Think & Grow Partner, Vinisha, chats to Jono Herman, Co-Founder of Earlywork, to pick his brain about how young people can enter and navigate the start-up world as well as how start-ups can attract skilled young people to help them scale.
Most people who work in a start-up seem to have a good story of how they landed their first start-up role. How can young people meaningfully build their career pathways and how start-ups can be more encouraging towards them?
I actually landed my first job in a start-up through a friend I made at university who knew a co-founder. But, I know not everyone has access to those circles.
Which brings me to my first point that we need to democratise access to helpful, realistic career resources, jobs and opportunities. Having access to them shouldn’t differ due to your family situation or socioeconomic background.
Language is also an important one. In start-ups it’s acronyms, acronyms, acronyms as well as varying job titles which can confuse or discourage people who have never been around that or know what it all means. We always use and encourage clear, simple language to describe things which start-ups can also endeavour to do.
What do you think are the current challenges that young people face within the market right now?
We’ve all heard the phrase that ‘9 out of 10 startups fail’ whilst at the same time companies are continually getting funded, layoffs were sparingly and quietly done. So, it wasn’t necessarily something you thought would happen to you. All of that is now becoming a real possibility that you can see happening with friends, past and current colleagues who are in worst-case scenarios being impacted in today’s market.
There’s a definite realignment in terms of the risks involved which have become very real within the start-up community.
However, what we’re also seeing is that for every person that was laid off or whose role got dropped, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of other roles available to be filled. There are many well-capitalised companies that are hiring more than ever.
For a lot of people, the start-up risk reaffirms their strength and their conviction that this is the place they want to be – a place where it’s a positive ecosystem with everyone helping each other.
There’s a great social fabric that extends beyond company to company and feels like you’re part of one broader team; the Australian start-up ecosystem. Young people especially are realising that this is where they want to spend their professional lives.
Do you think there’s a lot of romanticism around start-ups?
For sure. Even more so with founders. Everyone wants to be a founder, but it’s actually a hard job when you look at it from a different perspective. The role itself is glorified, but there are a very small amount of high payoffs, you’re working nights and weekends doing admin or putting out fires and far less time on the meaningful strategic work.
And for start-ups, you see the success in headlines but for 90% of them it’s very different to that. It’s low budget and low pay for a long time. There can be a high equity upside and that’s a risk people take.
It’s certainly not skateboards, slides and WeWorks. Even though I think young people do join for those things initially, they leave with an unbelievable rate of learning and opportunities that they wouldn’t have otherwise got in the more traditional corporate setting.
So, I do think people go in for that success and glory. But, regardless if they do or don’t get it – you will get a bunch of learnings and interesting perspectives and ideas.
Culture is a really big piece. I honestly don’t think I could go back to a corporate job now! I appreciate the fundamentals, but I’ve learned a start-up is more aligned to my personality. I took the learnings from the corporate space and used it to take me forward though. But, there are so many ways to build your career in the start-up space.
What advice do you have for young people who want to enter and navigate the start-up world? Because there are so many trends, the market is always changing, there are jobs that aren’t even created yet that we know are coming. Web3 for example.
Firstly, be intentional. Work is something that you spend most of your time on, you also spend a lot of time with your colleagues. Some people just randomly pick a career or a role on Linkedin without much deliberation. When really, when you consider how much time and energy you spend in your career and in your role, it should align with your passion and personality.
Start-ups give you the opportunity to have a significant impact in solving a problem you care about like the environment, healthcare or diversity.
Secondly, consider the kind of environment you want to be immersed in. And like we mentioned earlier, it’s not all about the skateboards and slides, but how you want to work too. How do you want to be managed and mentored? What frameworks or pathways do you want to follow? What type of working style will get the best out of you? Some prefer ambiguity and chaos, while others prefer structure and organisation.
The third thing to consider is your goals. Money could be what lights you up and keeps you striving forward, which is nothing to be embarrassed about. For others, it’s flexibility and a healthy work/life balance so they can travel more or eventually start a family. In short, why are you doing what you’re doing? Because that will help you determine the role, career and company you end up in.
The last one is having a knowledge of your skills. What would you bring to the table in a start-up? Consider soft skills like team player, leadership qualities or adaptability and hard skills like financial, technical or creative.
This reminds me of the Japanese concept of Ikagi. When the question, tell me about yourself pops up in job interviews (a question I dread) I use that similar concept where I outline across 3 circles - what my skills/strengths are, what I enjoy and what the market needs.
It's important to understand the difference between what’s a hobby is and what’s a chore and find that middle ground because there are few places to hide in a start-up if you don’t care about what you’re doing or why you’re doing it.
I just find it crazy how quickly people make decisions throughout their careers. You can sometimes see that decision-making process in candidates or even existing employees.
For example, somebody who is asking these existential questions, going deep in the planning and who isn’t afraid to challenge decisions – that’s a good sign of someone who wants to be there for the long haul, through the grit.
Someone who asks questions at a very surface level or doesn’t react positively or negatively to big changes or decisions you’re making is a bit of an orange flag. It can make or break a company.
It sort of makes you question why they’re there and where their true interest lies, doesn’t it? Especially when it’s a small start-up and everyone’s influence is much larger. It reminds me of the six human needs; certainty, variety, significance, connection, growth and contribution.
And that can change depending on where you’re at in your life. So, for me at this stage– it was variety and growth. But, then when I moved from Brisbane to Sydney several years ago, it was a connection because I was craving a social circle.
Whereas some people want certainty, especially if they have a family. So, that also alters the decision-making and their risk appetite.
This definitely applies to the start-up world because the smaller ones are only really for people who have a high-risk tolerance. However, scale-ups and unicorns have fewer risks but offer some of the other human needs that traditional corporates don’t.
Let’s talk about equity and compensation structures. As you know, Think & Grow release an annual Start-up Salary Guide. What’s your advice for how companies and talent can use the guide?
People use the guide as a source of truth for their own framing and understanding.
From what we’ve seen, money and compensation is a secondary learning and impact in terms of their own needs for young people. It’s definitely important to ensure you’re paying market rates – we get a lot of questions like ‘I’m looking for a product manager role at a start-up, what is the appropriate amount?’ Our first response is to look at the salary guide.
I also think it’s an education piece for benchmarking and hierarchies for inexperienced founders as well as job seekers. What would match well with this is the pathway into these roles. For example, how a product manager goes to a senior product manager. Good, solid organisation design within an early-stage start-up can help young people get an idea for the pathways open to them – how they proceed to their next role.
What else do you think is missing from the ‘education piece’ for young people starting out in start-ups?
There needs to be more advice on how to find good jobs, and roles they actually want. There’s so much hidden information that not everyone has access to, as we said earlier.
My advice is to be like a hunter, not a fisherman. Practically seek out roles, create your own listing views, go to a bunch of networking events, reach out to people and platforms to have conversations. Don’t just sit there refreshing the job ads page waiting for your dream job to appear. Or start a job, say in customer service, with the aim of progressing that role.
That’s a good one actually, there are so many more creative ways of getting into a start-up role than just applying on Linkedin. To go back to the romanticism of start-ups – people underestimate just reaching out to make a connection and have a conversation rather than going the traditional route of sending off a CV to a recruiter or hiring manager.
Yeah – some people are just scared to reach out or actively search for a possibility. But, all these influential people, founders etc have public profiles, so they’re way more accessible. The worst that can happen is that they don’t respond to your message and the best that can happen is you end up securing a role in their business.
It goes back to what you said earlier about being intentional. Be intentional about why you want to join in your message, say you’re good at ABC and you’re passionate about what the company is working towards – would they be open for a chat or know of anyone else who’s hiring in a similar field?
My thought process is, and I know so many job ads these days are sexy and attractive, but why would you want to compete against hundreds of other people for one role if you don’t have to? An alternative is messaging a bunch of founders, chief of staff, hiring managers and competing against yourself.
And whether the job exists or not doesn’t matter so much, it’s the initial contact that matters. You’re potentially reaching out to the right person before the job is even posted or you’re in their mind before they start searching for candidates.
I believe though it’s more of a mindset that is preventing people from actually doing these things and that’s what we need to change.
Thanks to Jono Herman, Co-Founder of Earlywork and Vinisha Rathod, Partner at Think & Grow.