Alison Lindland is a friend and one of my classmates from Columbia Business School. She’s had a really interesting career which has spanned product management and business development functions at early stage startups and large companies. She provides some great advice in this interview about pursuing post MBA startup careers. –John
You have a pretty diverse background and have worked in a variety of functional roles. For people who want to work at startups in non-technical roles, do you think they should go deep in a certain functional area, or are they better positioned to succeed as generalists? How does that vary by startup stage?
Early in my career I was given some great advice by a well-known NYC VC. Essentially, he recommended that I get hands on experience in as many functional areas as possible before finding my speciality. Thus far, I’ve worked in strategy, client services, sales, product management, and business development – not to mention all the unofficial roles like publicity, investor relations and customer service.
Unlike building a career in a big corporate environment being part of a startup team requires you to operate on a cross functional team like none other. It is critical that you understand all the levers to making a successful product and company through real world experience — there is no substitute. I think it also makes you a better business partner – especially in a situation where you’re working so closely together.
Also, I think it is easy to confuse proximity to other functional roles for your own experience but working with your sales team is not the same as actually closing deals, and watching product decisions be made is not the same as making those tough trade offs yourself.
I know you are frequently contacted by MBA students who are looking for startup career advice. What would you say to people interested in post MBA startup careers? Any specific advice, tips, or cautionary tales?
First of all, there is no single definition of a startup experience or profile so I think it’s really important that the student know what type of company they are specifically looking for and why they want to work there. For example, I worked at a big Fortune 500 company immediately after business school and it was a terrific experience and I learned a ton that prepared me for life at a startup.
There is a little bit of “startup mania” going on right now and when the dust settles it’s important that you are passionate about the company and the role. Your motives for wanting to work at a startup are likely personal but I would challenge you to articulate them to some people you respect – be it former colleagues, classmates or a spouse – just to stress test them.
With regards to identifying target companies, I would make sure to spend a lot of time honing in on a sector or company profile that you are passionate and excited about, then focus on becoming an expert in that realm – become a sponge, volunteer at any conferences, read every publication and try and have as many coffee chats and info sessions with people working at those companies as possible. See if you can get an internship during school, or try to structure a class project focused on helping a startup company, where you can get to know their team.
You also may find it useful to create a ‘personal board’ and run what I like to call ‘JAM’ sessions — a couple of homegrown resources I’ve developed that have helped me, and could help you in your career management process.