How to Be a Successful Startup Creative

On Tuesday, September 17, we held our “Creative Careers: Life at Startups” event at LIU Brooklyn. The panel of speakers included Alix Mcalpine, Creative Lead at Buzzfeed, Julia Robbs, Freelance Photographer at Tattly, Carlos Cruz, Product Designer at Makerbot Industries, and Jessica Salinas, Acting Editor at Livestream, all creative professionals with years of startup experience under their belts. Buzzfeed, Makerbot and Livestream range from 70-300+ employees, while Tattly was the youngest of the four startups represented with 10 employees.

The panel shared personal experiences and the do’s and don’ts of getting a startup job and keeping it.

Land a Startup Job.

All speakers agreed that an applicant who can demonstrate drive and ambition on their resume and in the interview is the most appealing. Having a wide range of experiences also helps. “Always learn new things. It’s good to master one skill, but it’s good to stay curious,” said Carlos.

Startups often do personality hires. Since you’ll be spending a lot of time in a small group, you need to be sure you will work well together. Before applying for a startup job, research the company. If you don’t seem like a good culture fit, don’t waste time applying. If you do decide to apply, write a conversational, personal, short and sweet cover letter – don’t just use a template you found on the internet. As a creative person, it always helps to have a blog, a Tumblr, a podcast, or some sort of online presence. This proves your ambition to potential employers and helps you develop your writing as well.

If you are interviewing at a somewhat wacky company (like Buzzfeed), be prepared to answer wacky questions and don’t be stiff. “Some people are so smart but kind of overbearing – you should know when to talk about yourself and when to listen. Do a few practice interviews with friends,” Alix recommends.

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Julia Robbs of Tattly. Photo by Erica Genece.

Work, work, work.

As a startup, you’re likely going to have many responsibilities in your job description. Use those experiences to your advantage to learn as much as possible. You may even discover a hidden talent.

Limited finances are synonymous with startups so you’ll have to be thrifty. “Your good-looking friends will become your models. And if you have to do a photoshoot in the hallway, then you’re doing a shoot in a hallway,” shared photographer Julia.

Remember that it is always good to go the extra mile. Prior to Livestream, when Jessica was working at a print shop with a startup environment, she saw the opportunity to take on social media marketing for the company and decided to put together a pitch for her CEO. The result was a promotion and a raise! (See how it pays to be proactive?)  Alix had a similar realization at BuzzFeed. “You’re not going to get anything in life unless you ask for it,” she noted.

If you want to do something, just start doing it. Track your progress and present it to your boss. If you are thoughtful and keep the company’s goals in mind, they will likely be impressed and you’ll be on your way to making yourself invaluable to the company’s future.

Startup Challenges

Something all the panelists agreed on is that due to the constant growth and change at startups, you have to be flexible and willing to take on new tasks and multiple roles. Even if it’s not something you’re trained to do, you will learn as you go. However, as the company progresses and the staff has a chance to expand, you will be able to develop your most prominent talents.

Another challenge is the lack of normal work hours. As Jessica said, “If you don’t like being ‘on’ all the time, don’t be at a startup.”

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Speakers L-R: Alix Mcalpine, Creative Lead at Buzzfeed, Julia Robbs, Freelance Photographer at Tattly, Carlos Cruz, Product Designer at Makerbot Industries, and Jessica Salinas, Acting Editor at Livestream. Photo by Erica Genece.

The Perks of Being at a Startup

The lack of definition and structure in your role can also be considered a perk, as it can lead to greater opportunities. It gives you the freedom to raise your hand, make suggestions, and participate in creating the company culture. Working at Tattly, the smallest startup of the four, Julia said, “Because there is often low budgets, there are no rules – that forces you to get creative.”

Julia cited being surrounded by other creatives at the co-working space Studiomates, run by Tattly Founder Tina Roth Eisenberg, as another advantage of her work at the startup.

Then of course, there are more tangible perks. Carlos shared a great moment when his work was featured in Interior Design magazine; Jessica got to go backstage at a Rihanna concert and gets to attend Fashion Week every year, and “Kanye was in the office last week,” Alix chimed in.

NY Creative Interns Startup Creatives 3Speakers and attendees networking after the event. Photo by Erica Genece.

Advice from Startup Land

The panel came to an agreement that if they could go back and do something over, they would all take some computer programming, finance and business classes in college to better prepare for startup life. They also promote staying organized with lists, calendars and phone apps like Wunderlist and TeuxDeux.

Because of the financial risks involved in joining a startup, they also recommended having a general idea of the company’s financial situation before you apply. Above all, they emphasized, be sure you trust the company and the person at the top, love the products, and learn to embrace failure.

Do you have any experience at working at startups? Share in the comments section. 

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