After I graduated with a chemical engineering degree, I worked at ExxonMobil as a process engineer for almost three years. Knowing that I wanted to switch careers, in my last year at Exxon, I saved enough money to sustain myself for one year with minimal income so I could implement my plan to switch my career into “growth”.
Here’s a quick summary of my progression:
- November 2015: Quit my job at Exxon to focus on building my portfolio
- April 2016: I joined SumoMe with Noah Kagan
- July 2016: I joined Kettle & Fire as employee #2 with Justin Mares and I’m currently the Director of Growth. Since then, we’ve gone from generating 6-figures in our first year of business to over 8-figures in annual revenues.
Growth & Digital Marketing right now is one of the highest demand functions right now at an e-commerce startup. It’s well suited for people with technical & engineer degrees just because of the requirements to be data-driven & process oriented.
This twitter thread from Ryan Caldbeck summarizes the opportunity really well.
Even if you’re not looking to enter a “growth” function, the experiences and lessons I picked up along the way is relevant for anyone looking to break into the “startup” scene or in general how to do a career switch without having to go back to school.
Though luck is a big part of it, there are three core principles that I think are applicable to everyone looking to break into a high-performing startup. These principles are:
- Establish a portfolio by being a creator
- Be intentional on who you want to work with
- Creating a pitch so good they’ll have to hire you
Let’s go into these three core principles in more detail.
1. Establishing A Portfolio By Being A Creator
The typical cover letter & resume is not good enough. Sure it’s required for the Fortune500 companies who have layers of systems and automatic keyword screeners, but if you want to work with an exceptional team, you need a portfolio of projects you actually created.
Previously, I already had quite a bit of “side projects”, everything from creating a group dating company, to creating HR videos, to selling engineering shot glasses.
Besides having no idea what I was doing with those past projects, the main problem was that I didn’t document it. It’s incredible important to document your projects so you can show the world your capabilities.
Step 1 – Studying Growth (2 weeks)
The first thing I did was read every single piece of content on Brian Balfour & Andrew Chen’s blog. If you’re just starting out, I recommend starting here:
If you want to break into growth, check out the second bullet point and it’ll contain the growth framework. At the most basic level, that video will contain everything you need to know. All the other things that are more “tactical” (eg. creating a growth model, paid acquisition strategy, etc) you can google to figure out when time comes based on necessity from your project.
Step 2 – Deciding What Project To Work On (1 week)
From there, it’s just deciding what project you want to work on. Ultimately, just try something you’re naturally interested in so it’s fun.
For me, I found “simple local business ideas” to be fascinating so I created a newsletter (FounderOrigins) where I interviewed these entrepreneurs and created case studies. My goal was to get 2000 email subscribers in 60 days, and I would document my entire approach.
It’s important to note that your project could be whatever you want, it doesn’t have to be a blog.
But in general, it should be simple enough so you can start it immediately and inexpensively. Remember, the purpose is not to make a living from this project, but rather to have a portfolio piece you can “show” and talk about.
And the main thing you’re trying to “show” is your ability to grow your project by hitting whatever your success metric is.
Some examples/projects off the top of my head are:
- If you have an interest in coffee/tea → get a top 3 ranking on https://www.reddit.com/r/coffee
- If you have an interest in interior design → get 3 clients who will pay you at least $200 to organize their pantry. There are a bunch of tutorials on The Home Edit so you can do the exact same thing.
- If you have an interest in negotiating → cold outreach to a few small Shopify companies → renegotiate on their behalf to get cheaper rates on SaaS tools (see: https://www.builtwithshopify.com/ for list of potential Shopify companies)
- If you’re open to any random idea → recreate this experiment where you go door-to-door starting with a napkin and trying to trade for something more valuable
- Another random idea → use craigslist to buy a bike in a “lower income area” and resell it in a “higher income area” for a profit
- Another random idea → do a split test on Tinder by creating two profiles. With your baseline profile, do 50 swipes and see how many matches you do. Improve on the profile and try to beat your conversion rate at statistical significance.
Point is, it could be whatever idea, just make sure it’s something where you can get results immediately in less than a month and that it’s something you’d find fun.
Step 3 – Execution & Documentation
I won’t go into execution too much since it’s case-by-case, but checkout Step 4 in this article by Nat Eliason for a list of good blogs to read for the tactical implementation.
Main thing I’ll focus on is documentation. First, take a look at how I documented my journey:
The main things that you’ll want to display through your communication are your abilities to:
- Use of technology/automations: Mainly you want to show your resourcefulness so you don’t need to rely on a developer, even if you’re non-technical. To do this, just create your blog on a landing page builders (unbounce, wordpress) and try to use Zapier. For me, I created my FounderOrigin’s website on unbounce and both experiments #4 & #5 were ways to show my ability to find automated solutions.
- Communication skills: The point is to communicate your approach and learnings. The medium could be through a written blog post, a slide deck, or even a youtube recording of your approach (example of my Youtube recording). Main thing is that you’re able to essentially summarize: the opportunity, the solution, alternative solutions, why you picked the solution you ultimately went with, and lastly what the results/learnings and recommended next steps are.
- You can run mini-experiments to prove out ideas: This is the method where you can show how you structured your experiment. If you haven’t yet, watch the video in this article.
Objective: This is the section so you can show that you’re able to identify what success metrics should be & a realistic target
Hypothesis: This is to show you know how to prioritize your ideas based on “impact, confidence, resources required” to hit your objective
Experimental Design: This shows your ability to be process oriented
Results/Analysis: This shows your ability to be data driven and results oriented. You should know basic spreadsheet capabilities and how you “organize your raw” data into actionable insights.
Next Steps: This shows your capability to be a critical thinker and ultimately how “self-sufficient” you’d be without requiring managerial oversight in a small business
2. Be Intentional On Who You Want To Work With
So now that you have a portfolio that showcases your ability to grow your own projects, it’s time to decide who you want to work with.
My main advice here is to skip the job boards. You want to be intentional with the team you want to work with to ensure you’re surrounded by people you can learn from.
For me, I created a list of all the people I wanted to work with. The way I created the list is based on who I was already learning from, so people who had their own blog + books that I found very valuable. So people who are “thought leaders” in whatever category you want to work for.
You can identify these people by looking at:
- The blogs you find most valuable
- The websites/products/businesses you’re impressed with
- Do research on the founders to understand their backgrounds. Do they have an impressive track record? Does their previous projects lineup with what they’re currently working on now? For example, a friend of mine joined a VR technology company yet the founder’s background was mostly in private equity investments. Huge red flag.
- Do research on the senior members and early employees of the companies. Do they also have impressive backgrounds? You’re looking for signs that the leadership team knows how to attract and pick top-tier talent.
Regardless of your approach, keep in mind that luck is a big part of it and you won’t truly know what it’s like to work for a team until you’re actually “hired” on.
But you can at least do your due diligence and put in some effort to decide who you want to work with, rather than picking the first opportunity that falls into your lap (disclaimer: I’m aware that I am privileged to have this as an option where I have a safety net that allows me to take my time)
For me, I first targeted Noah Kagan because I really enjoyed reading his blog and the success the Sumo team as established. He was an early employee at Facebook & Mint, and then started a successful business (i.e. AppSumo) prior to creating SumoMe.
Next, I also targeted Justin Mares because I read his book Traction and also took his course “Programming For Marketers”. Plus his brother Nick is a Thiel Fellowship, and what really interested me was how young the team was, so I knew we were all in a similar stage in life.
So now you know who you want to target, how do you craft a pitch so they can’t say no?
3. Crafting a pitch so good they’ll have to hire you
Just passively submitting cover letters and resumes through job boards don’t cut it. You need a way to differentiate yourself from all the noise.
The best way to do this? Email the key decision makers directly.
But since you’re emailing them directly, you have to compete against all the other “useless emails” in their inbox, so you need to craft an email so good that they will read it and pass it along to whoever is in charge of hiring you.
To do this, all you have to think about is “what’s in it for them?”
The best way to answer that question is to do research on their business and provide a “free” consultation where you identify opportunities and offer up solutions.
Here’s how I did it:
For Noah & SumoMe (example for when you’re less experienced)
For Justin @ Kettle & Fire (example for when you’re more experienced)
In the email that I sent to Justin, I included the strategy, you can view it here. Let’s go over it together.
First slide is summarizing the opportunity. I just used ahrefs.com and signed up for a free trial to compile the data. The problem in this case was competitors were focusing on SEO for a high volume keyword while Kettle & Fire was falling behind.
After summarizing the problem, the opportunity here was that the competitors were doing it wrong. So even though they were investing in the strategy, it wasn’t too late since we could “out execute” on their behalf.
The next few slides essentially went into what the solution and strategy would be.
It’s also important to highlight the “repeatability” aspect. Even though when you first start with “mini-experiments”, it’s important to have a vision of what the greater scale opportunity would look like if successful. Showing this level of foresight will differentiate you from being a junior vs. a senior contributor.
Lastly, it’s important to show you know how to decide and measure what success is. This is the slide that shows you know how to keep yourself accountable so the leadership can trust you with minimal oversight.
You can go through the entire deck to see it for yourself, but the main thing to keep in mind is that you don’t have access to all the company information. So most likely the “opportunity/business case” won’t be accurate since you’re missing a lot of context.
The business case you just put together is to showcase your hustle + ability to identify opportunities. In most circumstances, the company will immediately put you through their hiring pipeline if you do this correctly.
But if you’re joining as a very early-employee, chances are, this is enough for the company to bring you on as a consultant. That’s exactly what happened in my case.
Once you’re able to switch careers, read this article on how to become an effective employee.
One more thing, feel free to do the same for us at Kettle & Fire. Find my email address and send me what you got. Even if we don’t have a position open, if you’re a strong candidate, I’ll introduce you to someone who needs your skillsets!