This is a piece David originally authored for Fortune Insiders.
If your career change moves you in the direction of a startup, there’s no need to worry about having a non-traditional background. Startups, almost by definition, exist to question norms: How can the demands of the marketplace be met in new or better ways? In contemplating that question, your non-traditional background may have equipped you with skills and perspectives that are exactly what a startup needs.
It’s not so much of a stretch, then, whether your background makes you two steps away (i.e., a large corporate environment) or five steps away (i.e., something seemingly unrelated, such as the arts or social work). In both instances, there are ways to bridge the gap from where you’ve been to where you want to go — provided it’s authentic. In other words, you must possess valuable skills without adding “spin” designed to make you look like a better fit than you really are.
Consider the two-step distance. Maybe you came from a large company where you operated within specific processes and procedures — very different from a startup with a less-structured environment. However, your knowledge of a specific industry (e.g. banking or accounting), your network of contacts, and even your knowledge of structures and processes may be the “missing link” a startup needs to scale. You bring the professionalism, rigor, and empathy for customers that the startup likely needs to get to the next level.
Typically, founders have big ideas when they launch a startup, but as the company tries to scale, they often need a distinctly different skill set in order to take the firm from the “idea stage” to the “growth stage.” Earlier in my career, for example, I worked for three of the big-five tax firms before joining a five-person medical device startup. I didn’t have experience in the medical field or in startups, but I brought to the team expertise in the kinds of processes and systems that helped the firm scale. The rest I learned on the job.
In addition to your corporate experience, you may also be passionate in totally unrelated areas that show another side of you. Your experience in, say, improvisational theater shows that you are creative, understand the importance of timing, and can think on your feet.
Now, let’s say that your professional background is five steps away — maybe you were an artist or you spent a few years in the Peace Corps. No matter that these backgrounds are completely unrelated to a startup, you possess personal strengths that helped you be successful — whether cultural, behavioral, or attributes such as problem-solving. Your artistic performances may have allowed you to develop strengths in preparation, organization, motivating a team, or creating an experience. Or, your work with an NGO in the field may have given you invaluable insight into how to do more with less. Simply having a fresh perspective can lead you to ask the one new question that unlocks a whole universe of new possibilities for a company.
A non-traditional background isn’t a deal breaker for entering a new field, especially at a startup. By being willing to learn and reframe your experience, you can work with the new team to gain a better understanding of the business, while contributing the strengths and skills that you bring.