Sara Morosi: Getting your start at a startup

By Sara Morosi, Columnist
Published November 17, 2013

As first semester comes to a close, it’s becoming more and more difficult to avoid the inevitable: the job and internship search. As we proofread our resumes for the umpteenth time, some of the biggest and best companies and corporations are prepping to recruit at the University. But there’s another player in the fight for young talent: startups.

“Startups have a number of advantages relative to other common choices for college grads,” Nathan Labenz, a startup co-founder and my former boss, explained. “Most important in my mind is the breadth and flexibility of the experience. At a typical startup, there are more jobs than people, so everybody ends up doing multiple things. This gives you a ton of opportunity to learn several domains in a hands-on fashion.”

This summer I interned with Stik, a startup company stationed in downtown Detroit that puts word-of-mouth referrals online via platforms such as Facebook and LinkedIn to advance the businesses of local professionals and small businesses.

I was confident with my decision to pursue an internship with a startup versus a big-name business, but stepping foot in the M@dison Building — Detroit’s startup hub — further solidified it. Over the course of the four months I was with Stik, I found the entrepreneurial spirit I experienced on a daily basis to be an unmatched source of encouragement moving forward both professionally and personally.

I was instantly drawn to the startup scene; I loved the non-traditional office feel. Long desks that engender conversation replaced cubicles. Stark white walls were swapped with abstract wallpaper and whiteboard paint. Brightly colored pod chairs filled communal spaces that overlooked Comerica Park. A ping-pong table was on the second floor. There wasn’t a dress code — many M@dison tenants moved with urgency in jeans and t-shirts.

While I found the innovativeness of the office landscape enthusing, it was the people that were most inspiring. I quickly determined that dreamers run startups. The youthful people I worked with see the value in pursuing an idea, and because of this, they are motivated, hardworking and passionate. They showed up early and stayed late, and did so because they wanted to. “Important is the opportunity to work very closely with high-performing people,” Labenz said. “At a startup, you should be working with outstanding people — or you should go elsewhere.”

At the M@dison, the office scene and high energy combines to shape an environment that stimulates productivity, which is important when having a haphazard set of responsibilities. Being part of a small business means dappling in many areas of the company and both your successes and mistakes have a direct impact. I found this to be intimidating initially, which points to what can be seen as a disadvantage to working with a startup versus a large corporation.

Oftentimes, the best way to learn is through observation, but starting a business from the group up meant my colleagues didn’t have the time to sit down with me on a daily basis and delegate tasks or walk me through how to do them. While they were patient and answered questions when I had them, there were many things I had to figure out on my own. However, this lack of training and structure can be seen as a positive, as it forces young people to learn on their feet and pave their way.

“Startups are a great way to get comfortable operating in the context of uncertainty, ambiguity and risk,” said Labenz.

There are now programs sprouting up for young professionals looking to gain experience at a startup, one of the most notable being Venture for America. VFA funnels recent college graduates to startups in areas of the country experiencing growth through innovation, with the goal that these graduates “will become socialized and mobilized as entrepreneurs moving forward.” For students considering an internship or job with a startup in Detroit, consulting Detroit Venture Partners is another great place to start.

My crash course in entrepreneurship wasn’t safe. I loved the unpredictability of it, of having only a rough idea of what the day had in store as I drove down I-94. But the “uncertainty, ambiguity and risk” that Labenz mentioned are exactly what led to high-value experience that I could not have found elsewhere. “For all the value of a college education, the available paths are generally quite safe and clear,” he told me. “Banks and consulting firms provide a college-like level of comfort and certainty, but they don’t prepare you to strike out on your own and accomplish something great.”

Sara Morosi can be reached at smorosi@umich.edu.