James Maskell

How to get a job after your startup fails

28 April 2013

A few months ago, I made the decision to close Vinetrade, the startup that I had been working on for the past 18 months. Closing down meant the end of my job, my income, and the need to find something new.

Three months after making that decision, I’m working at Adzuna, another UK based startup, as the Country Manager for their Australia, Canada and South Africa expansions.

This post is intended to help founders in a similar position, describes some of the process I went through and the advice I’d give.

1. Work your network

When you’ve gone public about the closure, it’s time to start working your network. Ask as many people as possible out for coffee, explain the situation and ask for their advice on what to do. Find out who is hiring and what for. Many jobs are never advertised publicly.

You’ll be surprised by the number of people who give support, and want to help you out. Make sure you reach out to as many people as possible - don’t expect them to have heard the news about your startup. The more people who know you’re going to be available for work, the higher the chance of getting an offer quickly.

2. Figure out what you want to do - be open minded

As a founder, you often have to be the jack of all trades. In the 18 months I was running Vinetrade, I got my hands dirty in just about every area of the business. I taught myself how to code, sell a product, build a team, manage finances, raise money from investors, manage relationships with customers and investors, and so much more.

Working for other people is usually very different. Other companies need people to do specific tasks and fill a gap in their business. They want people with specialised skills. You need to think about what you’re best at, and focus on that. This might not be immediately obvious, but will likely become apparent in conversations with others (e.g. you’ll be talking to another founder about a position that they’re hiring for, and realise that you’re quite well suited to it).

3. Tailor your pitch and CV to different roles

When you’ve got such varied experience, it’s best to tailor your CV (or resumé) or pitch (if you’re talking face to face) to different roles. Bring out the experience and skills relevant for the position that you’re targeting. If you don’t have huge amounts of experience in a particular area, show how quickly you can learn.

When you’re being interviewed, compare your startup experience to day-to-day life in another organisation, and be clear about how that experience can be beneficial. Show that you understand the business model, and ask intelligent questions.

4. Avoid HR departments - go direct to the founders

HR people often look after recruitment for an organisation, and act as gatekeepers to the founders or management team, who you would meet at the later stages of an application process.

Unfortunately, HR people will have defined roles that they need to fill, and a list of requirements for each role. In my experience, if you can’t tick all of those boxes, and they have a pile of other applications, you’ll get rejected. There’s little attempt made to look at the potential of a candidate based on previous experience, and they’re much less likely to see your startup as a positive experience.

Founders, on the other hand, are much more open minded. They get how difficult starting a company is, and know just how much you’ve achieved, even if it didn’t work out. They’ll be able to empathise with your position, see your potential and be more willing to take a chance of you.

5. Be clear about wanting to work for someone else

A lot of people expected me to go away and start another company. Other founders asked what my next idea was, and a few VCs said they were looking forward to seeing me come back and pitch within 12 months. I was clear about my financial need to find employment and support myself, my need for some time off the emotional startup rollercoaster, and desire to learn from other founders and businesses.

Some prospective employers expressed concern about my ability to work for someone else, largely having been my own boss for a long time, and with just a couple of years experience working for others. When challenged on this, I’d point out that as a startup that has raised money you still have accountability (and nowhere to hide) - it’s just to your Board and investors instead.

6. Be prepared to take a short term contract

Don’t be scared to take a short term contract. You can buy yourself some time to figure out what you want to do long term - and you’ll have some cash in the bank.

This gives you a chance to prove yourself and gain some valuable experience, new connections and new ideas. Remember that the learning curve is usually steepest at the start of any new project - so even if you don’t stay permanently you’ll get a lot from the job.

7. Optimise for learning

Have a long hard think about the reasons why your startup failed, and areas where a bit more knowledge and experience would have made a huge difference.

Try and find a company with exceptional founders, who you’ll get to see in action and making decisions every day. You’ll learn a lot just from being around them. If you’ve never been in a company that’s scaling up, try to find one that is. If you want to start another company in future, that experience will no doubt be invaluable.

In my new job, I get to be part of a rapidly growing company, and get some solid experience in some of my weaker areas (particularly marketing and PR).

8. Brush up on some skills you’re lacking

A lot of jobs will require specific skills - e.g. a particular programming language, or experience with Excel. If you’re not confident in these areas, put some time in to teaching yourself.

I realised that I needed to improve my Excel skills - so I got online, completed some tutorials, asked some friends for help, and made use of the product for some personal projects. Having a firm grasp of the basics goes a long way. You can learn a lot in a week - you don’t need to have many years of experience.

9. Be patient - give it some time

Don’t expect to have offers flooding in overnight, or to get those coffee meetings the next day. You might suddenly have a lot more free time, but the people you need to meet with will be as busy as you were before closing down.

Similarly, give people time to make you an offer after an interview. Companies will have processes to follow or need time to think a decision through. Ask for a timescale - and don’t be scared to chase (by email and phone) when it slips. I found that it took 4-5 weeks from my initial emails to getting a solid offer.

10. Keep your options open

If you’ve had a couple of good interviews, or think that you’ll get an offer soon, don’t stop. Keep reaching out to people, attending interviews and making new applications.

This ensures that you don’t end up back at square one if you get a rejection, and more importantly means that you don’t risk missing out on a more exciting opportunity that might come along. If you end up with multiple offers, you’ll also have a better negotiating position with the companies that want to employ you.

11. Take some time out

If you can’t afford to do this before job hunting, make sure you take some time out once you’ve accepted an offer. You’ve just been through an extremely exhausting and intense process, likely with high levels of stress.

When you’ve accepted an offer and have a start date, your stress levels will drop and you should feel much happier. You owe it to yourself (and your future employer) to take some time to unwind and recharge.

At this point, it’s time to book a holiday and get away (wherever you can afford to go). Clear your mind, get some sleep and importantly, get some closure on your time as a founder. When you come back, you’ll be excited and ready for the future.

Comments and Feedback

I’d love to hear from you. I’m @jmaskell on Twitter or james@jamesmaskell.co.uk by email.

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