What skills are start-ups looking for?

Tim Atkins (COO, CancerAid), Ellen Dinsmoor (Head of Operations, Vow), Rhiannon White (Chief Product Officer, Vend), Kanav Bhama (Business Operations, Dovetail), Jess Rogers (Strategy and Operations Manager, Snap Send Solve), Will Dennis (APAC Commercial Finance Director, Afterpay), Amelia Crawford (Legal Counsel, TikTok), Harriet Johnson (Head of Content and Partner Marketing, Brex), Tom Bass (Cofounder of Flirtey / Growth PM Atlassian), Matt Thurin (Growth, AirWallex), Lee Lubner), Emer McCann (Manager, Talent & People Operations, Simply Wall St), Tim Rossanis (GM, Head of Growth - Retail & New Verticals A/NZ, Uber), Darryn Rabec (Venture GM at BCG Digital Ventures), Chris Quirk (Investment Manager @ rampersand)

Authored by leaders from CancerAid, Vow, Vend, Dovetail, Snap Send Solve, Afterpay, TikTok, Brex, Atlassian, Airwallex, Simply Wall St, Uber and Rampersand
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Startups care less about your prior technical skills, and more about your drive, tenacity and ability to solve problems.

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

  • Problem solving, lateral thinking, curiosity
  • Drive & ambition - the exciting times of celebration are always a good reward, but the magic is made in the trenches. Being ruthlessly committed to your mission and willing to show grit when times are tough is a critical attribute.
  • Willingness to play any role, irrespective of title - it really doesn’t matter whether you’re the CEO or an analyst, if there’s a job to be done in startup land, everyone has to be willing to roll up their sleeves.
  • Often people from less traditional roles, are the ones with the most to prove and therefore most willing to roll with the punches

Lee Lubner

  • Curiosity
  • Ability to learn and iterate
  • Work smart not hard
  • Understand tradeoffs
  • Problem solving
  • Resilience
  • Grittiness
  • High EQ

If you want to understand your value, it starts with Self-awareness. What are your strengths and what are your weaknesses?

Ask peers, family, do personality tests, check other forms of feedback. Then where can you play to your strengths? Value is subjective. All you need is to find an opportunity where your potential value can be realised.

Darryn Rabec (Venture GM at BCG Digital Ventures)

  • The ability to learn how to do something new quickly
  • Any time you’ve gone from zero to one, you’ve learned something transferable to a startup. Whether it’s a new product, service, process, campaign etc. The key thing is you’ve earned a glimpse into what it means to create something new, where there once was nothing. In these settings more often than not the eventual outcome is ambiguous at the start and there isn’t a single right answer on the best way to get there. In these situations the ability to think conceptually, solve unforeseen problems, and develop a plan are transferable.
  • If your primary skills/ experience aren’t valuable to a startup you want to join, you may need to check your ego at the door. You’ll probably find yourself making a trade-off between extracting maximum “value” from your skills vs. how much you want to pivot your career.

Emer McCann (Manager, Talent & People Operations, Simply Wall St)

In growing a business, especially at the early stages, you hire a lot of smart generalists with a few specialists leading the functions. With this in mind, people need to wear many hats and do many things. In order to grow the business,you need to be proactive, great at problem solving, and have  a growth mindset. You are often building a function, and will have to learn on the go. Often things will go wrong and there will be a lot of uncertainty so being resilient becomes important. It’s about how well you can pick yourself up and move onto the next task. 

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

Transitioning to a new industry and way of working can be unnerving. If you’re coming from corporate, you’re probably used to a hierarchical set-up, entrenched ideas about why your employer exists and how it works and maybe even some senior colleagues who have worked there for 30+ years. Start-ups are different. Everyone is a beginner because start-ups are trying to break new ground and bring something new to the world. Usually, the people you work with haven’t done the specific work they’re doing before. As a result, coming from a background that doesn’t seem to translate directly to a start-up is definitely not a handicap. In fact, start-ups thrive from different perspectives. The reality is that everyone has unique ideas, skills and energy to bring to the table. No one expects you to have all the answers on day 1. Give yourself time to learn. Your skills aren’t fixed. Seek feedback, understand what you contribute and foster a growth mindset. You’ve got this!

Tom Bass (Cofounder of Flirtey / Growth PM Atlassian)

I would argue that it is less about skill sets that are transferable and more qualities of the candidate ie. sense of urgency, willingness to roll up sleeves and GSD without ‘this is beneath me’ being a factor, growth mentality and overall resourcefulness. 

The key part that I see missing the most often is sales and marketing. I would also say that whatever area it is, you want some level of end to end competency. Say for a digital marketer, you would want someone who can put together an effective (not the best) acquisition funnel without having to resort to outsourcing every single part and they end up just project managing. You just need things to work.

Ask yourself “What is the ONE thing that you can do well? Even REALLY well?” That is your unique value proposition.

Harriet Johnston (Head of Content and Partner Marketing, Brex)

If you have something to offer a large or more conventional company you almost always have transferable skills that would be incredibly valuable for a startup as well. Take the time to sit down and break out what you’re good and write it down. For example; ‘I am great w/ powerpoint’, ‘I can build a really strong marketing plan’, ‘my research skills are strong’, and once you have 3-5 ‘superpowers’ sorted, start looking at the job descriptions for the startups.

In many cases they’ll have something cheesy like ‘looking for a rockstar communicator’ which just means you have strong cross-functional communication skills and can write a solid email, or ‘comfortable with a fast-paced ever changing environment’ which just means that you have the flexibility to adjust your plan/strategy as business circumstances evolve. If you remove the Silicon Valley bro language you’ll soon discover that everything you have been doing probably transfers beautifully–also remember that there are ALWAYS going to be gaps in your existing skill set vs. the role, and that’s okay!

Amelia Crawford (Legal Counsel, TikTok)

Don’t underestimate enthusiasm and initiative.  At startups you have to assume ownership, dare to share your own opinions, take risks and break the mould. It is far less about what you have done and the skill set you have and more about what you can do and why you want to do it. If you have a willingness to learn on a daily basis, there’s no stopping you!

Kanav Bhama (Business Operations, Dovetail)

There is a sizable ‘cliff’ between the corporate world and startups - so the default sentiment can naturally be there isn’t much to offer to a startup. I’d argue the opposite for those who focus on transferable skills. Not everything from the corporate world will be relevant in a startup world, but there will be some skills which will be relevant. Examples may include the ability to drive projects from start through to completion, resilience, building and fostering professional relationships, and communicating with diverse audiences. Some later-stage startups may also value your in-depth technical knowledge which will allow you to contribute to the company’s growth in an outsized way. 

If you’re feeling low on confidence - take a step back and see the bigger picture. Aim to recall and visualise the achievements and experience that you’ve been grateful for and proud of, these will fuel energy to realise you’ve got it in you to keep smashing goals and doing awesome things.

Rhiannon White (Chief Product Officer, Vend)

As long as you’re willing to roll your sleeves up, you shouldn’t worry too much about being able to contribute. There are many transferable skills and you will find that some of the lessons you have learned at larger companies are exactly what the Startup is looking for as they scale up. Often having seen a pattern or a problem before is exactly the type of transferable skill that a start up is looking for.

Ellen Dinsmoor (Head of Operations, Vow)

The majority of startups are trying to disrupt and radically change existing industries, or they’re trying to create something that’s never existed before. In both scenarios, there is no “expert” who’s seen it done before and brings all of the cards to the table. The power of a startup comes from their ability to bring fresh, new, ambitious perspectives to the table, and to aggregate different ways of thinking in new, innovative ways. We don’t need experts. We need creative, smart, motivated people who are able to learn quickly, open to change, and hungry to have an impact.

Chris Quirk (Investment Manager, rampersand)

  • All skills are transferable to a startup but some will be more useful in the early days (Sales + Technical skills in the subject area (i.e. developers))
  • The skill matters less (except in a technical area), actually executing on something is the critical thing. 
  • The ability to learn from mistakes quickly
  • The ability to not keep doing something that isn’t working but to figure out what isn’t working quickly and to test something else

Will Dennis (APAC Commercial Finance Director, Afterpay)

Imposter syndrome and low confidence are common emotional challenges that people face, and are nothing to be ashamed of. It is important to remember that a lot of the time the feelings are internal and do not reflect how people perceive you externally. To move forward it can be effective to notice the feelings of low confidence but still continuing to take steps (however small) towards your goal of working at a start-up (e.g. through educating, networking, etc). Over time, this can build confidence and create exposure to businesses in need of skill-sets that you can offer. When I apply this technique of creating forward momentum towards my own goals, I often I realise that my initial fear was perceived and not real.

Tim Atkins (Chief Operating Officer, CancerAid)

I always believe that people have more skills than they give themselves credit for. When asking yourself ‘what can I offer a start-up?’ it may help to write down your ‘specialist’ skills and your ‘general’ skills. It’s the ‘general’ skills that are often valued highly by start-ups. I hope the exercise can help you reflect on how valuable you are.

Specialist skills may relate to a prior degree or where you’ve worked i.e. law, accounting, financing, journalism, communications etc.

General skills may include:

  • Attention to detail
  • Understanding risk and picking holes 
  • Organisation
  • Project management
  • Email communication
  • Productivity
  • Professionalism
  • Work ethic
  • Initiative 
  • Creativity
  • Being a self-starter
  • Resourcefulness

You will find the 'general skills' are often the most valuable.

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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