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Have you ever considered working for a start-up? Regardless of your salary, title, or experience, you need a select group of skills to succeed in a new venture. Read on to find out the essential qualities everyone needs to sign-on to a start-up!

Admit it—you have spent more than a few minutes dreaming of living the billionaire lifestyle, drinking champagne on your yacht in the Florida Keys, year-round. For some people, it is fulfilling enough to vacation in Orlando for two weeks a year. For others, nothing less than the fifty-star, full-color American Dream will do, and they will chase their vision until their legs give out.

The latter group are the risk-takers, the money-makers (or –losers, depending on their luck), and the entrepreneurs in the business world. Working for a start-up company can be an exciting and rewarding opportunity for adventurous souls. But you don’t have to live in Silicon Valley to work at a start-up, and don’t have to know computer programming code to get hired. So what do will you need to work for a start-up? In the fine American tradition, a few skills in your pocket and a fine set of bootstraps.

General office skills:

As anyone who has worked at a start-up will tell you, your official job title is usually “whatever needs to get done right this minute.” A growing business often requires more work than there are working bodies to do it. Everyone pitches in where they have skills and expertise, and they wear many hats over the course of their employment. (Today will be the beret of Photoshop, tomorrow the top hat of database management.) This does not mean you need twenty years of experience to work at start-up! Even when you do not have the exact work experience, you may have all the skills you need to succeed.

Having solid, general office skills goes a long way. Most jobs and work environments rely on common knowledge--using a computer, sending email, searching the internet, typing a document, etc. are fairly standard. The daily tasks of managing an office may be similar whether you are working for a software company or a non-profit organization. Other positions and skills can also translate well from different sectors, or with a little retuning, be applied in new ways. Managing a team, overseeing projects, ordering supplies, maintaining business relationships, and many other tasks provide experience you can use in a new venture

Computer skills in general go a long way, too. It’s obviously useful to know your way around word processors and spreadsheets, but even basic knowledge of html code or front-end frameworks can get you drafted for website formatting along with your other tasks.

Specific work experience

Find work that fits you. As useful as these general skills are, every employee is hired for a reason. As the start-up company grows, you get to wear one hat more than the others. Your particular expertise and experience matters and the business depends on them. If you have years of experience in sales, getting clients and keeping them happy, it makes sense to find work at a start-up in that area. Your previous job experience gave you opportunities to develop your skills, to hone and refine them, to sharpen the weapons in your arsenal on your way to the entrepreneurial battle for capitalism. (But don’t worry, the midnight snack panic attack that you have no idea what you’re doing is a common sleep-killer.)


Surprisingly, there many character traits you can build just by being a functional, responsible adult. Discipline, drive, and self-control are critical qualities that pave the path to achievement and success, inside the office or out.

Self-discipline, in particular, is a highly valued skill for an entrepreneur or anyone working for a start-up. And don’t let the casual environment fool you. Working for a start-up means long hours and hard work. You have to be your own boss and crack your own whip. Alex Pirouz, in his column for, writes that undisciplined people who want to work for themselves are not entrepreneurs, but “wantrepreneurs.” They see starting a new business “as the quickest way to get rich or the ability to set their own hours and be their own boss and not have to answer to anyone.” The perks of starting your own business—making the big decisions, choosing your own work schedule, among others—must be balanced by an innate drive and work ethic. Why? Because if you don’t do the work, no one will. Entrepreneurs who leave the important duties and details to employees, or until they feel like dealing with them, will quickly go from self-employed to unemployed.

Working for a start-up also requires sacrifice and a willingness to delay gratification for future rewards. In her article “The 6 Scary Truths about Becoming an Entrepreneur” for, Stacey Alcorn argues for the need to make sacrifices for the good of the company. Employees often choose to work for little compensation in the present so those funds can help the company grow at a critical juncture. “You will sacrifice today for a better tomorrow because that’s what great entrepreneurs do,” said Alcorn.

It’s no coincidence that veterans of the Armed Forces make great entrepreneurs. They are 45% more likely to become an entrepreneur than the average civilian, according to 2011 study from the Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy. In fact, “statistics show that t he success rate of these veteran-owned businesses is higher than other startups - perhaps a reflection of the discipline, skills, and leadership experience acquired in military service,” according to the SBA government website.

Good judgment

If working for a start-up were easy, everyone would do it. Obviously, working for a new company is a risky proposition. The decision to leave your job and join a start-up should be carefully weighed and considered, but the need for good judgment does not disappear after your receive your first paycheck (however small that may be). To make informed, reasonable choices, you need an understanding of calculated risk. A job at an existing, successful business can provide immediate rewards that a start-up cannot. An established company could offer health insurance, paid vacation time, or contributions towards a 401k. A start-up offers many things, but it can’t provide stability.

Having and using good judgment is even more critical for the boss(es). Entrepreneurs make decisions that affect more than themselves. They choose the direction, set the path, and hire the crew. This is not to say they should have all the answers, or that they won’t make mistakes. The purpose of a start-up is to try something new, and not every idea and action will be the right one. But in the pursuit of success, an entrepreneur is best served by a level head and an open mind.

You can’t walk two feet in Silicon Valley without tripping over The Next Big Thing in the tech business. But for every Facebook there’s a Friendster; for every Google there’s an Altavista. The possibility of failure and ensuing unemployment is a risk every person takes when working for a start-up. Businesses fail. That is the hard truth. The concept may be brilliant and the people hardworking, but that’s not necessarily enough to keep the doors open and lights on. Some businesses have shorter shelf-lives than others, too. In the technology, computer, and internet business sectors, companies fight not only their competition but progress itself. Technological innovation is practically a force of nature—powerful but unpredictable. You can try to read the sky and run off to check the weather vanes, but there are no guarantees what the weather or the economy or the internet will be doing tomorrow (much less a year from now).

An understanding of people, and yourself argues that “anyone with the desire and the initiative can be an entrepreneur.” This is true; anyone can. Just not for long. Unless you are running a one-man band, a start-up needs a solid team to get the job done. This requires a solid understanding of the needs of your business and the kinds of people and expertise that will help it succeed. If you have a realistic perspective of what you bring to the table, you will know what to look for in the people you bring on board. In a new business, every person is critical to the operation of the company. Every gap, every bit of slack, is not only noticed but felt. Choosing the right people the first time set the start-up in the right direction that much faster. But the work does not end when they are hired. “Awesome businesses are built by listening to the people who make the business entity run,” said Alcorn. In other words, if you’re the conductor of a one-man band, you get to play your own tune. When you are leading other musicians, you had better know the music before you set the beat.

Considering going back to school? Ready to change professions but need guidance? Looking for tips to advance your career? Search thousands of articles on education, internships, entry-level and executive jobs, and careers.

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Building The Right Skills
About The Author:

J.R. Mills is the editor-in-chief of Dotschools


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