Why being an intern at a startup is the best investment you will ever make

January 30, 2017
Romet Kallas
Account Executive

Hi, my name is Romet Kallas, Account Executive at Unacast. This is my story of going from a project manager intern in a startup in Oslo, Norway, to a product manager. Now as I am about to embark on my biggest adventure so far, moving to NYC with my wife, as an account executive, I wanted to share my learnings and experience with you.

I believe there's two main choices a young person can make when it comes to choosing a career path. Option 1: Going the traditional route with the steady job, usually at a larger corporation, slowly climbing the career ladder and ending up making a comfortable living by mid thirties/forties. Option 2: Joining or establishing a startup to disrupt and create industries, with a lot responsibility, a lot of unknowns, a lot of fun and a ton of learnings. There’s no right or wrong choice, but fact is that most of us go for option 1 and so did I.

Why is that? Because it seems safe? Starting salaries in established companies are typically higher, the working hours are fixed, tasks are known and most importantly - it’s comfortable. There are a lot less unknowns as the product, business model, business structure etc. are all modeled out. So why on earth did I chose to trade a steady and a comfortable full time job for being an intern at a Norwegian startup that was at that time 3 people strong, and why do I encourage you to do the same?

What was I thinking?

I love my friends and family, but many of them have a tendency to not seeing the big picture, also economically. In fact, a lot of the people I know fail at this and that’s also the reason why majority go for option 1. People can’t see beyond the paycheck, which in a startup is usually lower. But what they also can’t see is what they are missing out on. My first full time job was at a company where there was a strict hierarchy, where there was seldom time to look into new ways of doing things and where the prevailing thinking was “how can we do more of the same” and not “how can we do better?” It’s not unusual for a company to think like that and not only is this mindset dangerous for the company, but for the employees as well. It will condition people to not look into the unknowns and when a person loses curiosity, they will stop learning. When a (young) person stops learning, it is the worst career investment they will ever make. So I had to move on and invest in me.

Moral of the story: Don’t get blinded by short term gains, as you can’t afford that while you’re young. Invest every resource (mostly time) into yourself, don’t ever stop learning and I promise you will never look back.

From a steady job to a startup in another country

Long story short. I quit my job in Estonia and moved with my girlfriend to Norway, a country where I didn’t speak the language and had no clue what was I going to do next. The only thing I did know, was that I wanted to surround myself with people that shared my ambition, who were smarter than me and who thought everything is possible. It took me 6 months to find them and here is what the ad said: “You want to think back at your life and know that you did something few dare to do. You reached for the sky, and you touched the sun.

If this is you, we welcome you to Unacast.” I knew immediately that this was the place I was looking for. Ok great, I found the place where I can realize my dreams. Now, how the hell am I going to get hired by a tech startup when I have no tech experience what so ever?

Moral of the story: Define your goal(s), if you don’t know what you are looking for you have 0% chance of finding it.

Joining a tech startup with no relevant experience

My lack of relevant experience held me back at first. I had no clue what an API, SDK, backend or frontend means in that matter. So how can any of my ideas and thoughts possibly contribute anything if I have no relevant experience? But do you think Elon had previous experience building rockets or Steve selling computers? No they didn’t and perhaps that’s the reason why they have had such an impact on the world. So I decided to get myself together, read and learn as much as possible and get that job no matter what.

Moral of the story: Don’t hold yourself back just because you don’t have any experience.

Be humble, hungry and stay open to new things, you can learn everything if you put your mind to it.

But 90% of startups fail, I can’t take that risk

If you can’t take that risk, you should probably go for option 1, but keep in mind that people also lose their jobs in established companies - and increasingly so. So what is the real risk of joining a startup? I live my life according to certain principles and one of them is always asking myself, what's the worst that can happen? If the answer to that question is not “life-threatening”, I will most likely do it. Therefore, if the startup fails, then I’m without a job. Now is that scary? Of course it is, but again, it can happen to any company not just a startup. On the flipside nobody can take away the experience or learnings that you have gained within such a short time. I would argue that it would take many years or even decades to get the equivalent experience working in a large corporation.

Moral of the story: Don’t hold yourself back just because the world has painted a picture where it’s risky to establish or join a new company, and perhaps you’re the reason why it will succeed?

Stop making excuses and get out there

After going through these doubts I finally came up with a plan of how I’m getting the founders of the startup, that was looking for people to touch the sun, to overlook my experience.

I made a video CV, where I could show my personality and not only my experience. I won’t bore you with the details, but it worked, and I have been in the company for nearly 2 years now. I have seen a bootstrapped company grow from 3 people to 25, gain a global market position and raise $6.6m, and we are just getting started as we are looking towards our Series B. I have worked in several positions and different projects from marketing, product management, account management to creating a revenue model and an industry leading report. After my internship ended I was invited to join the company full-time. There I have found a place where my voice matters, where I’m being pushed to look into unknowns and where I get to spend my time with the most kickass people I’ve known. Most importantly a company where even an intern can impact or change the course of the entire company. As I’m getting ready to move from our Oslo office to our New York City office, with my now wife, I wanted to share that experience with you.

Why am I telling you this? Because I want you to dare to break the pattern and reach for your dreams as well.

Moral of the story: Never stop exploring. If you are open to new things and willing to put your heart in it, life will take you places you couldn’t ever imagine.

Now when it comes to investing in general, there is always a potential outcome where you can lose. I would argue that if you are working in a startup you cannot lose, and that is why being an intern at a startup is the best investment you’ll ever make.