I’ve worked in growth marketing for venture-backed SaaS startups and helped lead an e-commerce business to a successful acquisition. I’ve managed hundreds of thousands of dollars of paid advertising spend, launched dozens of growth experiments (some succeeded, many more failed), and worked with amazing teams of engineers, product managers, marketers, and more.
But it wasn’t always this way.
If you had met me in my twenties, I would likely have been standing behind a bar.
A short stint of bartending
After completing my university studies in my home country of New Zealand I decided to follow a well-travelled path and headed off to London for my OE, or overseas experience. I was by myself and didn’t have a plan for work, so after a few enjoyable weeks living an expensive London lifestyle I found myself on the wrong side of a pub bar.
This pub job was going to be a temporary way to make some money while I met new friends and experienced the city – a few months work at most. But months soon became years and while I had moved from tending pub bars to managerial and training roles in cocktail bars, I was still very much “in the industry”.
By this stage I had a serious girlfriend (now my wife) and no longer wanted to spend my nights surrounded by drunk people. I’d always had a love of technology and had long dreamed of working in the tech industry but with every additional day I spent working in bars it felt like it was becoming more difficult to escape.
We eventually reached a point where my girlfriend needed to move home to Sweden to finish her degree. I made two decisions – I would go with her, and I would use the move to make some much-needed changes in my life.
Time to make some changes
I was nearing 30 when we arrived in Sweden. I managed to get a part-time job (in a bar) and devoted my days and weekends to getting a career in tech. The process would be tough, as about 90% of my post-university experience was now in the hospitality industry, and I didn’t have a network in Sweden to lean on for guidance or support.
My first major issue – I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I have a business degree but I hadn’t really “used it” professionally, and without relevant work experience I thought it was basically useless. I didn’t have a good understanding of the roles that were available in technology companies – at a high level I knew there were developers, people providing customer service, marketers, sales, and so on. But I didn’t really understand what was involved in each role, or how people were supposed to get started in them.
I started reading blog and forum posts and decided I wanted to work in a startup. I also noticed that startups were always looking for software developers. I’d done one semester of programming at university and didn’t hate it so I thought that could be my path into tech. I headed to the local book store and bought a book on programming.
As I started to work my way through the book I soon realized I’d made a mistake – I bought a book on Java programming, but the Java programming language wasn’t used by many software developers working in startups. If I continued down this path then I wouldn’t be helping my chances of getting a job. I went back to the drawing board and spent many hours trying to learn more about the basics of web and mobile development. Eventually I settled on a new topic of study: I’d learn how to build web apps with Ruby on Rails.
Redirecting my focus
I spent the next few months of nights and weekends working my way through tutorials and trying to build side projects. Through much trial and error I managed to build a couple of very basic apps that “worked”, in the sense that they didn’t crash every time I tried to use them. But they didn’t provide users with any real value and weren’t likely to impress anyone who saw them. The more I was learning, the more I realized I really didn’t know anything about how software is made. It’s one thing to write some code, but I wanted to know how and why the best apps were the best apps.
Redirecting my focus, part II
I decided I needed to understand more about the industry I was trying to work in so I started reading all the classic startup and technology books I could get my hands on, like The Lean Startup, Crossing the Chasm and The Innovator’s Dilemma. During this period of study I came across growth marketing (also known as growth hacking), which was a relatively new role at the time. I thought this “newness” could be a benefit to me – if the role hadn’t existed for long, then my lack of experience would be less important. I decided to change my focus once again and dove as deep as I could into the world of startup growth, reading every relevant blog post or book I could find, teaching myself about analytics, paid advertising, SEO, A/B testing, consumer behavior… the list of topics was long.
After a few more months of study I started applying for startup marketing jobs in Sweden. Result: I didn’t get a single response.
Time to give up
It was time to give up. I had signed up for a free tech conference held at Spotify’s headquarters in Stockholm but wasn’t planning to go – after all, I didn’t actually work in tech so I felt like an impostor. But at my girlfriend’s urging (“what’s the worst thing that could happen?”) I went and it was a turning point in my journey.
At the conference I was lucky enough to meet Tre, who is now one of my best friends. He was working on a new startup and after getting to know him I offered to help with some part-time marketing and growth work, which he (foolishly?) accepted. I wasn’t getting paid but I was gaining real-world experience, implementing everything I was learning. As an example, rather than simply reading a blog post about SEO, I was now the person making sure the marketing site and web app were SEO compliant.
Applying for jobs, part II
After a few months of helping Tre I started looking for full-time jobs again. I widened my search beyond Sweden and started looking at remote work job boards. I applied for a handful of jobs, making sure to mention my very limited real-world startup experience, and it worked – I started to get responses. This eventually led to an interview with Resource Guru, a UK-based resource management software startup.
It had certainly been a non-traditional path, but I found out later that the founders of Resource Guru were impressed by my motivation and enthusiasm for growth and marketing work. Those programming projects that I’d worked on hadn’t been a complete waste of time after all – they showed I had a willingness to learn and an understanding of how software products like Resource Guru were built, even if I wasn’t going to be the person building them myself. And my experience working with Tre, while limited, showed I could take what I had learned and implement it in the “real world”. I was offered a job, accepted, and “The rest is history™” (or at least, a story for another day).
Mistakes were made (by me)
The details of my story may be unique but the outcome isn’t. It’s important that people can see that it is possible to get a career in tech if you come from a non-traditional background, or are lacking relevant skills and experience. The path may not have been straight, but with hard work, time and luck I went from bartending in my twenties to tech in my thirties and haven’t looked back.
But my experience also taught me how the whole process could have been simpler:
- If I knew more about the role of software developers in startups then I could have avoided wasting time learning about Java
- More importantly: with better knowledge of the roles available in tech, I would have known software development wasn’t the best path for me and could have avoided that route altogether
- My self-directed, make-it-up-as-you-go learning style lacked focus and was hugely time-consuming.
With hindsight, I can see that I should have spent time learning about the roles that were available and chosen one that suited my interests and goals. I could have then focused my attention on building up the specific knowledge I needed to be successful in my future career, and the entire “changing careers” process would have been a hell of a lot easier.
If you’ve made a similar career change (or are contemplating making one) then let me know in the comments below. I’d love to hear more about your journey.
If you’re interested in making a career change, check out my deep dive guide: How to get into marketing