They call them corporate refugees.
Well-established lawyers, accountants, and marketers, unsatisfied in a world of hierarchy and cubicles, are fleeing their jobs and looking to the startup world to fulfill their creative ambitions. For startups, this influx of potential talent poses an interesting challenge: In a sea of applicants lured by the industry’s cool factor, how do companies find those who actually have what it takes to thrive? At the same time, for career changers, the void between the corporate world and a solid startup gig is vast without an established network, and the culture shock can be harsh.
A program called the Startup Institute aims to solve both problems. And today it announced that it is going international, expanding to London and Berlin for the spring semester starting March 3. At U.S. locations, hand-picked students pay $5,250 to enter one of four educational tracks: product design and development, technical marketing, sales and account management, and web development. By finding the most qualified wannabe startup employees and running them through eight weeks of intense technical and cultural training, the Institute’s goal is to cultivate a pool of highly talented people who can hit the ground running on day one at a startup.
“We have this workforce that is kind of mid-to-late- 20s, early 30s, that are increasingly becoming disinterested in traditional career paths,” says Christina Wallace, director of the Startup Institute of New York. Indeed, a recent Gallup report found that 70% of the nation’s workers are unengaged from or actually hate their jobs. “They’re saying, ‘What else is there? I want to have a connection to my work,” Wallace says.
The Startup Institute launched in 2012 as the Boston Startup School before changing its name and expanding to New York and Chicago. Like other training programs such as General Assembly or Code Academy, the Startup Institute teaches technical skills like coding and web development (students are expected to have some technical experience before applying). But technical skills are only one-third of the curriculum. The Institute offers students the opportunity to make invaluable connections that could lead directly to a job. Classes are taught by employees from roughly 150 partner startups, and students are encouraged to network with them outside the classroom. “It can be really hard to make [a network] if you’re starting from scratch,” Wallace says. “A lot of the best jobs never get posted.”
On top of a network, students marinate in startup culture, which can vary wildly from that of the corporate world. At big companies, employees are all racing to the top. But startups are all about teamwork, and often the reality of working for a startup isn’t as glamorous as expected. “It can be unsatisfying, incredibly wearing mentally and physically,” says Duncan McCall, CEO of PlaceIQ, a startup that uses location intelligence in marketing. “You don’t often get a lot of clear leadership. There’s a real challenge for people who don’t know what they’re getting into.”
Lawrence Coburn, CEO of DoubleDutch, a San Francisco-based startup that builds apps for conferences, says he’s noticed corporate hires often spend their time “lobbying for their position or for themselves instead of just getting shit done. That sticks out like a sore thumb here.”
To simulate the startup experience, Startup Institute students spend the semester deeply engrained in a specific company, helping it solve problems in small teams. There are also weekly one-on-one career coaching sessions, which, for career changers, often resemble life coaching sessions, Wallace says. “Even the most brazen lawyers who are go-getters in every other situation, they come in one-on-one and they fall apart.”
The looming possibility of failure (three out of every four startups flop) can take its toll:
They’re so afraid to fail. Failure isn’t rewarded at big companies, so at startups the assumption is you have to fail. We’re really getting them comfortable with the idea that failure in my work doesn’t mean that I am a failure as a person.
The program loses one or two students per semester (it admits just 60, or roughly 25% of applicants). But Wallace says she’s okay with that. “Part of this process is finding out if you are a good fit for startups. It’s okay if the answer is no. Then you just saved yourself getting fired, taking a pay cut, and having to explain this on your resume. Making it through the program and coming out on the other side, you’ve been vetted, you went through the fire, and startups are willing to take a chance on you.”
This vetting process seems to be working. Aaron O’Hearn, the Startup Institute’s cofounder and CEO, says the average company hires more than one person from the program. For example, The Grommet, a Boston-based product discovery startup, has hired no fewer than eight Startup Institute graduates since the program’s inception. Why? Jules Pieri, cofounder and CEO, says they already know what to expect from an early-stage startup, and are more likely to succeed in her company. “Ambiguity and anxiety are hallmarks of young growing companies. It can really be draining and difficult, and you can take it personally. But they don’t. They know it’s normal.”
The program is so intense that students cannot feasibly hold a job for its duration, and the willingness to go without a paycheck for two months demonstrates a serious commitment to pursuing the startup lifestyle. “Somebody could have a romantic attachment to startups, and I’m not really that interested in hiring somebody who more or less sees it as modern day rockstar life.” Pieri says.
So what happens to students after they graduate? According to O’Hearn, nine out of ten Startup Institute graduates have a full-time job within three months of leaving the program. One such student is Jennifer Litorja, 33. After a decade of corporate experience in management consulting and finance, she entered the sales and business development track as part of the Startup Institute’s inaugural class. “I wanted to actually feel like I was making an impact in terms of helping people solve tangible problems. It felt like the startup community was doing just that,” Litorja says. Her program ended in August of 2012, and she landed her job doing business and community development for SoftLayer Technologies in November of that year. In the four months in between, she was offered three other jobs at three separate startups. I spoke to four other students who all had similar stories.
Still, some in the startup community wonder if an eight-week course is really what hiring companies want to see on a resume. “I can’t imagine that any training program is as good as an actual startup experience,” says Coburn from DoubleDutch. “I think my gut preference is for someone who as been in a startup environment over a program.” Indeed, most of the startups I spoke to said they prioritize applicants who already have experience, particularly at failed startups. And while Litorja, from the institute’s inaugural program, says the program sped up her networking process, she admits she could have probably done it on her own.
Businesses schools, meanwhile, boast an even better hiring rate than the Institute. For U.S. citizens graduating with two-year MBAs, the employment rate is 95%, according to a recent survey. “Business school is great if your goal is to be a manager at a large company somewhere,” O’Hearn counters. “The piece that’s missing is not more entrepreneurs, it’s more people that can execute the vision of the entrepreneur.”
But according to the startup founders I spoke to, the most sought-out quality in potential startup hires seems to be quantified risk-taking, which can only be demonstrated by action. “I look for people who have shown some unconventional choices, probably something risky,” Pieri from The Grommet says. Programs like the Startup Institute aren’t silver bullets, but if nothing else, they do separate the talkers from the doers. “They threw everything out the window and they’re starting over,” Pieri says. “That’s a startup person.”