So you want to work for a small agile innovative company, one that has purpose and can make a difference. You want to be in on the ground level, part of a small team, get a good view of all the different aspects of a company, and get a broad range of experiences.  But you are not one of those entrepreneurial founder types or would be CEO’s, or you don’t yet have that big idea to start a company around.  But you do have enthusiasm, skills and energy and you don’t mind having an adventure so are attracted to working in a start-up… you are an entrepreneurial employee for hire.

If you are the founder, inventor or been there from the start you get to know a company inside out. If you are wanting to join it after it has got going then you have to get beneath the surface that is presented to the outside world. This short series of blogs is going to lay out how to start finding your way around start-ups and get under their surface.

In the first blog we will look at the growth-cycle of a “typical” start-up…… Of course the concept of a typical “start-up” is like the concept of a typical “person” it doesn’t really exist, and generalisations can quickly break-down. But hopefully this generalisation can provide some awareness and insights to understand real start-ups and give a sense where they are at in their growth cycle. But as there is no typical, there is no substitute for getting to know more about a specific start up…..This blog explores how to get to know more about a particular start-up you are interested in.

How to get under the surface of a start-up and find out where it is in its funding cycle

Understanding what is actually going on in a spin-out is not straight forward. From the outside spin-outs and start-ups project a dynamic, smooth facade, optimistic and bold about what they hope to achieve. Internally they are rapidly evolving, continually developing and refining their plan as they understand their technology, business model, market, and finical model.

The trick to understanding what is going on beneath the surface is to gather and interpret the information available from a range of sources. The company website and press releases are a start and may give an indication of the activities, age, origin, stage, and even funding. But that is only if there is lots to release to the press, which probably means they are getting quite established. A broader web search may also reveal a fuller picture: accounts on companies house, articles, trade news, trade commentary, or social media may also give a view. This can be balanced alongside the company’s own web presence.

Ideally, however, you want be connected to those in the company, or at least be close to those who are close to it and ask directly about the company. This might not give you every detail but will give a much greater sense and a more up to date one. Building a strong network and being close to the “watering holes” – the places that have a sense of the start-up scene helps here. These watering holes can be events, networks, or websites, or even people. Particularly valuable are the networks nodes, or highly connected individuals, who support or are connected to many of the start-ups in the ecosystem (common examples can be a Tech Transfer Office, student enterprise hub or innovation centre, or angel investor). These individuals may have the best sense of what is happening in what company, or will know people who do.

So you have identified a company you are interested in, what do you want to know? Ideally any information which lets you get a sense of where it is it’s funding cycle (see first blog) or its journey to being self-sustaining. But in addition, a sense of its heritage will be useful:

  • Who is behind it (founders, managers, investors)?
  • What is their track record and credibility?
  • How many funding rounds/ growth cycles have they been through?
  • Where is their funding coming from
  • Who are they partnering with (Indicates approval and progress)

If you can work out some or part of the answers to those questions you will have a better sense of where the company is at, and which ones to focus on.


Dr Stuart Wilkinson is the Head of the Knowledge Exchange and Impact Team (KEIT) in Research Services, at the University of Oxford.  He is a technology & knowledge transfer professional, experienced in working with world class researchers to take new ideas and innovations into a commercial setting; and in developing strategic partnerships and collaborations to enable innovation to have a greater impact.

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