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Making your mark: why innovation is key in the fast-paced world of start-ups

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Written by
Allie Fitzgibbon

Whether it’s tech-savvy Gen Z entrepreneurs or millennial mums looking to accelerate their side-business, the number of new start-ups being launched each year has increased hugely, particularly post-Covid. But with an average of 20% of start-ups failing within the first year, and only one in 10 predicted to succeed long-term, the pressure to grow rapidly is great. So is working for a start-up the right choice for you? We spoke to two growth experts about the highs (and lows) of life in a start-up.

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Whether you’re looking to move up in your career, or try something completely new, working for a start-up can offer great opportunities for rapid development in all areas of growth marketing.

Brad Fehler is a highly experienced VP of Growth with a long list of start-ups on his resume. Having started his career in advertising, he says he “fell into” performance marketing and growth at just the point when the UK start-up economy began to take off.

Brad explained why he encourages all recent graduates to consider working for a start-up.

“In a start-up you’re exposed to so much more than you would be in a bigger company. Because they have less money and are often under-resourced that means they’re a lot more nimble. You can’t rely on agencies, you have to execute the strategy yourself, so you get to understand the problems and learn the nuances of different channels – whether that’s Facebook ads, Google, TV whatever. You learn at such an accelerated pace.

“It isn’t for everyone. You have to have thick skin and be willing to take some heavy knocks. But if you’re keen to learn and you want to dive into something the opportunities are there for you to grab.”

Rosie Hoggmascall began her career working for a PR agency but became frustrated by the lack of data-driven decision making. Like Brad, Rosie has worked for a number of different start-ups and agrees they give you an unparalleled opportunity to learn on the job.

“Obviously it varies but at some start-ups there is such a huge amount of enthusiasm. Teams are small, there’s often less hierarchy and you can have a lot of autonomy to run with your ideas and work on lots of different areas at once.

“I once read that one year at a start-up is equivalent to more than three years elsewhere and in terms of how much you’re exposed to I definitely think that’s accurate.”

You have to be okay with having a blank piece of paper and just giving things a shot.

Start-ups are perhaps best known for being big risk, big reward. But for every unicorn there are countless other businesses that didn’t survive beyond the first few years.

Brad described the challenges he’s faced.

“The thing about a company at seed stage is you’re not joining an established business – you’re joining a cult of personality of the founder, it’s all based on their vision. Founders are entrepreneurs so by their very nature they’re full of ideas, which can be great. But it also means their expectations are high. You have to be willing to jump on an opportunity whether that’s at 9pm or 6am. It’s hard work and start-ups don’t have the time or money to carry dead weight.

“Obviously the dream is to work for a company that exits and that’s always nice from a financial perspective. But I’ve also worked for two start-ups that ran out of funding and failed.”

You can either be intimidated by new technologies or learn to use them to your advantage…if you’re blinkered you could miss out on great opportunities.

So what skills and traits do you need for success? Curiosity is key.

“You have to be okay with having a blank piece of paper and just giving things a shot,” Rosie explained. “You need to be resourceful and analytical – you have to make quick calculations and be comfortable with analysing data. You also need to be able to manage stakeholders at all levels. Founders are often looking for the next shiny thing and can get distracted chasing competitors. But you still have to stay focused on the strategy and have your customers at the centre of everything.”

“Your curiosity should extend outside of working hours” Brad added. “Technology moves at pace and you want to be up-to-speed with what’s happening in the wider space. I think everyone would agree that AI is the next big thing and it’s here to stay. You can either be intimidated by it or learn to use it to your advantage. Things will keep changing and if you’re blinkered you could miss out on great opportunities.”

So what advice do they have for anyone considering working for a start-up? Get stuck in.

Rosie said: “You can either be a specialist, an expert in one area like SEO. Those roles can be well paid. But if you want to be a generalist and learn quickly on the job then a start-up is a great place to learn lots of different areas in one role.”

Brad added: “The start-up community is relatively small but it’s very collaborative – particularly in London. People are willing to share ideas and advice if you just ask them. So get involved in the community, have your finger on the pulse and that will really accelerate your own development.”

Find out how you could make your mark in the exciting start-up economy with the University of London's MSc Marketing.