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Uni to Useful: How startups can help you learn quickly early in your career

10 October 2018

Startups – like phosphorescence – are shiny, bright, elusive and have very short lifespans. They seem to bring joy, happiness and mega-yachts to all those who understand them. And if you do, you’ll know that it’s difficult because it is so hard to separate the hype from the hardwood.

Graduates in Startups - Meet Elena and Cameron, USyd graduates who joined AgriWebb

Bright young graduates exploring the first steps in their careers might pause to consider the benefits of working for a soon-to-fail startup while continuing to manage one’s student loans, parental expectations and long-term goals may seem as baffling to you as your apple watch does to your Grandmother (bless her)!

There are a few things you should know before you jump in your Uber, Waze your directions and Hello-Fresh your dinner. Note: this post won’t map out your track to Zucker-Treasure, but it might just lend a few hints that help you select a path through startups.

If you’re looking for a stable methodical start to your working life, you’re on the wrong bean bag.

The best traits for starting your career at a startup are malleability, commitment and ardor.
Justin Webb, AgriWebb's Chairman on our Friday All-Team Coffee Break

Armed with these traits, you will “drink from a firehose of knowledge” most (good) startups are stretched to meet the demands of their exploding growth. This means you’ll be thrown unexpectedly and unpreparedly at problems that you will have to reason, research and resolve on your own.

Trial by fire or hazing… choose your label, what you’ll end up with is incomparable experience.

AgriWebb's Product Team, ranging from PhD's to fresh graduates on their first job

If you have the maturity to understand that you will fail and then pick yourself up again, own the mistake and adapt, you’ll be streaks ahead of your classmates who are plodding through the early training and papercuts at a Big 4.

That said, all that glitters is not gold. There is a huge risk of systemic failure within the business through no fault of your own. You may see it coming… you may not. But more than likely you will experience a collapse of your employer and be out in the workforce again. So perhaps it is redundant to mention that this path is not for the timid or fainthearted. 

What to look for in your first startup...

  1. Make sure the company allows access to senior leadership (founders or division heads). If it doesn’t, you’ll have trouble learning the lessons of startup hacking and growth from people with some experience.
  2. Ensure your startup has at least achieved product-market fit so you can actually focus on growth and entrepreneurship. If the company is still pre-product and pre-revenue then you’ll desperately be seeking capital rather than learning how to implement and grow.
  3. Any good manager/founder should let you own a project or area. This is important because it is the best way for you to test your own research, analysis and real-world implementation. If find yourself being constantly micromanaged you might as well be at a huge firm with more security and frameworks to teach you the way of the widget-maker.

While not central, an additional characteristic of great startups are founding teams that have previously ran similar organisations, raised significant capital and built great products.

Finally, I urge, persuade and compel you to read this excellent post on job and career selection written by a classmate of mine at Harvard. I wish I’d read it early in my career and then again and again as I changed and adapted. Brilliant stuff.

Now that you know enough to hurt yourself, you’re ready to confidently stride into your first startup without worrying about a thing… and that… will be your first failure to learn from! Good luck!

Picture of Justin Webb, Co-Founder and Chairman at AgriWebb

Justin Webb

Chairman at AgriWebb

If you’ve made it this far, thank you. I honestly hope you find these thoughts useful and applicable in some way to your own unique situation. For me, I reread Tim’s Wait But Why post recently and did some active reflection. Consciously, I myself feel more fulfilled at AgriWebb than I have ever been in many previous, higher profile jobs (at Macquarie, Ascalon and BlackRock).

Funny note: The Managing Director of a Client Business for BlackRock Australia once advised me that “to progress in this organisation you should to stop focusing on growing the business and concentrate on internal stakeholder management”.

I can’t possibly imagine anyone at AgriWebb ever saying that!!

So now, the challenge for me is to recognise what makes a great work environment and “Overcome the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration” for AgriWebb.