fixed than in professional services careers, meaning it is more important to take active management in carving out your own experience and progression within the company. If the company is growing fast often new roles and job opportunities arise frequently to solve new business needs 

Matt Thurin (Growth, AirWallex)

There are less politics in role progression at a start-up. If you’re good and work hard you will often be rewarded. Best part is that there are plenty of opportunities to move sideways and into different teams as the business grows.

Lee Lubner
  • It’s not linear, it may be sideways, it may be 1 step back 3 steps forward.
  • Take a role that gets you to outcome whether its intended path or not, multiple ways to top of mountain
  • Faster in startups then most corp roles. 
  • You are known commodity, more likely to get chance with potential then prior experience
  • Put your hand up to try new things!

Emer McCann (Manager, Talent & People Operations, Simply Wall St)
  • You own your own career in startups. Progression happens outside of the role you were hired for. If you see something needs to be done and you make it happen, you can get an opportunity to learn and progress your career. You gain more broader experience in smaller startups but have the opportunity to learn in more depth in larger startups.  

Rebecca Evans (Marketing Manager, Sonder)

When it comes to start-ups, being a "cultural fit" won't save your skin everytime. I’m approachable, empathetic, I love talking to people and I smile at strangers. I am quick to settle in to a business and make friends and I work hard to make time for people. I know these are important things in business but what’s more important is turnover, performance and growth. Being smiley can’t make a business more money, nor can it make you a stronger performer in the long-run. Your personality will make you stand out in your career, but don’t hide behind it. Always be the best you can be on all fronts.

Darryn Rabec (Venture GM at BCG Digital Ventures)

Career progression is not as structured as corporates, and it’s not a given. But, if you join early, you may start at a higher role and progress as the company grows.

Chris Quirk (Investment Manager, rampersand)

Much more choose your own adventure than corporates

Tim Rossanis (GM, Head of Growth - Retail & New Verticals A/NZ, Uber)

If you want to progress, get your core competencies right:

  • Being organised
  • Learning to deal with tense situations
  • Use influence & coaching skills to overcome objections
  • Being a team contributor
  • Being likeable to all stakeholders
  • Starting to build analytics and commercial skills
  • Taking a step back to build out the right deal

Try seek out new experiences, it’s the fastest way to learn. You will progress when people know they can depend on you

Key things that will help you progress:

  • Saying no to things that don’t add value
  • Being ruthless with prioritisation 
  • Be smart, be nice

If it’s a bigger organisation, you need to understand the politics. Do all the right things but ensure people see your good work

What have we missed? Please hit 'Contribute to the Guide' to give your perspective and help others into their first role.

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