Having been working in technology and startups for a decade and completing an MBA in the process, a frequent question I receive is how can an MBA graduate transfer into the technology industry post-graduation, and many times specifically, into a startup. This question has broken my rule of four: once a question has been asked of me four times, I write a blog post answering it for the masses. This post outlines my advice to those people.
Let’s Say the Hard Thing First: Most Startups Don’t Want You
The thing you have to understand about startups is that they are about belief. A (usually first time) founder with (usually) not much of an understanding of an industry decides s/he can take it on and make it better. If someones has that type of belief in him/herself, that person also believes they can learn all of the skills necessary to execute on their vision, but they don’t have any of those skills when they start. If things happen to go well, the founder/s quickly realize they do have some skills they can’t or don’t have the time to learn that are necessary to scale the business. So, what they look for in people they bring onto their teams is someone with a skill set that can fill a weakness of theirs or their teams. This usually means previous experience in startups as the challenges are so unique.
Most MBAs do not have any startup experience, and founders won’t be impressed if you won your business plan competition during school. They probably never wrote one anyway. If you don’t have a skill they need right now, they feel like they are wasting their time talking to you. In fact, the more likely a startup founder is to talk to you, the less likely it is going to be a successful startup.
Most startups also pay below market values, and MBAs tend to have salary requirements to help them pay down their debt. I remember interviewing MBAs for a position that would report to me. Almost all of them asked for more money in salary than I was making. Essentially, what happens is they don’t want your salary, and they don’t yet need your strategic skills. They need executional skills you probably don’t have.
The Baby Step: Start at an Established Tech Company
Most MBA are deep in debt, and they want to go head on in a new direction. Some times, that may work. But my advice for people wanting to get into startups is to take a baby step. Instead of targeting companies with 15-50 people, target established tech companies. The main reason for this is to build up the set of skills startups needs. Where can you learn those skills? From people that previously worked in startups. Many of those people are still working for what was a startup and is now a successful tech company. The bonus of this situation is that since these companies are bigger, they are more likely to value MBA skills and more likely to have training programs to help you learn the skills startups need. So, if you work at a, say, LinkedIn, for two years, you probably learn a thing or two that scales down to a startup. The other great thing about established tech companies is they are likely to offer internships for MBAs, which are critically important during the summer time off.
What to Do at an Established Tech Company
The next question becomes what to work on at an established tech company. This is a trade off between how much of your skills translate to what they need, and what you want to learn. Let’s say you were in finance before your MBA, and you want to get into marketing. Perhaps an FP&A position that focuses on marketing spend would be an ideal option as it gives you exposure into all the marketing data and probably a lot of the marketers you want to learn from. Perhaps there is a marketing position available that they can train you in at the start. That is ideal. If not, you may be able to transfer later as you learn the lingo.
The Bottom Line
Changing industries is a long term play. You can’t expect to just hop into a new industry with no expertise and get your ideal role at your ideal company. If that role is a role at a startup, play the long game by building skills at a larger company first and working with the right people to make sure that can translate a few years down the line.