Is a Start-Up the Right Place for a Graduate?

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Project for project big agencies crush the small ones right? Not quite.  But they get the bigger brands? No, wrong again.

There’s a library of articles strewn across the Internet of plucky boutiques claiming they create better work.  Agile or mighty is just the start; brands have plenty to choose from when it comes to agencies. But what about the employees and more specifically, what kind of choice does a student have? Where is the graduate grass the greenest?  In the last year I’ve learnt that the product of your effort isn’t the only factor in a rewarding career.

I may only have finished university last September, but so far in my career I’ve worked at three start-ups and a global agency.  Each one claimed to “create unique work” and “think differently” but clichés aside they all make content for the Internet.  As a graduate, there are a lot of paths to decide between and the entry-level jobs are quite similar: making it pretty hard to know which the right one for you is.

In this discussion, I want to share my experience of working in big and small agencies. It’s not just an observation of what your calendar will look like from day to day but also how they differ as employers.  It should help you understand one thing; is a start-up the right place for you?

I’ll begin with recruitment. It’s not an obvious topic, but it’s the first sign of scale.  Bare with me on this one, it might seem like a strange thing to discuss but it’s worth considering.  Recruitment sets the precedent for how a company operates.  Do they carefully select their team or do they put bums on seats as fast as possible? Job boards as well as social platforms have given employers access to thousands of professionals and as a result, it’s becoming an internal job.

Larger companies have a thorough process in place crafted by a talent director.  It involves aptitude tests, tasks and presentations, all neatly packaged into a graduate day.  It’s a tough vetting process and should you be successful, it gives you the confidence of an X Factor winner.  On the other hand, the small start-up will settle for a vague job description and a paltry interview.  This will usually be a meandering conversation with promises of a booming business and career progression.  It makes landing a job easier, but keeping it harder.

Twice I’ve found myself out of my depth in a position that I was hired for after just one interview.  The first few weeks are always great but when the honeymoon finishes and the work kicks in, does the start-up really have the time to build your skillset?

It’s not easy to be patient when looking for your first position but the recruitment process leaves telling signs for the future.  If you can step into a job and make an impact immediately then a start-up career is perfect for you.

So, if you’ve navigated the soft recruitment process and grabbed yourself a job, be prepared for variety. It’s true that the silos of a larger agency can limit your opportunity to different disciplines and this is certainly not the case for start-ups.  In one position I was tasked with content, account and project management, all of which are roles in their own right at bigger businesses.  It comes with autonomy to do what you think is right, rather than following a predetermined process, albeit with its own challenges.  It doesn’t just require good time management but also the courage to make mistakes.

In my opinion, the most valuable commodity to a start-up is time.  It’s both on their side and against them.  They usually don’t have any and that forces them to work faster and with more agility that a large agency can’t risk.  As a result, they’ll change their strategy more often than a cheap plaster. Either that takes the wind from your sails or it reinvigorates you, but being prepared for it is essential.  Expect your work to be scrapped or equally implemented in a heartbeat.  I’ve been asked for a Google+ strategy on a Monday and told to forget it by Tuesday. (To be fair, has a Google+ strategy ever been necessary?) Nonetheless, it can be difficult to stay motivated when your work gets treated so flippantly.

It’s worth considering more than just the obvious aspects of a graduate job and there isn’t an easy answer to whether a start-up is the right place.

However, I can tell you that a good boss isn’t just a patient one, a generous salary doesn’t make the work enjoyable and a variety of tasks won’t stop you from being bored.  Ironically, what you can count on is a start-up making its own rules, then changing them and changing them again.

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