How Liberal Arts Colleges Prepare You To Work For Startups

Liberal arts grades can do very well at startups.

The Internet is filled with articles featuring college dropouts who’ve achieved impressive successes in the startup world. There’s this piece from Mashable, this one from Upstart, and this article from Forbes, just to pick a few. There have undeniably been those who do well outside of the confines of college as they prepare or launch their startup. However, while it’s certainly not the right choice for everyone, I’ve recently noticed how my liberal arts education profoundly prepared me for daily life working with startups.  I had some startup-relevant experiences through work and internship opportunities during college, but I’ve also found immense value return down the line even through just what I gained in the classroom.

Here are a few of the ways that I’ve found liberal arts colleges prepare you to work for startups:

1. You learn to go to the source.

source

My alma mater, Vassar College, has a saying, “go to the source.” This means getting to the source of an issue in order to find answers. It applied just as well in history classes as it did when solving issues as part of student groups or through community service projects. When you go to the primary source to solve a problem, you can often find new insights that you’d miss if you only checked out secondary or tertiary sources. My friend Cordelia, also a Vassar grad, wrote a fantastic piece on how she sees her role as a developer at Salesforce as that of an archaeologist. Cordelia writes that she often excavates old code, and must learn to understand it before she can build upon it in new code. This “go to the source” attitude applies to startups that are attempting to make an impact or disrupt existing industries by offering new value in the marketplace. Going to the source also involves questioning previously held beliefs about what will work best through doing multi-variate testing of landing pages, social campaigns, ads, and more. By being trained to get to the source to find solutions–including through understanding the experiences of your customer and his/her pain points–you’ll be many steps ahead of your competition.

2. You learn how to create compelling, data-based arguments–and, if needed, adapt them.

Using data to make arguments in startups.

In liberal arts college, every thesis you argue needs to be backed up by supporting references and sources. Learning how to stake a position based on data is what I do all day long working with startups. Why should a startup post in LinkedIn groups at a certain of day? What is the optimal number of blogs to publish per week to fuel the inbound lead generation funnel? What budget should a b2b startup allocate for display advertising, and on and on. All of these questions can and should be answered by data. Additionally, data changes over time, and it’s crucial to be willing to go back to the data and continue to test your hypotheses to see if they still hold true. In liberal arts environments, we learn to question as new theories, studies and data emerge. This is crucial to being effective and agile in the startup world, as well as keeping up with the ever-changing digital marketing landscape.

3. Learning ethnography prepares you to study the experiences of your startup customers.

Learning how to address the needs of your customer in startups.

Many liberal arts colleges have an anthropology or sociology requirement that teaches you how to do ethnography, which Wikipedia defines as “research method designed to explore cultural phenomena where the researcher observes society from the point of view of the subject of the study.” Ethnography training has helped me immensely in learning how to collect data and survey responses in order to understand and address my startup clients’ needs, fears, and goals, as well as those of their target customers. By studying ethnography, you can also gain valuable insights into bias and how we often project our own experiences onto others. When startups don’t assume what their customers want and instead actually take the time to truly understand their customer’s experiences, they are usually rewarded with customer loyalty and increased success in the market.

4. You gain an understanding of how to approach and deliver constructive feedback.

Constructive feedback is very important in startups.

In my college nonfiction writing seminars, we had a concept called the “feedback sandwich.” Structuring criticism with what worked, what didn’t, and what was good but could be slightly improved (sharing some negative feedback betwixt positive feedback–hence, the sandwich) is incredibly effective. Sometimes feedback has to be 100% constructive, but often, there’s great stuff mixed in with not-so-great stuff. When editing writers’ blogs, I try to always highlight what’s good as well as what needs improvement. It usually helps us all focus on the constructive criticism without taking things too personally.

5. You learn how to lead small groups that can effect big changes.

Tribes by Seth Godin.In college, student groups I was involved in rallied together small groups of students, faculty, and staff to organize service projects, bring speakers, plan events, and more. Learning how to mobilize small groups to effect change is an invaluable startup skill. Seth Godin calls this phenomenon of small, strong groups making an impact “tribes,” which you can learn about in his book and Ted Talk on the subject.

6. You learn to recognize and understand societal inequality.

Inequality still exists in startups.

The liberal arts classroom offers many opportunities both through coursework and class discussion to unpack and recognize societal privilege and inequality among diverse populations. In the startup world, there’s still an undeniable lack of diversity at the leadership levels. Being aware of inequality and why it’s existed throughout history through the lens of a liberal arts education can help us move towards embracing a more equal startup world. Brad Feld, MIT grad and local Boulder VC, wrote a powerful article about increasing the numbers of women in leadership roles in tech.

7. Liberal arts colleges teach you how to write well.

Writing well is crucial to startup life.

This is the single-most important thing I learned in college: how to write a damn sentence. It behooves each of us in the startup world to learn how to express our ideas through cogent, clear writing. I took it for granted that I could write during school, but after, I’ve found it is pretty much crucial to my everyday life: writing social media strategy plans and social media posts, website copy, client proposals, startup client blogs, creative briefs, content marketing maps and, of course, emails.

8. You learn how to think broadly in order to solve problems.

Businesses need to think broadly to solve problems.

Liberal arts degrees are all about interdisciplinary thinking, and you have to think across silos in order to be effective in startups. I really like this Customer Success Summit talk by Jeanne Bliss on how startups can solve problems across departments. In order to address your customers’ needs, you’ll need to think broadly and across your startups’ departments.

Concluding Thoughts

Nothing can replace real-world startup experience. That’s why groups like Tradecraft, which train smart people to work in high traction roles at startups, are so great for those starting out, as they immediately immerse participants in real-world startup work. And, of course, in technical roles, it’s crucial to find people with technical skills above all else. But, for anyone worried their liberal arts college education isn’t helping to prepare them to achieve their goal of making a difference at a startup, I’d encourage them to reconsider. I’d also suggest strongly hiring liberal arts grads for your startup!

Does your startup hire liberal arts grads? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.

Six Ways That Being An Independent Contractor Transforms You

I was drinking my coffee with almond milk and stevia this morning and was thinking about how I have changed a lot since becoming an independent marketing contractor several years ago. After chatting on the subject with some of my fellow independent contractor friends, I’ve confirmed that there are indeed some universal things that we all go through when we make the transition into being full-time freelance. Here’s a short list of ways that being an independent contractor transforms you:

1. You begin to think and exist in multiple time zones.

Working remotely and simultaneously thinking in various time zones.

At any given moment, I know what time it is in Palo Alto, Dallas, Calgary, New Delhi, Johannesburg, Washington D.C., Los Angeles and, of course, my hometown, Boulder. I cannot help this. After repeatedly coordinating with contractors and companies spanning multiple time zones and continents, your brain begins to automatically convert to various times even without consulting world clocks. I have discussed this phenomenon with various independent contractors with whom I’ve worked, and they have each had the same thing happen. You can’t shut it off, and you wouldn’t want to if you could, because it’s so useful.

2. You become more in tune with your natural rhythms.

morning13n-1-web

Are you a morning person? I am. I vaguely sensed this during my years when I was working in-house for companies and nonprofits, but now that I set my work schedule, I’ve discovered that I do some of my best work far before the 9am crowd sits down to get to it. I also get a second wind in the early evening. Instead of being forced to end my work at 6pm like I did before becoming an independent contractor, I can pick up where I left off for an hour or two when I feel my freshest. The result? I work primarily when I am totally focused and on, because I have the freedom to allow myself to take off when I need a break to grab a bite, hike a mountain, or go to the gym. Marie Forleo has a great post on the subject. Other contractor friends need to wait until the sun goes down to transition into high gear productivity.  Because I am committed to working when I naturally feel inclined to, clients benefit because they get my best work, all the time. It’s a win-win.

3. You form meaningful connections with people you’ve never met in-person.

Online friends

I have many clients and fellow independent contractor friends I’ve only ever “met” on Skype. I’ve shared the joys of a new puppy adopted by a graphic designer co-worker in South Africa via Go-To-Meeting; I’ve shared genuine laughs (and done great work!) with a website designer based in Calgary; I regularly talk about local events going on in the Bay Area with a client even though I haven’t lived there for several years. I worked with a client in Los Angeles and finally met most of the office team after several months working with them remotely. When the company flew me out to meet the team, it felt like I already knew everyone–because I did. Thanks to the Internet, you don’t have to work in the same office to share a deep respect for other human beings with whom you co-work. That’s a weird thing to explain to those who are used to only networking with in-person offices, but you learn how to work around it and genuinely connect with those you haven’t met face-to-face.

4. You learn to become very skilled at conveying what you do and why it’s valuable.

Value proposition is something independent contractors must convey

Every single successful independent contractor I know has had to learn how to convey the value of what they do with others on a frequent basis. Though I’m versed in digital marketing and showcasing the value of the solutions I deliver to clients, and most of my work comes from referrals, each of my successful graphic designer, UX/UI and developer friends have had to learn how to sell themselves and their work services. It’s another thing that comes with the turf. I like Derek Halpern’s Social Triggers blog post on the subject.

5. Your beliefs about retirement change.

Retirement

I believe in investing for retirement and planning for it in the traditional sense, but when you’re an independent contractor, life doesn’t feel like it’s leading up to an eventual goal of being able to retire to finally do what you want–that’s our reality, right now. It’s a powerful place to be in and one that changes you on a deep, and I’d dare say even spiritual, level. FastCompany’s recent article is a great long read on the subject.

6. You develop a great sense of self-reliance and also learn how and when to ask for help from others.

Getting help as an independent contractor

It can be daunting and somewhat unnerving to not rely on anyone else to take care of everything for your work concerns. As an independent contractor, you have to figure out how to set and keep a budget, do your taxes (and plan for them), find and purchase health insurance, host and maintain your portfolio and website, manage your billing and schedule and client relationships and tackle various other tasks most people in traditional work settings don’t have to think about. You learn how to manage each challenge, and when you have trouble, you learn that you can and must seek help and guidance from trusted sources and fellow contractors who’ve been through the ropes. With Freelancer’s Union and other free resources available online, it’s not too difficult to solve challenges. You just have to be willing to ask for help.

Closing Thoughts

This list isn’t exhaustive–I wanted to share a few ways my independent contractor colleagues and I have changed, and would love to hear others’ thoughts about this topic.

Are you an independent contractor or business that hires independent contractors? Have you noticed anything else that should be on this list? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.