In the third grade, our teacher asked my class what we wanted to be when we grew up. I yelled with confidence and sincerity “A sloth!” much to the amusement of my peers. Fifteen years later, I graduated college knowing full well that I couldn’t be a sloth, but that is about all the progress I had made in forming any sort of answer to the question of what my career path should be. And many people must feel the same way, given that as low as 23% of college grads use their degree in their jobs.
If you happen to be still “professionally undecided,” recent college graduate or otherwise, I can think of no better environment for exploring different career paths and areas of business than a startup. Here’s why.
The Opportunity to Wear Multiple Hats
Many times in a startup, resources are precious, and there isn’t always the time or money to hire a specialist for every job at every position. At a startup, it is critical that you are able to wear multiple hats and venture into sometimes unknown territory. Working in a startup, your success hinges on your ability to proactively self-learn and seek out the information you need to contribute to the needs of the business. This is also known, as the CEO of Linkedin called it, as the ability to “get sh*t done.”
For the professionally undecided among us, the multiple-hat-wearing characteristic of startups is an opportunity to explore a variety of knowledge areas in a live setting (as opposed to a classroom simulation). Working across different teams with people who have varying levels of experience to tackle unique challenges is the chance to test-drive different career paths and learn a diverse set of skills along the way. You are forced to learn on the fly, encounter real business issues first hand, and see how other people tackle business issues.
Startups also present the chance to share your own opinions and see where you may have experiences and knowledge worth sharing, and where your experience or knowledge falls short. For someone trying to figure out who they are professionally, these opportunities are invaluable.
Everyone’s a Teacher, Everyone’s a Learner
Startups provide an intellectually humble environment; unlike at a larger corporation where it is common to have staff who have been doing the same work for 20 years, people in startups tend to be young, enthusiastic, but often times extending themselves beyond their areas of expertise to take care of the laundry list of things that need to be completed on a daily basis. Because of this, people in a startup environment are very open to new ideas and a helping hand. They are happy to acknowledge they are learning as they go, and any ideas or support are welcome if they help in accomplishing goals. This presents an opportunity to get involved with a more diverse array of projects than you may at, say, a large corporation.
The flip-side of everyone being willing to learn is that the more experienced people around you are likely happy to help teach newer staff (you!) the ropes. Everyone you work with knows what it feels like to be a little lost, so they are happy to help provide any needed guidance. Being surrounded by people more experienced than yourself and also willing to teach is an incredible resource that shouldn’t be wasted. As long as you are willing to learn, people are happy to share their past experiences or areas of expertise with you
With everyone simultaneously willing to play the role of teacher and learner, startups provide a much more fluid exchange of ideas and a much more collaborative and educational environment. For the professionally undecided, this is an ideal place to begin to formulate a professional identity because it is relatively easy to wade into different business areas and projects.
There is Always Something to Do
In a startup, with an enthusiastic staff, there are always going to be more ideas and a longer to-do list than there is time. There is always someone who could use a little extra help just an email or Slack message away.
Although intimidating for a recent graduate who might be still figuring out who they are professionally and getting their footing in “the real world,” it is crucial to be proactive in seeking opportunities to contribute and get involved with different projects. This is the only way to begin to decide what areas you might have an interest in, and which you are certain you find unappealing. It also makes your co-workers happy, and that is always a good thing.
Fast-paced, professionally-fluid, and with daily opportunities to try something new, startups are a professional playground for a recent graduate. Opportunities present themselves nearly daily to sprint between different jobs, groups and projects, allowing for you to learn about different careers and business areas along the way. Add to that the inherent learning environment that is present in a startup, and you have the makings of an invaluable professional opportunity.
Aaron Horwath is a Project Integration Manager at an international technology company currently working in Da Nang, Vietnam. Originally from Portland, Oregon, he has spent the last two years working internationally. Through his site 12hourdifference.co, he is sharing his insights as well as the insights of other professional expats from around the world with millennials who are curious about taking an international career path. You can follow him on Twitter @12hrdifference and find him on Linkedin.