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Look Beyond the Big Boys: How Working for a Smaller Start-up Company Can Benefit Your Career

When it comes to deciding companies to work for after graduate school or postdoctoral experiences, many focus on large, multinational companies with thousands of employees and more job openings. However, working at a large company has its pros and cons.

Smaller, start-up companies should also be considered for your next career step. They provide unique opportunities to experience a diversity of roles in the company as most employees wear many hats at a smaller company.

How can you find these smaller companies since they don’t have the “name brand” of large corporations? A few places to start could include NC State’s Office of Research and Innovation’s Start-Up list (where you can leverage your NC State connection!) as well as this list of start-up accelerators/incubators across the Research Triangle Region.

To get a better perspective on opportunities available to Masters and Ph.D.-trained individuals at local small, start-up companies, we spoke with representatives from HZO & SinnovaTek.

HZO: Specializing in high-tech nano coatings for electronics

HZO develops high-tech nano coatings to protect electronics from the harshest environments.

HZO is a global leader in delivering world-class protective thin-film & nano coatings that safeguard electronics from the most demanding corrosive and liquid environments. The company brings together people, process, capital equipment and material science, leveraging an extensive patent portfolio to create unique solutions to meet specific customer requirements. HZO has experienced extraordinary growth, in excess of 300% per year for the past three years, and enjoys exceptional financial support having raised over $200M in private equity since inception.

We talked with Kaitlyn Sanderson, Professional in Human Resources (PHR), Talent Management Specialist to learn more about the company.

1) Generally, where is best to look for postings at science startup companies?

Sanderson, HZO: LinkedIn continues to be an ideal way to strategically identify new positions at companies you have an interest in. I encourage all job seekers to maximize their use of that platform and develop relationships and connections with people in their target industry. This can help them to not only find job postings, but get to know the company better so they can tailor their interview answers and resume.

2) Where do you advertise for open positions?

Sanderson, HZO: We advertise our open positions on 20+ job boards including Indeed, Monster, and LinkedIn, university career sites, and our own company website.

3) What do you all pitch to potential employees regarding the value of working at a growing company with a start-up vibe?

Sanderson, HZO: The value of working at a growing company like HZO is the unlimited potential that comes with every role. Start-ups and high-growth companies are constantly innovating and improving existing processes, and this creates endless opportunities to take on new projects and grow your career.

In addition, high-growth companies often attract some of the brightest minds in their fields to take on cutting-edge work. I am excited to go to work at HZO every day because I know I am working with the best of the best.

4) What are growing, start-up companies like HZO looking for in applicants (i.e., what can applicants do to make themselves more appealing candidates)?

Sanderson, HZO: One of the most important things we look for in candidates is adaptability. At any high-growth company, but especially one in the technology space, things are changing constantly. This can result in frequent strategy adjustments and changes in priorities.

Successful employees must be able to not only respond well to these changes but continue to excel in new situations. Any time a candidate can answer my questions with specific examples of times that they demonstrated these kinds of capabilities is a big positive to me.


SinnovaTek: Delivering novel food processing and ingredient technologies

SinnovaTek is an end-to-end solutions provider for forward thinkers who are pursuing positive change in the food space. Through their experience, research, technology, and connections, the team is building an ecosystem meant to find the answers that fit. As a B Corporation (which balances “purpose and profit”), their mission is to promote worldwide health and wellness by fostering the delivery of high quality, healthy foods through sustainable methods. They accomplish this through the development and commercialization of novel food processing and ingredient technologies.

We spoke with Amanda Vargochik, Vice President of Innovation at SinnovaTek to learn more about the company.

1) Generally, where is best to look for postings at startups such as SinnovaTek?

SinnovaTek: Networking is crucial. Working in a startup is a very unique opportunity that requires a high level of self-motivation and initiative. We need to hire people who are up for making their own path and who we know will share our values since early employees are key in building the culture of a company.

Therefore, we rely heavily on personal references. Trade groups, seminars, professional networks, and internships are good places to start. We stay involved in these things to make sure we are getting exposure to potential new employees.

2) Where do you advertise for open positions?

SinnovaTek: It’s rare that we post open positions online. As mentioned above, most of our hires have been directly from personal references. As we grow, this will probably change over time and we will choose either trade-specific sites or more general job sites depending on the type of position. We are also in contact with headhunters, but this is a pretty costly option for a young company.

3) What do you all pitch to potential employees regarding the value of working at a growing company with a start-up vibe?

SinnovaTek team members volunteering on the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle farm

SinnovaTek: We think it’s a great opportunity to make an impact. Each of our employees can tangibly see the results of their work and can shape the trajectory of their career in very purposeful ways. They can make suggestions or give ideas and they can be implemented quickly. It’s also a good way to get exposure to a wide set of learning opportunities.

In a start-up, employees will have a hand in a little bit of everything, which is very rewarding for a lot of people. That being said, it’s not for everyone. If you are a person that needs a lot of direction and a very specific set of job responsibilities that don’t change much, a startup is probably not the right place to work.

4) What are growing, start-up companies like SinnovaTek looking for in applicants (i.e., what can applicants do to make themselves more appealing candidates)?

SinnovaTek: In a growing, start-up company, employees need to be willing to embrace change, maintain a high level of integrity, and have a positive attitude. We are looking for applicants who have some very specific skill sets that will round out our team, but who are also capable of being a generalist.

Things that stand out on a resume are high levels of results and enough certifications and/or education to fill the gaps in our team. When I can see that an applicant has an obvious passion for what they say they are interested in (hobbies that cross over into professional skills, initiative taken to create opportunities, etc.), I get the impression that their passion and initiative will translate to our team.

It also has impressed us when people have just reached out to us with their qualifications and why they are interested. There may not be a position that comes for it since it’s pretty rare that we have open positions, but it does make an impact.

What can we learn from these companies as job-seekers?

To summarize the responses from both of these companies:

  • Developing relationships and networking are crucial to securing employment at smaller, start-up companies
  • Start-ups are looking for individuals comfortable with change and who are adaptable
  • Problem solving and thinking critically are essential skills at these companies
  • As an employee of a start-up, your impact will often be more measurable and tangible than at a larger company where you are assigned a specific role

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