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A guide to joining a high-growth startup for recent grads

Updated: Jan 6



Disclaimer: As a young person at the beginning of my career, I definitely don't have the sufficient experience or credibility to begin offering career advice. However, since graduating from university and joining Revolut I've been contacted by many friends and former classmates about what it's like working at a high-growth company and how to join startups that don't have clear graduate programs for recent grads. Given this, I thought to write a blog post summarizing the advice I've received from former colleagues, with the hope that it might also help others too.


Rule 1: Don't listen to your parents.


Young people leaving high school or university naturally lack a professional network, so they seek career advice from their parents. The problem is that parents have a strong bias to look backwards at what was successful in their lifetime and do not look ahead to which industries will be transformative over the next 10-20 years of your lifetime.


This kind of survivorship bias stems from the following logic “I know a successful person X, who did job Y, therefore you should also do Y to become successful”. It may have been the optimal route to join a big four accountancy firm in the 1990s, an investment bank in the 2000s or a social media firm in the 2010s, but through time these companies become oversubscribed, saturated and hierarchical, so are not necessarily the avenues of greatest opportunity for growth today. Take for example LinkedIn’s list of top 25 in-demand jobs in 2022 which includes roles such as Machine learning Engineer, Backend Developer or Site Reliability Engineer - these roles just simply didn’t exist 20 years ago.


Rule 2: Don't climb ladders, ride waves.


The advice I received during one of my first internships was “don’t climb ladders, ride waves” and that involves always looking ahead to new disruptive technologies and having the flexibility to switch career paths to seize new opportunities. Sheryl Sandberg - then COO of Facebook/Meta - summarised this well in a speech at Stanford Graduate School of Business when she said:

If you try to plan your career 20 years in advance, you’ll inevitably miss all the good stuff because all the good stuff hasn’t been invented yet.” - Sheryl Sandberg

Rule 3: Apply to companies that are backed by investors.


The best way to identify high-growth roles is to research which startups are raising money from professional investors. Venture capitalists (VCs) make a living investing in high-growth startups and their aim is to back firms that will exceed +10x returns over the next 5 to 10 years. These are exactly the type of companies to join as a young student looking for accelerated career growth.


The top VC firms post the companies they invest in on the portfolio pages on their website. VC portfolio pages are a great place to start looking for new roles. Here’s a list of reputable VCs portfolio pages to get you started:

Not all startups are the same, many will be in different stages of growth. Some companies may only have 10 employees and a business idea, whilst others may have +5,000 employees and are preparing to go public via an Initial Public Offering (IPO). Your opportunities for development and learning will vary depending on the company's current growth stage.


When looking at joining a startup, it’s important to understand the concept of funding rounds which will help you identify which companies to join based on what skills you want to develop. Stages of growth for startups are generally categorised by a series of funding rounds from Seed to Series C+.

Seed

Series A

Series B

Series C+

Focus

Building a prototype / beta-testing

Establishing product-market fit

Growing a commercially viable product

​Large market expansions

Headcount

​1 to 10

Total Funding

​50 to 200

​200+

Valuation

<$5M

~​$20M

~$100M

~​$200M+

Examples

Primer

As a company grows, they raise more money which in turn stimulates further growth. When looking for a new company to join, ask yourself:

  • When did the company last raise money? What was their latest funding round?

  • How many employees do they have? Is the number of employees growing?

  • Who are their investors? Do their investors have a strong track record?

  • Do I want to have more autonomy or to learn from new role models?

Depending on the stage of your career, you should prioritise gaining experience at a startup where you have the greatest upside for fast career progression. The best route for new grads is to join a company that's recently raised a Series B or Series C from a credible VC and that is gaining traction fast. These companies will be growing their headcount, so it's usually a good time to join as they are looking for talent.


Rule 4: Always reach out.


You've now identified a high-growth company, you're excited to apply - what next?


Keep a Google Sheet of companies you’re interested in and systematically go through the list one by one, reaching out to existing employees. Contact 2 or 3 employees who work in roles that interest you and ask them for a 15min call to learn more about their experience. The best way to reach out is either via LinkedIn or find their company email address which you can usually find online.


My experience has taught me that people are surprisingly willing to offer 15mins of their time to chat with a young person seeking guidance, especially in a post-Covid world where platforms like Zoom have broken geographical and physical barriers to access. If the worst outcome is no response then you’re no worse off and there’s only upside, so start reaching out more. This step requires stamina - it’s where the majority of people lose confidence but it’s where you’ll reap the greatest reward, so keep at it.


On the call, express your interest to join their company and ask to be put in contact with a member of their HR team or a hiring manager. Having a referral from an employee will increase your chances by 10x. Don't worry about coming across as forward, what do you have to lose? Also in the majority of cases, startups have referral bonuses to incentivise employees to recruit new hires, so really you're doing them a favour.


At the same time, carry out your due diligence on the call. It's common for recent grads to jump on the first job opportunity they get offered, however, one of the best pieces of advice I received was that no matter which stage of your career you are at, always do your due diligence. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does the company appear as good as I first thought?

  • What opportunities for personal career growth will I get if I were to join for 1-2 years?

  • Is the company culture aligned with my values?

Rule 5: Have fun, learn and reciprocate.


Relish the opportunity to talk to employees at startups building exciting new products and businesses. Hopefully, these will be the companies that have a major positive impact on the world over the next 5 to 10 years, so learn from each conversation and build on your experiences. If you don't get a successful lead, stay determined and keep pushing.


Finally, always reciprocate. If you receive a message from a young student asking for advice, always make the time for a 15-minute call, maybe it will influence the decisions that change their life for the next 15 years.



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