December 1, 2010

Stick With Your Expertise After A Failed Start-Up

The interesting thing I’ve observed is that employers don’t mind past failures. What they shy away from is hiring an experienced professional to do something very different from what he or she was doing before.

Peter Gray

As an executive recruiter, I regularly get e-mails like the one that I’ve paraphrased below.

Peter, I am having one heck of a time getting a job. I spent the last three years trying to get my start-up off the ground. The key investor pulled out. Now my savings are exhausted and I am looking for any position permanent or interim that will pay the bills. I’ve tried everything, but am not even getting interviews. If I were, I would question my interviewing ability. Otherwise, I keep hearing “over-qualified” whatever that means. I have an MBA and a law degree from Big Ten schools, and 20 years work experience. How do I address "over-qualified"? What do I do now?

If only I could wave a wand and help everyone find a job who needs one. Most start-ups fail. When they do, their founders risk-takers who bet everything and lostfind themselves starting over, often with shattered finances and shaken self-confidence. Not an easy place to be.

Expertise is valuable

The trouble is, I think people’s natural impulses often take them in the wrong direction. After a failed start-up, job loss, or other setback that forces seasoned businesspeople to start over, they often look to turn the page by branching out into an altogether new career direction. They may feel like thats a good way to move on after a rough chapter, but then they end up dealing away their most bankable assets: their industry-specific expertise. The interesting thing Ive observed is that employers dont mind past failures. They respect risk-taking if it wasnt on their dime and candid talk about hard lessons learned. What employers shy away from is hiring an experienced professional to do something very different from what he or she was doing before.

Stress your value

So when job seekers hear employers say they’re over-qualified, I think theyre saying, Given the salary that a top JD/MBA with 20 years experience presumably expects, we dont see the value proposition. Job seekers need to communicate their value proposition: very simply, job seekers need to convince employers that they will make a lot more money, with minimal risk, from hiring them than they will spend on salary, benefits, and overhead costs.

It’s that simple, and that maddeningly difficult.

When I think about how to articulate a personal value proposition, it comes down to industry-specific expertise. For example, in the example above, this person’s failed start-up was (as best I can tell) a consulting firm that helped US companies cut costs by finding Eastern European business partners for them to outsource work to. It also had a proprietary software tool in development that was intended to help structure the outsourcing deals. So this person has distinctive experience doing business in Eastern Europe and structuring outsourcing deals. If I were him, I would look for the companies that are trying to outsource to Eastern Europe and the consulting firms that serve them basically the same set of clients and competitors he had before. This may be an industry niche this person is tired of, but nevertheless it’s where he’s most likely to find the employers that would benefit most from his expertise.

Use network contacts

As this job seeker said, even getting interviews is tough. I know. You need to try to get side door conversations with networking contacts like industry colleagues and alumni contacts because getting past the human resources defenses of the front gate is very difficult. You’ll get interviewed — and get hired — when you get the right person’s attention with a strong and simple enough case demonstrating the financial return on investment that the employer will reap from hiring you.

Good luck.

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