Ten Lessons I Learned in My First Start-Up Job out of College

So, you just graduated. If you were wise enough to pursue a degree that is in demand among start-ups and have landed a job, congratulations! Despite the hesitancy common among your peers, you’ve taken the adventurous route and have found yourself in the midst of a small group of people who are trying to change the world and find success in the process.

This is the exact path I embarked upon one year ago. I’ve survived 12 months working at my first start-up job — and wow, what a learning experience it has been. If you’re like me and are starting right out of college: 1) Congrats, really. You’ve beaten a ton of other hopeful candidates and are poised to gain some truly valuable work experience. And 2) Get ready to work.

Transitioning from college classes and homework to “real life” and project deadlines can be a daunting challenge. To help you make the most of your first year, I have listed below the Top 10 lessons I learned in my first start-up job out of college.

  1. Take Advantage of the Seasoned Veterans Around You

    Chances are there are some really talented people at the table next to you. No, seriously, take a few seconds away from being glued to your monitor and just look around your office. You’re guaranteed to find experienced co-workers who have worked on a great product at one company or another. Introduce yourself! At Luminate, I’ve been fortunate enough to be graced with the presence of engineering brilliance from the early browser development team from Netscape and Mozilla. Find these amazing resources, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. They’ll be happy to hear how interested you are in their experience, and you might just get some good stories out of them.

  2. Find a Passion Outside of Work

    Now that you’re done with homework and studying every night, be sure to find something to keep yourself occupied outside of work. I’m working at a start-up dedicated to making the Web’s three trillion images interactive, so photography and photo trips have become my new favorite hobbies post-graduation, and I love it. I’ve purchased my first DSLR and have taken multiple photography trips with friends all around Northern California, always attempting to hone my skills. When you’re left without labs, group projects, homework and tests, an outside interest is a surefire way to have fun and keep yourself active during the weeknights of your first full working year.

  3. Be Active and Get Healthy

    I’ve watched too many peers graduate college and all of a sudden think they don’t have time for the gym. Believe me, if you could balance a full college course load and find enough time to work out at your university’s rec center, you can definitely find time to exercise while working full time. My trick is to always go to the gym on my way home from work. Unlike those freak fitness-a-holic types, I’m one of those people who will get home from work and tell myself, “I’ll go to the gym later,” and two beers later, I’m still glued to the latest update on “SportsCenter.” Instead, I pack my bag the night before I leave for work and leave it sitting on my bathroom counter, which forces me to take it with me in the morning. Who knows, you might just develop a new habit! Bonus tip: I’ve actually found that I do some of my best brainstorming while at the gym. In fact, this article was mostly written on the Stairmaster at Mountain View’s 24 Hour Fitness.

  4. Never Think You’re Too Junior

    The beauty of start-ups is that they’re small, typically no more than 30 to 50 people. So while you may have been hired as an entry-level employee, there are usually no more than two degrees of separation between you and your CEO. Use this to your advantage — go ahead and spark up a conversation with your CEO, CRO or CTO. You’re not at Google, Facebook, Visa or another large firm which is restricting you to your single role or position, so use this opportunity to take on tasks that wouldn’t ordinarily be assigned to you in a very linear position. Which leads me to my next point.

  5. Constantly Challenge Yourself

    You’re young, enthusiastic and full of energy. Use this first year to show your managers why you deserved that opportunity, rather than the 90 other candidates who applied. There are more college graduates living at home and looking for work than ever before, so don’t be complacent once you’ve snagged your first gig. We had a simple saying on the UC Santa Cruz Men’s soccer team that our coaches ingrained in our heads — “Raise the Level.” Every day, every practice, every drill — make your actions faster, cleaner and more refined than the last. This couldn’t be more applicable in the business world. Whether it’s a sales call, an email or answering a customer’s question, constantly challenge yourself to make every action a learning experience and raise the quality level of your business interactions.

  6. Learn About Every Part of Your Company

    The growth potential is virtually limitless in any given start-up, so learn every part of your company. Depending on the size of your start-up, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find out how the entire business functions. From sales and business development to product design, engineering and customer support, start learning about every moving piece in your company. The golden opportunity that we twentysomethings have working in a start-up is the option to grow with the company and potentially into the department that we are truly passionate about. Start exploring this during your first year, and it’ll pay dividends in the long run.

  7. Never Limit Yourself to One Role

    This goes hand in hand with the previous rule. After you find out how your company works, start talking to the people in the department you might be interested in, or have a particular skill set for. Many start-ups are bootstrapped or shorthanded, so you have a built-in opportunity: Ask what you can do to help. I’m sure your colleagues will be happy to see you’re enthusiastic about the rest of the business. Plus, it gives you an idea of what different roles are like.

  8. Grab a Good Pair of Headphones

    This is simple: Buy a good pair of headphones. I’m not talking about using the tinny-sounding pair of Apple headphones that come with your iPhone; go out and splurge on a pair of good noise-canceling headphones. With most start-ups sporting an open office atmosphere, it can get noisy in the office. Between board members, investors, flying fish, remote-controlled helicopters, drinking co-workers and the weekly Costco delivery guys, most start-ups might resemble Legoland more than actual businesses. You’ll thank me later.

  9. Don’t Be Afraid to Propose a Change

    Look at your CEO. What are some of the key differences between you? Besides a few zeros on your paychecks, age may be another big one. While your managers and CEOs bring wisdom, strategy and leadership, there’s something that you have that they may not: Youth. You just graduated from college among a peer group that is one of the most connected in history. We’ve been using computers since we were old enough to walk and talk. Given that our generation is online and using mobile and Web applications more than any other age group, our perspective is often a huge help to many companies. Don’t be afraid to offer your fresh insight on things. Who knows — your proposal, idea, or suggestion might just be the next big thing for your company!

  10. Work hard, but Work Smart

    Be sure to take a step back occasionally from whatever project you’re working on in order to make sure that you’re applying your energy toward the most-needed task at the time. In my first year, I frequently threw 100 percent of my time and energy at projects that definitely weren’t at the top of the priority list. It’s great to have enthusiasm and a work ethic, but make sure your efforts are aligned with your company’s goals, your quarterly goals and your personal goals. Learn from my mistakes. In essence, work hard, but work smart.


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