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Fast moving freedom: careers in freelance & startups

GradAustralia

Consider a graduate career in a startup or as a freelancer if you love taking risks, thrive in challenging environments & are a problem-solving champion.

Why choose freelance work or a startup?

Sometimes, we want to take the road less travelled. If working for a big corporation or professional services organisation isn’t your thing, you may want to join a startup or become a freelancer.

In fact, while the road towards startups and freelancing is not the traditional choice, it is an increasingly well-trodden path – and we can only see this trend continuing.

Some people choose to work in startups simply for the experience. They are industry agnostic and just want to understand the startup environment. Others join startups because they are deeply passionate about an industry or a specific product or service. Joining a startup can be an exciting journey as you learn how to build something from the ground up.

As a freelancer, you have much more autonomy – over your time, where you work and the projects you choose. Like startups though, being a freelancer comes with its risks. Not always knowing when your next paycheque will come in or what lies ahead requires confidence and a high tolerance for uncertainty.

Entering the freelance and startup sector

Startups are typically classed according to the funding received. An early-stage startup will seek ‘seed’ funding, which is typically used to undertake initial research and development. Once the idea is validated, Series A funding is used to continue building a track record. Series B and C are later round funding to help the startup scale before eventually being sold to another organisation or listed on the stock exchange.

Deciding what stage to join a startup will have implications for the type of work and your financial rewards. For example, an earlier stage startup will likely be more open to negotiating equity compared to established startups. Remember, organisations such as Airbnb, Spotify and Uber are still often referred to as startups, although they are well-established and in many markets.

Startups will often prefer experienced hires that can hit the ground running so it may be easier to apply after a couple of years’ experience. However, startups love people that are passionate about their product so if you are enthusiastic about an organisation, it is still worth reaching out. As startups often don’t have formal recruitment channels, growing your network and keeping an eye on venture capital organisations are ways to find interesting startups.

Alternatively, if you’re interested in startups but prefer something a little less risky, you may look for larger organisations that have in-house incubators or innovation labs. These are often run like startups but with the backing – and funds – of a corporate organisation. Another option is to work for a venture capital firm. Venture capital firms are in the business of picking startups to invest in. While working for a venture capital firm is not quite the same as building an organisation from scratch, you still get to be involved in the journey of the startups you invest in and see them grow.

Becoming a freelancer means establishing your own brand, reputation and demonstrated record of performance. As a graduate without experience, it is difficult to trade on these intangible assets. There is, however, increased demand for contractors in management consulting with more than two years’ experience, particularly those from top-tier consultancies such as McKinsey, Bain, and Boston Consulting Group (BCG). There is also a demand for contractors in areas such as accounting, marketing and operations.

Getting work as a freelancer often means relying on word of mouth. You may find work with clients you have worked with previously or through their referrals. Freelancing opportunities are also available through recruiters or organisations such as Expert360, which specialise in matching contractors to corporates seeking their work.

What’s involved in the startup industry and freelancer industry

Your experience at a startup will depend on the size of the startup. At early-stage startups, job roles may not be clearly defined with people wearing ‘many hats’ and pitching in to do what’s needed. The environment is dynamic, fast-paced and intense. As a startup becomes more established, it is typical for it to operate in a similar manner to traditional organisations with more structured processes and systems.

Depending on your specialisation, you may be involved in anything from accounting and financing to marketing, product development and sales. Many startups are focused on validating their idea by bringing it to market as quickly as possible and iterating based on feedback. The continuous feedback loop is important to make the product as viable as possible – with this track record, it is easier to attract new investment.

As a freelancer, your experience will depend on the project at hand. Some may be short and intense and require more on-site time, while others may allow you to work from home or remotely. Either way, you will be expected to ‘own’ the problem and drive the project forward using your skills. A successful freelancer is able to work independently but also reach out to the client as required for further direction. You will also learn to develop your sales skills as you begin to pitch for more work or follow-on projects.

The best and worst of this career path

Working at a startup can be an exhilarating ride. Knowing that you can have a large impact is a great motivator. At the same time, startup life can be demanding, stressful and intense. You need to be comfortable with ambiguity and experimentation. Without the resources to draw on like a traditional corporate or larger organisation, you’re often left to deal with things by yourself. This can mean long hours, less flexibility and a sense that the amount of work and problem-solving is infinite. Moreover, the potential lack of job security can be unsettling. On the upside, you will learn immensely valuable skills, which are easily transferable.

You will face similar challenges as a freelancer. Being a freelancer means being in control of your own destiny – and often this can be working the hours you want when you want. However, not knowing when your next freelance gig might come along and being your own business development manager can be a challenging and stressful experience. Again, being comfortable with uncertainty is key. The lack of job security, however, is often balanced with greater flexibility and financial rewards.

Career progression as a freelancer or in a startup

If you choose to stay at the startup, you may find your role change as the organisation grows. Being flexible in your approach and open to learning new skills is critical. Plus, if the startup is a success, you may be able to trade on this to work at other startups. If you decide to move on beyond the startup world, you may be interested in working at a venture capital firm or helping other organisations in your specialisation.

If you are successful as a freelancer, you may look to start your own business in your specialisation and hire other people to help you with your work. This may allow you to spend more time on winning new business. Alternatively, if you decide that freelancing is not for you, you may look at going in-house or working for a professional services firm.

Choose this if you:

  • Love taking risks and have a high tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty
  • Want to try something different
  • Aren’t afraid of working hard for something you love.