Notes from last night - "How to Escape Corporate into a Startup"



Last night 35 Escape the City members came together for an Escape School talk at Bathtub 2 Boardroom in London for a Q&A with the impressive Alex Stephany – corporate law escapee and CEO of The objective of the evening was to hear about Alex’s career transition and learn as much as we could about getting jobs in startups, particularly tech startups.

It was a great evening with lots of strong questions from the Esc members and really valuable insights from Alex. Half the audience came to the pub with us afterwards – plotting their own transitions and sharing their experiences. Big thanks to Alex for giving us his Tuesday evening and for all the generous and thoughtful advice.

What did we learn?

Alex decided to leave the law when he realised that he didn’t have the passion for the law that some of his colleagues had. He knew that he didn’t want any of the jobs higher up the ladder and he knew that he would only become really good at something if he was passionately interested in it.

Refreshingly for the rest of us, when he left the law, Alex didn’t have a grand master plan to become CEO of a VC-backed tech startup. He got a job working as a Consultant in Financial Services for a short while before leaving to write his first novel. Even though he wasn’t going to make his living as a writer, he wanted to find a job where he could feel as passionate as he did about his book.

Back in the depths of the recession he found himself applying for all sorts of jobs across financial and professional services – he wasn’t getting a great response and his heart wasn’t in it. By contrast, when he started exploring the tech industry he found opportunities all over the place… and he was excited by the buzz and the problem-solving approach in the industry.

He talked about how hard it is to figure out what you’re passionate about… Alex went to tech meetups and hack weekends at a Launch48 weekend. His experience exploring this area was really positive. He had a feeling about tech (and about ParkatmyHouse in particular) that told him that he was exploring a career path that could suit him.

After receiving a few offers from different startups he chose to join a really small team – ParkatmyHouse were at 3 people when he joined in 2011, they’re now at 15 and hiring 10 at the moment. He wanted an opportunity to really shape a business’s growth and direction, rather than fill a functional role in a larger tech business. He joined as COO and is now CEO.

Alex was bullish on the future of careers in tech and entrepreneurship and less optimistic about careers in some of the more traditional professional and financial services industries. He also talked about how he thinks his legal career would have been a riskier long-term bet as it was more vulnerable to disruption than the path he has taken into fast-growth tech businesses.

Key bits of advice

alex-pic-111. Don’t think – “what can this company give me?” Instead, approach people with a mentality of “how can I help this company solve its problems?” Smart people know that doing the latter well will lead them to the answer they want on the former. Alex talked about being impressed by candidates who approach him with pre-prepared ideas or designs for his business.

2. You need to demonstrate interest in the areas you are transitioning into (note – not necessarily direct experience, but interest and fire in the belly). If you haven’t done your research the startup will know you’ve just had a bad week at work.

3. The attraction of people transitioning from the corporate world is that they come with high standards, the ability to work under pressure, and a track record of delivering on projects. There’s not a huge amount of distance between the two worlds.

4. You do need to adapt your salary expectations if you’re looking for a job in tech / startup land. There are big salaries out there but you need to realise that you’re entering a new sector with different market rates for different roles and levels of seniority.

5. Faced with a decision between joining a startup where you really care about the problem they’re solving and a startup where you really rate the leadership and team you’ll be working with – choose the latter, although, of course, both are desirable.

6. Build up skills and experiences that demonstrate your commitment to the area you want to work in – learn to code, attend meetups, start side projects. All these things will prove to your potential employer that you’re serious about their business and sector.

7. Lots of corporate skills are broadly transferable. Don’t get too hung up on whether or not you are qualified for commercial roles – it’s more about proving that you have the interest (see #6 above) and that you have the fire in the belly for helping them build their business.

8. There is a massive skills gap at the moment for developers (especially mobile app developers) – even newly minted junior level developers. I spoke to a physicist afterwards (who writes code) who hadn’t realised that startups would be “interested in people like him”.

9, It’s a tough hustle, but if you can take 3 months to learn how to code – check out Makers Academy, Decoded, General Assembly – you’ll have a skillset that is in extremely high demand (useful even if you end up working in a business role in a tech startup).

10. Roles that straddle technical and business skillsets include Growth Hackers, Digital Marketers, and Product Managers. Startups are open-minded to who does what – prove that you’ve got the mentality and hunger for it and you’ll be surprised what opportunities you can create.

A massive thank you to Alex Stephany for a really insightful Q&A and for giving us his evening. We’d love to have you back! If you are interested in learning more about ParkatmyHouse check out their careers page and you can follow their Employer Profile on Escape the City to be alerted the next time they are hiring for business roles.


What did you take away from the event? Do share your main thoughts in the comments. What do you still want to know? Ask Rob or Alex any follow-up questions or leave us feedback in the comments.

If you enjoyed last night, we’d love to see you at another event:

What is Escape the City all about then?

Frustrated by climbing the corporate ladder, we decided to build a community to help people build meaningful careers doing work that matters – to them and to the world. We help talented people find fulfilling work by making big career changes, building businesses, & going on big adventures. We’d love you to come with us on this journey.

How do you get involved?

1. Job Seeker? Create an Escape Profile to get matched to exciting jobs.

2. Aspiring Career Changer / Entrepreneur? If you’re in London, come and see us at The Escape School.

3. Want to stay in touch? Subscribe to one of our newsletters. Find us on Facebook or @escthecity.

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