Moving into a startup requires some skills more than others.
Recently, a few universities invited me to speak about entrepreneurship, and with Malaysian startups on the rise, I reflected on how I ventured into the startup world and what skills I prepped myself with to run one effectively.
Unfortunately, some people dive into startups as if they are a bucket-list item, but they’re doing it for the wrong reasons.
Anyone who’s considering a startup should figure out their underlying motivations for being an entrepreneur and what this means. For some, it’s simply for the freedom of being their own boss (in this case, try the freelancer option). For others, they think startups are the quickest way to getting rich, when in fact it can be the exact opposite.. Or that it’s the hottest career in town right now (which is a terrible reason).
But for most, it’s because they want to build a product that solves a big enough problem in this world or that leaves a lasting positive impact. And those are much better reasons.
However, the media tends to glamorise startups these days. With movies like The Social Network, TV series like Silicon Valley and the famous tech publication TechCrunch, a lot of people may end up having a distorted perception that starting a company is fun, easy and glamorous.
But I always ask aspiring entrepreneurs if they’ve had a history of being: 1) super resourceful, 2) an extreme risk-taker, and 3) generally an optimist. In my book, a great entrepreneur has to have all three of these characteristics.
Have you tried to hack something in life? Have you taken huge risks in life or done something outside your comfort zone? Have you ever started something on your own? It could be a club or society in college, even a nasi lemak stall. Do you always think about what could go wrong, or do you imagine what the possibilities are?
Nonetheless, if you’re fairly certain that you’ll start a company someday, then joining one would be a good first move.
Here is an introduction to a few popular non-technical positions that startups are usually looking to fill these days. These are all essential skills for an early-stage startup founder because you’ll need to do a little of everything. If you’re completely fresh in this area, try to identify which skills you are interested in picking up, do a tonne of online research since the Web has plenty of resources, and then try to get an internship at a startup that has raised decent funding to gain some domain expertise in one or more of the following skills:
User research and customer development: This is usually the role of a product manager at a small startup, but larger tech companies have their own user research department. The job entails interviewing and surveying your company’s target market to make sure that your products fit their needs and solves their problems. You should learn behavioural psychology, study lean-startup methodologies, learn qualitative and quantitative research techniques and use research tools like surveymonkey.com, google.com/forms, usertesting.com, and netizentesting.com. This is usually the first step that a founder takes to create a product in the market.
User experience and prototyping: Before designing the visuals (or user interface) of the final product, a few steps have to take place. First, a UX (user experience) designer has to create a wireframe or prototype of the entire flow of the Web or mobile product, either using traditional pen and paper sketches or online prototyping tools such as Balsamiq, InvisionApp, Axure, UXPin, Mockingbird, and FramerJS . A good UX designer should understand user behaviour, information architecture and hierarchy, perception of overall site map/flow, user modelling, and lead with user-centered design.
Web or UI design: After the wireframing process, a Web designer makes the mockups look pretty to the user. There are a lot of excellent graphic designers and illustrators in Malaysia and many are already well versed in design software such as Photoshop, Illustrator, and Sketch. However, the emphasis on Web design is rising now and pays better globally. I would encourage graphic designers to learn the best practices and current trends in web design (such as flat versus responsive design, fixed navigation, circular design, infographics, custom font faces, and so on), basic HTML/CSS, as well as the fundamental difference between Web and mobile user interfaces.
Product management: Investors typically love “product-focused CEOs”. This role is often called a “mini CEO” role because a product manager (PM) is the CEO of his or her product. The PM drives the vision of the product and is the primary connector between business, marketing, designers and developers to push the product out to the market.
This person needs to have good wireframing skills, understand data analytics and user conversion funnels, know how to write product requirements, understand technology and how to communicate with developers.
Project management, leadership, communication and presentation skills are also essential, which is why most management consultants go into Web or mobile product management.
Marketing and data analytics: This is an increasingly popular position at startups because “whatever is worth building, is worth measuring”. This person needs to learn how to use data analytics tools such as Google Analytics, Mixpanel, Kissmetrics, and Flurry to track how users are using products, when they convert into a customer and why they don’t return to your product.
It’s important to understand user conversion funnels, search engine optimisation and marketing, growth hacking tactics, customer acquisition cost (CAC) and customer lifetime value (CLTV) calculations, viral mechanisms, and social referral programmes. Excel and pivot tables will be your best friend.
Learning some basic front-end coding will help you save thousands in outsourcing your work to an agency.
If you are more interested in business development, sales, operations or creative marketing, unfortunately, you’re going to have a lot more competition because they’re considered “generic” skills and good startups typically have fewer internships for these positions. Unless you have a really incredible network or a lot professional experience in what you do, it’s going to be a tough entry point into startups.
The best way to build the startup skills above is to do a lot of online research on best web and mobile practices. Despite these skills being in high demand at high-growth startups globally, they’re still relatively new and not even taught at universities yet (although check out MaGIC Academy for workshops in these domains).
The good news is that they can all be learnt by tackling real-life problems, and by using a lot of Web or mobile products. Use your intuition to guide you and start taking notes about what you like or don’t like about each feature. Compare bad products to good products and make a list. Soon, you’ll have more knowledge than the average person about that specific expertise.
Where possible, build an online profile and/or portfolio — this will come in handy when you’re applying for a job. Keep in mind that most employers google your name before the interview, so make sure you have a decent online profile. The top three things that should show up should be: a) your Linkedin profile, b) your personal website/portfolio, c) your Twitter account or some article showcasing your achievement/involvement in an organisation that’s legitimate.
Last but not least, there is a great post by a renowned venture capitalist Mark Suster that you should definitely read if you’re thinking about dabbling in startups — Is it Time for You to Earn or to Learn?. Also, check out sites such as Wobb.my or Startupstreet.co for startup jobs and internships.
If you are still unsure about what career path to take, here’s a story that forever changed my perspective on trying to figure out “what I should do in life”.
After college, I attended an event where a successful alumnus spoke about how he started his company. At the end of his speech, I went up to him and asked “Sir, the particular space that you’re in sounds really niche. How did you know that this was what you were passionate about and what you wanted to do in life?” He answered: “Young lady, I can tell you this for sure. You will never really know exactly what you want to do in life. Some find it sooner, some later in life. I’m in my 50s and I still don’t know what I want to do in my life. But what I do know is what I DON’T want to do. And as long as you keep trying different things and don’t settle on things that don’t make you happy, you’ll get closer to what you eventually DO want to do.”
That night, I felt a huge burden lifted off my shoulders; the pressures of having to “follow my passion” and to “figure life out”, was no longer weighing down on me. I realised that all I had to do is to view life as a series of trial and error. Just as a startup is “a corporation set up in search of a scalable, repeatable business model through experiments and rapid iterations,” you should iterate your life until you find a career that is ideal for you!
Cheryl Yeoh is the Founding CEO of the Malaysian Global Innovation & Creativity Centre (MaGIC). She has been recognised with many industry awards.