Join A Startup...You Already Have The Most Important Tools
I’d like to challenge each and every one of you – whether you are a sophomore looking for a summer internship, a senior looking for your first full time job after college, or an established professional. As you navigate the working world, I challenge you to look for opportunities at startups. I challenge you because as an athlete, you are uniquely qualified to flourish in the startup environment. Why? Because you hold the keys to the most important qualities for being a successful startup employee and leader:
You are proactive in identifying opportunities and taking action
You receive feedback well and quickly make adjustments
You bounce back from setbacks and failures
When I finished my career as a midfielder for the Stanford Men’s Soccer team, I immediately turned to what I was familiar with – the sports industry. I believed working in the sports industry was the only place that could provide me with the same passion that I experienced as an athlete. I soon discovered that there was an equally competitive and stimulating pathway outside of sports that allowed me to find meaning in my work – startups. Through involvement with Venture for America (a fellowship program that places recent college grads at startups in emerging U.S. cities), I joined an event ticketing technology company called TicketFire. In the past year, TicketFire has digitized more than 1 million tickets across an average of 400 events per week. In my short time, I’ve seen the company evolve dramatically. For my contribution, I credit my time as a student-athlete for positioning me to make a significant impact at the company. I’ve been able to tap into the following skills – skills that I believe most athletes develop – to kick-start my professional career.
When hiring at TicketFire, I search to find the answer to one specific question: how has this person demonstrated that they’re proactive? Taking initiative is one of the most important qualities for a startup employee. At emerging companies, employees don’t always have formal managers or organizational systems in place. Startups desperately need employees to identify opportunities and take action. You, an athlete, have spent countless hours honing your ability to self-identify areas that need improvement, create a plan, and execute during competition.
In our early days at TicketFire, we ran our customer support through a single Gmail account. I was the only person that monitored the account and occasionally things slipped through the cracks. With the time-sensitive nature of live events, a mistake can result in the loss of thousands of dollars or a customer not getting into the venue. I identified that we were not providing the level of service that our users deserved and started to research how a scrappy company could punch above its weight and
provide best-in-class service. I quickly put together a list of products that included email, live chat, and phone support. I then set up demos with providers, picked the best fit, and implemented a solution. From there, we trained our data entry team to double as support agents and within a month, we had live support for TicketFire customers 18 hours a day / 7 days a week. By proactively diagnosing an issue and developing a solution, we were able to increase efficiency while enhancing customer experience.
In sports, we constantly receive feedback. We receive internal feedback from our minds and bodies and external feedback from our teammates and coaches. We must be quick to process this feedback and make necessary adjustments in order to successfully execute the next play. If we have issues with receiving or acting on feedback, we remain stagnant. As an athlete, you have likely developed the ability to internalize feedback, whether that is in a one-on-one meeting or in front of the whole team. Rather than perceiving it as criticism, you take feedback as an opportunity to improve.
At TicketFire, I received the feedback that I need to be more positive in the way I approach new ideas. My natural reaction to a new idea is to identify all the reasons why it won’t work. There can be benefits to this more cynical and operational approach, but as one of the leaders at the company, I need to find a way to be more open to new ideas. Our chairman challenged me to make this change and it has been and continues to be, very difficult. I sometimes get defensive or justify my actions but I’ve increasingly come to understand that this attitude will only hold me back. By welcoming the feedback and committing to improving, I will make the team and everyone around me even stronger.
From grueling injury recoveries to championship match losses, athletes know how to bounce back from tough circumstances. Athletes understand that even with the most detailed preparation, things can and will go wrong. Working at a small company with an ever-changing roadmap and pressure for immediate success means things are constantly going to break or fail. It will feel like there are five fires to put out but only one extinguisher available. As an athlete, you know how to pick yourself up, shake the dust off, re-center, and plan a path forward toward success. This is what you have done, day in and day out, and it is what you will continue to do during your professional career.
Three weeks before the first game of my senior year, I hurt my knee. It was particularly devastating as I was in the best shape of my life and heading into a season where I primed to be a key contributor to a potentially very successful team. After a week of frustration, I finally was able to get out of my head and start listening to friends, coaches, and family. They told me to recognize what was in my control and what was not. This is a difficult thing to do when injured. Most thoughts during a time like this go something like, “I can’t understand why this happened...why did this happen to me?” Eventually, I became more focused on what was in my control, such as my mindset, training, therapy, eating, and sleeping habits. With the help of the staff, I was able to maintain my fitness during recovery and stay engaged with the team to make sure I was on the same page with our preparation and tactics. When I
returned to practice three days before the first game of the season, I was able to fire on all cylinders and cap off the week playing my absolute best in our opening game.
Working at a startup is nerve-racking, motivating, frustrating, meaningful, tiring...but isn’t that also the case with every practice, game, match, or meet? Naturally, there are a number of risks that come with joining an emerging company and not everyone can, or wants to, take those risks. But if you are in a situation where you believe you have an opportunity to join a startup, grab that opportunity, because you have already developed some of the most important tools to be successful in the startup environment.
And one closing tip: don’t forget to ask for equity.