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For the recent and soon-to-be college grads who want to start companies

There are a lot of options for college grads out there.  But which is right if your goal is to start a startup?

I worked for a large corporation post-graduation.  Honestly, it was a great experience.  I had fun, learned a lot, and lacked many of the typical Big Co horror stories that most seem to have.

However, in terms of preparing me to start a startup, it couldn’t have been a worse decision.

The problem with joining a big company

There are plenty of problems with big companies – beauracracy, politics, bad cafeteria food, ect.   But the biggest problem for an aspiring entrepreneur isn’t so obvious.

The problem is that you can only expect to hone a single skill set.

If you’re an engineer and go to Google, you’ll write code in one language, really well.  If you do investment banking, you’ll learn the finances of one industry, really well.  Of course the more senior you get, the more experiences you’ll have, but they will undoubtedly relate to the same general competency.

At Capital One, I got really good training and experience when it came to data-based business strategy.  And it has certainly come in handy with LawnStarter.  Recently I’ve done a lot of data analysis, and thanks to my experience at BigCo, I can slay any SQL query or pivot table like nobody’s business.  So what’s the problem with that?

The one skill I learned is only one very small part of building a company.

Over the course of LawnStarter I’ve had to learn programming, web design, Adwords, social media marketing, direct mail marketing, how to read legal documents, what a convertible note is, lawn care knowledge, how to outsource work, how to find mentors, how to get the most of mentors, how to cold call, how to create a sales process,  how to hire, how to fire, how to manage, how to motivate employees, how to run a call center, how to build a marketing team and everything in between, all in the course of 2 short years.

At Capital One, I spent a year honing one skill that honestly has played only a minor if any role in LawnStarter’s success.  I think the same is true with any role at any big company.

So, if you’re looking to start a company someday, what should you do?  In my opinion you have two options: start a company right off the bat, or join a startup and learn from someone elses pains.

What to do – start or join?

The first is starting a company.  As Paul Graham points out, if you want to be starting a company 3 years from now, there’s no better way to do that than to start one now.  With a little luck and a lot of hustle, you very well may create a successful business.

I’ve learned so many things at LawnStarter it amazes me sometimes.  And the learning occurred because I didn’t have any choice but to learn.

Even if you fail, you’ll learn a hell of a lot more than you will at even a top tier big company.

Unfortunately, many recent grads have no money, or even worse, student loan debt.  While it is possible to get funding straight out of college through an accelerator or other investors, most first-time entrepreneurs do have to bootstrap for a period of time before they can secure funding.

Fortunately, there is another option.

Joining an early stage startup

Joining a startup an option I had never considered, mainly because it lacked “brand recognition”.  In fact, it wasn’t until we started hiring our first employees that I realized what a great learning experience joining an early stage company can be.

First of all, it’s super exciting being a part of an organization that grows rapidly, whether you’re an employee or a founder.  But in terms of a learning experience, I can’t think of one better.

The very early stages of a company are difficult to describe to an outsider.  It’s made worse by the fact that most founder stories obscure many of the details that happen, and that so few founders write about in the moment experiences.  If you join an early stage startup, you see the non-Techcrunched version of a startup.  You see the decisions that were made that would make or break the company.  You see all the things that didn’t work.  You see founders at each others throats.  You see their first bad hire that they needed to fire.  You witness the janky backend code that was created to get the product launched, and then clean it up.  And you see the company go through different phases of growth.  This learning is incredibly valuable.

Additionally, if your founders are legit, you’ll have access to their mentorship and networks when the time does come.  You will also meet potential cofounders, and have a network of people from different areas of business – marketing, sales, development, product management, ect.  And if you joined a good company, you’ll be surrounded by bright and driven people who will only make you better.

Joining an early stage company allows you to experience much of a company’s founding, without having to risk your life’s savings.  Not to mention, your work directly impacts the trajectory of the company.

And, if your company does well, you’ll get to say that you were “an early employee at [SuccessStoryCo]“, and have a lot easier time getting funding for your first big venture.

How early is too early?

I’m probably not the person to ask, as I’ve only experienced a startup up to 20 people.  Ask others who joined at various stage for a better perspective, but I think the earlier the better.  Definitely under 100 people, and probably under 50.  Don’t let any “unicorn” company convince you they’re still a startup.  Which leads me to my closing point.

Avoid the recruiting hype

Every big company that tried to recruit me told me they were “entreprenuial”.  That it was a great place to learn to run a business.  This is just marketing hype.

Big companies realize that being startupy and entrepreneurial is cool, and they spend a lot of money hammering that BS message into everyone.

I can’t tell you how many students I’ve met hacking on a cool idea, yet interviewing with top-tier companies as a backup plan.  Or how many students showed up at a hackathon to create something new, and have Facebook preach about how entrepreneurial their culture is (even though the actual job role probably involves adjusting a button on a page).

Let me be clear, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to work for a big company.  Unless your goal is to start your own.

Oh, and did I mention?  LawnStarter is an early stage company hiring all sorts of talented people.  Learn more here.