The Barbell Problem: How Students Find Jobs at Startups

Chris Johnson is an entrepreneur and currently the co-founder of Wakefield, a daily email read by students that features startup companies, people, and products.


We often get asked why we created Wakefield. (In startup parlance, it’s typically framed as: “What problem does this solve?”) The answer is that while there’s growing attention on the tech/startup sector as a career path – there’s also a huge problem in how students ‘discover’ information about the space and what it’s like to work there. It’s worth noting that we also run a large tech startup recruiting event called UNCUBED which attracts hundreds of students; this gives us an unusual vantage point to observe how they get their information.

We call this problem “barbell” awareness. On one end, students know that it’s possible to start a company right out of school (or even while you’re still there). But not everyone’s a founder – it’s hard and it’s risky. On the other end: students recognize that you can work at one of the tech giants out there – the Googles and Facebooks. While these companies are growing quickly and seemingly hiring as fast as they can, they represent a very small number of jobs and they’re extremely selective (because they can be).

So that brings us to the middle. This is where we think the opportunity is, especially for people trying to break into the space for the first time. The middle is full of 5- to 100- person startups, a great many of which are well funded, generate real revenue and are growing quickly. For new hires, they represent a tremendous opportunity. They offer competitive salaries, health insurance, significant responsibility, and fun culture (bean bag chairs, not cubes, office karaoke, and dogs) and real excitement. In New York alone (where we are) there are 100s of companies like this – and huge numbers in other cities as well (from Des Moines to San Jose).

When students can access these companies, they’re astounded at how many are hiring for all skill sets (i.e. marketing and business development in addition to more technical jobs). We see this at each of our job fairs. But it turns out, it’s really hard to find information about these companies. The tech news websites and blogs are great for scooping news. But they don’t seem to deliver consistent discovery of new companies unless they’re getting funded or acquired, and you have to be disciplined enough to read it every day. Which is why Wakefield is built around email – each day, subscribers get a short, entertaining email in their inbox, highlighting companies, people, products and the related culture of the startup space.

The other reason we’re doing this? Each of us took a more traditional path before finding entrepreneurship. We hoping to help students overcome the “barbell” and find it sooner.

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