How to get into: Start-ups and SMEs

Are you innovative, self-driven and interested in working in a close-knit work environment? Then working in a start-up or SME might be the right career move for you!

On 28 February, the Faculty of Social Sciences and Law invited University of Bristol alumni to talk about their experiences in start-ups and SMEs, as part of the ‘How to get into…’ event series.

Read on for our speakers’ top tips for those interested in pursuing a career in the sector, as well as an overview of the sector and some useful links.

What are start-ups and SMEs?

A start-up is a young company in its initial stages of creating a business. Typically, the founder is central to the start-up, often contributing to financing the business with funds from their own pockets and seeking investments before launching the business.

An SME is a small or medium-sized enterprise that employs less than 250 people. SMEs make up 99% of UK businesses, so they’re a key driver of economic growth. They operate across all sectors, and therefore offer lots of opportunities for graduates wanting to pursue a career in a smaller business, charity, social enterprise or start-up.

Starting your career in a start-up or SME can mean extra responsibility early on and a higher level of autonomy. Working for a smaller company often means a close-knit work environment where your input is truly valuable. Managers, directors, and even the CEO are also likely to be more accessible, which can be great for networking and building professional connections early on in your career.

Meet the panellists

The speakers are introduced here – click their names to learn more about their individual career paths and connect with them on LinkedIn!

Top tips!

So, how can you get into SMEs and start-ups? Where can you start and what are the main things to keep in mind when entering the field? Check out the speakers four top tips!

1. Adopt an entrepreneurial mindset – Speculative applications

Proactively approach companies you’re interested in with speculative applications when you’re struggling to find advertised positions. This is a great way to find opportunities that might not be externally advertised, while also getting the chance to put yourself on the company’s radar. Start-ups are not always the best at advertising opportunities and job vacancies and often hire people that are already on their radar. So if you find a company within your area of interest, don’t be afraid to get in touch with them.

2. Build a portfolio

If you wish to apply for a position in an SME or start-up that operates in an area your degree does not explicitly relate to or that you lack work experience in, consider putting together a professional portfolio that showcases your ability and passion for that field of work, to strengthen your applications. Use university holidays and time off to learn independently about a particular field, e.g. finance or technology, and add to your portfolio. This can also act as evidence of your entrepreneurial spirit and self-driven character, which is something start-ups often look for in candidates. Check out this article from Indeed with more info and tips on putting together a professional portfolio.

3. Find an incubator in your area of interest and show up!

Approach incubators to network, attend events and express your interest in a particular field. Incubators are sponsorships run by e.g. universities, cities or organisations, to promote and support new business initiatives on their path to growth and profitability, and often put on sector-specific events. Here are some examples of Bristol-based business and enterprise incubators that you could consider getting in touch with:

  • SETsquared Bristol – Bristol based global tech incubator for start-ups, offering early-stage entrepreneurs a bespoke business programme.
  • Engine Shed – innovation hub, part of the University of Bristol, where businesses, entrepreneurs, academics and corporates collaborate.
  • BSWN Social Enterprise Incubator in Bristol – delivered as part of Bristol’s Local Access Partnership to provide support and investment for social enterprises coming from or working with communities in Bristol experiencing inequality

4. How to best prepare for the application/interview

The speakers shared several insights on how to prepare for the application process. They emphasised four things that can help candidates make a lasting impression on an employer:

  • Make sure your CV and cover letter is in good form – in your application, make sure to explain why you’re interested in the organisation and the role, and why you meet the essential criteria. Explore Career Service resources such as the Get your CV ready pathway and this guide to writing cover letters.
  • Emphasise what differentiates you as a candidate – highlight what makes you different from all other candidates with the same or similar background as you by clearly conveying the skills, experiences and expertise you can bring to the table.
  • Put yourself in the CEOs shoes – Immerse yourself in the company you’re applying to and find out what the CEO is concerned about at the moment; address this in your interview or cover letter and explain how you’re going to contribute to the company. Getting that kind of insight into the organisation sets you apart and speaks to what kind of employee you’ll be.
  • Demonstrate that you’re an independent worker and thinker and that you won’t be a liability to the company or require too much hand-holding.

Find out more:

Are you interested in starting your own business?

The Basecamp Enterprise team delivers start-up acceleration and pre-incubation support from initial ideas to successful graduate start-ups. Supporting all future founders to build their growth mindsets, entrepreneurial skills, and networks across Bristol. 

Blog written by Henrietta Skareng, a 3rd year BSc Politics and International Relations student, Student Engagement Team Worker and Career Peer Support Assistant.