Not all career paths run in straight lines. On Tuesday, January 15th, we hosted a panel at General Assembly NYC where we talked to three startup career transitioners about their career trajectories and advice for jobseekers. Read more about how Ted Conbeer, SVP of Strategy at MakeSpace, found his way to startups—and why he hasn’t looked back since.
Tell us more about where you work and what you do.
I am the SVP of Strategy at MakeSpace, a new kind of storage company that comes to your door. We are a venture-backed startup focused on building a new customer experience powered by new logistics technology, and we’ve raised about $75 million from top-tier VCs.
My role at MakeSpace is to make sure that we deploy that capital responsibly, so I work on special projects—like high priority things for our CEO and board—and also run data and analytics. I joined the company a little over four years ago.
What did you study in college?
I studied mechanical and aerospace engineering, with a focus on computational fluid dynamics.
What was your first job after college?
I had a couple of internships in engineering, but you usually have about ten years of apprenticeship work to get through before you can actually design anything. I was impatient and I couldn’t see myself going through that grind.
What did you do next?
I was recruited by investment banks and consulting firms and chose the latter track. I spent three years at Bain and Company in Chicago.
What did you learn from consulting?
Consulting taught me a lot about how businesses operate, including understanding how political things can be, how decisions get made, how work actually gets done, and how important leadership is.
What made you decide to leave consulting?
I felt like I was not having as much of an impact as I felt like I could be having, so I went looking for something new and different.
What drove you to startups specifically?
I was obsessed with making the most impact that I could with the skills that I had, which drove me to startups quite naturally.
How did you find your first startup job?
I remember that there was a New York Times article about the first ever Tough Mudder event, so it was already on my radar. Around the same time, someone I knew who worked at Tough Mudder reached out to me about a job there and I applied for it. It felt like a huge risk at the time to leave the consulting track and leave Chicago behind, but I eventually accepted the job.
What did you do at Tough Mudder?
I worked on the strategy team for about six months and then did strategy for the marketing team for a couple of years. Among other things, I developed our customer segmentation, our annual event calendar, our pricing strategy, and our first forecasting models.
What did you do next?
I took another leap again to have a big impact on a company and that led me to MakeSpace. I’ve been working there for a little over four years now.
What is something that you realized you could do at a startup that you couldn’t do at a corporate job?
If you work hard and you’re good at what you do, you can deliberately steer your exact roles and the skills you develop. I think that’s something that’s been really special and has really defined my experience over the last seven years.
Which skills would you say helped launch your startup career?
Something I look for when I am hiring people is leadership. You might not have structured management above you and you might not have regular check-ins with your boss, so you really need to be a bit independent. You need to be able to impact the people around you as well. I think that takes a real leader.
Related to that is teamwork. Working at a startup really requires you to define what your part is and to work with the people around you as the product changes, as the business scales, and as things around you change to make sure that none of the pieces around you break. People that have experience collaborating really closely with other people just do better than folks who just want to put their heads down and be left alone.
What are some qualities you look for in startup candidates, regardless of career background?
We always look for a track record of excellence, hard work, and achievement which is applicable no matter where you come from. We look for what you may call an A-player, or people who have gotten promoted, people who have succeeded at something, and people who have grown their role over time.
How can startup job candidates stand out during the application process?
If your resume is four pages long, then I am not reading it. Get to the point right at the top . Really think about what is it that you’re offering and make that as crisp as possible. You got one shot at it, make it a good one.
Any last words of advice for people who are trying to transition to a startup?
A startup is a great place to get an opportunity to prove what you’re made of or forge your own path. I’ve seen so many people around me develop so amazingly in a startup environment, but it’s just a very different kind of learning. You have to be ready for that and you have to want that.
Another thing: values are important. Startups can be so different from one another and so driven by the personalities of a few individuals. It’s actually something that you can suss out during the interview process and it’s something I would definitely pay attention to.
Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
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