This is the story of my first brush with the #startuplife (and how it almost put me off that cray shit forever…and how it actually didn’t).
Back in 2010, a month shy of finishing up my undergrad, I figured I should probably start thinking about the next step. Since September, everyone around me had been working on securing those few, coveted positions at those places or preparing to go to graduate schools. It was April, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.
I knocked around the internet for a while, asking Google what it thought I should do with a Sociology major. It was terrifying–even the brightest, most ambitious students were having a tough time getting a job. That senior semester, I delighted heavily in distractions in attempts to mitigate the fear of moving on. I had coasted blissfully through my liberal arts experience, passing by departments and picking a fruit or two from the abundant trees. It was safe that nobody was going to accuse me of taking it all too seriously.
I came across a job posting for what sounded like a marketing position for what looked like a fun, “dynamic,” small company (I couldn’t quite understand why martial arts skills were listed under required). I clearly didn’t know a thing about startups. What I didn’t know then was: this startup had, a few months prior, raised a healthy round of Series B funding from Google, having clearly met with some success and was positioning to scale.
Well, that’s what 2015 Claire knows and knows how to find out. The me five years ago had never heard of CrunchBase and hardly considered even giving it a good Google search. I sent out my resume and recommendations and heard back a few days later for a phone call. I successfully convinced a perky woman on the other end of the call that I was articulate and energetic and sufficiently not psychotic, so they invited me in for an interview. It was a simple sales pitch. I spent a few minutes going over the materials they had sent me and collected some courage.
I drove over and waltzed into the spiffy office. I honestly didn’t realize that other candidates would be there when I arrived, but somehow I wasn’t thrown. There were some impressive people in the room: a handsome Harvard grad student, obviously a few ambitious, Asian Ivy Leaguers, a few guys from sturdy state schools, and little ol’ me. I don’t actually remember any other females, although I’m sure there ought to have been one or two from Tufts or somewhere like that.
There was also another person in the room. We were told to come comfortably as ourselves, but this chick was a bit too far out there, especially in a room full of kids who came in suits anyway. I think I was naive enough to actually take the advice and wore jeans, which probably inadvertently worked out well for me.
This girl had come running in after we had all arrived. She was late and frantic. She was wearing something that seemed like it was from Spencer’s at the mall, half toddler Halloween costume, half college geek. I didn’t buy it. It reeked of some kind of stunt. I watched as people reacted to her. She was chatty to the point of nails-on-the-chalkboard annoying, and it was equal parts funny and uncomfortable to watch the more anxious kids get agitated. Some even told her not-so-politely to leave them alone. They were trying to be serious.
Others simply ignored her, turning away. I opened to the opportunity. I kindly tried to help her calm down, asked some questions about where she was from and how she came to be late. I even asked where she got some of her unique articles of clothing. Most of the other kids were cramming or trying to calm themselves down. I didn’t get why everyone was so stressed. I had written and memorized a script and had the confidence to rely on the fact that I’m a quick study and could rattle off the factoids and numbers they had provided for me in the interview invite e-mail. I also knew my personality would help drive the sale.
The others looked at me like I was crazy. I knew what they were thinking, “What if someone is watching? Why would you want to be seen associating with the psycho?” I knew what they didn’t, somehow. They were already watching. In particular, she was the one watching. The interview started in the waiting room and I was winning this round.
The pitch went fine. I was adequately adorable and ambitious enough to win a second interview. (I also honestly didn’t know there were multiple rounds of interviews). I came back and the funny girl wasn’t there. I sized up the remaining candidates. Only one of the Asians, the Harvard grad student, and me. This time I hadn’t been given any instructions. I was set up for a “situation” which I considered to be an opportunity to show my “problem solving skills.”
I tanked it. They sat me down in a room and yelled at me for 20 minutes with a timer in front of me and everything–high pressure. I didn’t have the experience or poise to pull it off. Hey, it was my first “real” interview. I totally think I cried after. Who would want to be so mean and why would I ever want to work for a group of those kind of people?
I sometimes check to see what the startup has been up to. They’ve since repositioned. I think things are going well? Even if they aren’t, things are going well for me. It was not until later that I grasped the whole thing. I took me a while to learn what I had learned and to finally love startups, but I’m so glad I’m not one to be easily scared off from something, or anything.
After getting some travel miles in, coming back to NYC to dig my teeth into a few startups, despairing in that and joining the corporate struggle, despairing in that, and then coming back around again, I am so glad for my first experience with a startup.
Here’s a list of things I learned:
1. It’s totally OK and probably better not to take yourself too seriously, even if everyone else around you is freaking out. Be brave and do YOU, because it’s super boring and inauthentic to do anything else.
2. Know what it is, very seriously, what you do well. Be proud of those qualities and hone them like you’re training at the gym. Stay sharp. Remember that once you’ve leveled up, you can’t unlearn those skills.
3. Know what it is, very seriously, what you suck at. Own it. I did very well in the preparation and personality, and I had a hard time with the assignment involving the unknown. Work on it. You can push back against your weaknesses. If you let it, this exercise in accepting and overcoming your weaknesses can become a very safe and comfortable place. Sounds counterintuitive, I guess, but trust me here. Be Midas–turn your shit into gold. Seriously, it takes work, but once you’ve got it you can sit in a sea of your riches.
4. Be confident, kind, and actually care. Those three things, right there, won’t be everything, but they’ll get you a lot of places. Believe me.