A startup vet to aspiring entrepreneurs: internships are actually the new jobs and vice versa. By Ellie Cachette (VP of Product Marketing, Koombea)
Often I am asked to give professional advice to budding entrepreneurs, high school students, college students and sometimes the random career-switcher. What I tell them is that overall the standard to "simply work" is higher than its ever been before.
What I mean by this is that the bar for everything has been raised in the last five to ten years: the bar for prototypes, for raising money, for hiring and business contracts have all been raised. It is no longer simply good enough to have a website to raise money, just as it is no longer good enough to have had an internship in college to get a job afterwards. Many internships are even becoming specialized. In the last week I was asked to forward openings for a Web Analytics internship, a Front End Designer (UI) internship and a Product Development Internship. (Read: email me if you are looking for any type of internship).
What I am realizing is that internships are actually the new jobs and vice versa. Even at the executive level everything is a test--an internship or a trial of sorts. Want to get a big corporate client to use your product or software? There’s a beta program. Want to get a high paying salary at a firm? You start as a contractor. Everything is an internship to some degree, which is why how and what you do with your time is more important than ever. The world has become Agile in everything.
The Difference Between Wanting and Doing
I think this newly raised bar for quality is good for business, especially for those willing to work hard. However, the support networks for career starters haven’t caught up nor have career-starters’ expectations.
When I was in college there were only a few people who had done an internship. Most of my classmates were on typical four-year paths where they went to school a few hours each day, did homework and thought that upon graduation they would simply "get a job." Obviously my class was hit hard by reality: a college degree was not enough to get a job. It was only at times enough to get an interview.
Graduates only a few years behind saw an even more depressing fate as college loan default reached an all time high. As for the classes even further behind, otherwise known as Millennials, forget about it. I can remember interviewing fresh college graduates with little experience at my former startup who were asking for $60,000 a year in salary. Can you imagine that? Someone who could potentially cost your startup more in training time than pay, demanding a similar salary to that of a founder for the luxury of being trained? It seems laughable now but this was the expectation of recent graduates just a few years ago. Now there’s more transparency about the competition in the workforce, so you do see reality setting in. Simply wanting a job is no longer good enough: what have you built, what have you done, what have you taken initiative on without being prodded? There’s a lot of want in the world but less execution.
Your Career as an Investment
When the professional fields become saturated as they are now, the risk of choosing the entrepreneurial path is actually lower. Especially when earlier in one’s career you have two choices: you can take a risk in building something for yourself or for someone else. Either way you have to show the world your skills.
Because of this the startup community is bursting with new ideas, new people and many parts of the ecosystem are filling up. Just look at coworking spaces, early-stage angel investing and the demand for engineering talent. If the latest funding rounds for Hired and AngelList are any indication, it shows that executing is a skill that’s not going out of style any time soon.
What you do with your career is more important than ever. Taking a "safe" job where you have nothing to show for your effort can harm you long term. Where you invest your time, especially early on in your career, is one of the most important career decisions you’ll ever make, so you must choose wisely. In business we call this opportunity cost, which means when the cost of losing time outweighs any profit or benefit gained from whatever you chose to do. If you spend time working on something that doesn’t get the traction you need, your opportunity cost can be unacceptably high.
I’ve had good experiences with investing time in my career (when I waited a few more weeks to interview at the right companies for the right positions instead of taking the first offer I received, for example) but I have also waited too long to walk away from something (like I did with my former startup before shutting down). I have not hit all homeruns but I have been cognizant of my time as an investment; I even waited tables once for a few months while I was in a fierce interview battle between three large software companies. You need to be cognizant of this too.
A Higher Bar All Around
As competition becomes fierce for businesses this becomes a time a shine for those that work hard and do things right. The playing field has never been more level and more about skill than relationships. We see this in the startup ecosystem as metrics around Minimum Viable Products are published, information becomes crowdsourced and readily available, and even accessing massive data storage space grows cheaper and easier. Everyone is getting connected and "Agile methodologies" can now be applied to almost anything as businesses launch and improve in fast intervals. Large corporations are adopting Agile Marketing and testing around with faux-advertisement to gain a read on potential consumer adoption. "Mobile" capable websites are seeing massive drops in traffic as users are more prepared to download a specific mobile app or expect the web-friendly version of the site to act just as seamlessly. Just "doing it" isn’t enough.
So what can people do to give their careers the best chance of success in this new reality? Simply put: execute. Treat each job like an internship: show up on time, deliver what is expected and keep track of your work. I encourage employees I mentor to create their own websites, keep track of their projects in spreadsheets and really understand what it is that they are working on. That way in a few years down the road when memories fade you can show exactly what you did and translate this into what will help future projects.
If all of this sounds tiring rather than exciting, then it may just be that business isn’t for you. However, for the rest of those hungry builders and entrepreneurs now is your time to shine. Level up.
Ellie Cachette is VP of Product Marketing at Koombea (@koombea), a design and development firm based in Barranquila, Colombia with offices in San Francisco and New York. You can find her on Twitter @ecachette.