Here at Work in Startups, we’re on a mission to help talented jobseekers find the startup job of their dreams. To support this, we’re running a blog series shining a light on people’s early startup careers, in the hope that it will inspire jobseekers (like you!) and help talent make more informed decisions about their future. Follow us as we interview startup employees across the country and find out more about their backgrounds, motivations, current roles and future aspirations!
This week we’re interviewing Sarah Ali, Head of Government Support at Adzuna, a search engine for job advertisements that operates in 16 countries worldwide and aggregates job ads from several thousand sources. Adzuna is also Work in Startups’ parent company, which I bet you didn’t know! A former member of the Future Fifty, Adzuna is an impressive startup that has made great strides in the complex job market industry and looks set for big things.
Hi Sarah! Can you tell me a bit about your background?
I studied History at Kingston University and, like pretty much every other history major, I have done absolutely nothing with it. After uni, I got a job doing compliance at a big corporate. It was a great learning curve, but definitely not for me long term! After six months there, I started a job in operations/customer support at a startup called Hassle.com, which I loved! When the management changed, I moved to another startup called Amaliah.co.uk. Since then, I’ve worked at four other startups, the most recent being Adzuna. At Adzuna, I work on the Find A Job project as Head of Government Support. It’s a really interesting role because I learn new things on a daily basis, and I love the fact that the work is meaningful. We’re making it easier for people to find jobs and helping hundreds of thousands of people as a result.
Wow, your CV is pretty impressive! Thank you for sharing. What led you to join a startup in the first instance?
I was really disillusioned after working at a corporate. I went into it thinking that I would love the role, and corporate life in general, but it was very stiff and rigid and not at all what I expected. I definitely think corporate jobs are glamourized – you think it’s like Suits the TV show, but the reality is very different. Everything from the dress code to the amount of breaks you could take was closely monitored. It felt like being back at school during the worst years. Someone was always watching you and you weren’t given much control over your work. You were told what to do, when to do it and how to do it. I had virtually no independence and it was very difficult for me to take ownership of my work.
I joined Hassle.com in the operations/customer support division because I wanted something different – and it definitely was! The culture was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. It was young, fun and the socials were amazing. Everyone got on like a house on fire. That being my first startup made me realise that I don’t want to work in a corporate ever again and startups were the place to be. I love the organised chaos of startup life! I thrive in it. There’s a lot of learning on your feet and making stuff up as you go along, which means you have a lot of autonomy over what you do and it’s fun! You’re the owner of your work.
Hassle.com was very successful and ended up being sold. All the people that made it what it was, including the co-founders, moved on, and I felt like it was time to move on to another startup as well. I wanted to bring the culture with me to other places!
I tried my hand at a number of other startups, but couldn’t quite find the culture of the first. It made me realise that each startup has a different culture and you have to adapt and find one that suits you. I landed at Adzuna by referral of an old colleague from Hassle and haven’t looked back! I love my new role as I have complete ownership of my work. Find a Job was a new project within Adzuna which gave me a lot of freedom to define processes and decide how I work. It’s a fun team and I enjoy being part of it!
So do you think you’ll always work in startups?
100%. I love the relaxed-yet-everyone-gets-stuck-in mentality and startups typically have a pretty flat hierarchy. Everyone pitches in and helps out where needed. For example, founders often help out with customer support at the weekends and during the Christmas period and the finance team often helps the marketing team and vice versa.
You also don’t mind staying late in the office because you’re with people you like and you all have the same goal: wanting the startup to thrive and succeed. That theme has run through every startup that I have worked at. When everyone is invested and wants the company to do well, this creates a better working environment and fosters cross team collaboration. After experiencing startup life, I don’t think I could go back.
What makes the Adzuna a great place to work?
A load of things. It’s a very nurturing and supportive environment. Everyone looks out for everyone and there are a tonne of learning opportunities. I’ve learnt more here than probably anywhere else and there’s still so much to learn! I’ve had a taste of product management and want to learn more and Adzuna is providing me the platform to do that. I really get along with my colleagues as well and have made some firm friends. In particular, my boss, Scott, is a great mentor and very encouraging and supportive. He’s really helping me grow and succeed.
Flexible working is another big benefit of the job! I can work from home and make up the hours if I have a doctor’s appointment or something. I definitely wouldn’t get this flexibility at a corporate. The work is also super interesting and all of my colleagues are very switched on and intelligent, which provides a big daily source of motivation.
What does the future hold?
Now that I have had a taste of product management, I feel like that is the next step for me. Given the responsibilities I have gained here, my current role is a good starting point. The ambition that Adzuna has and the development plans we have in place here will help me fulfill this career change. There is also still loads more to learn at Adzuna and in my current role so I plan on being here for a long time! Unless they kick me out of course… or change significantly…
Do you have any advice for young, startup obsessed jobseekers when they’re just leaving school? What about people leaving University?
Personally (and this isn’t for everyone), if I had the choice again I wouldn’t go to university. I feel I’ve actually learned a lot more from working than from my experience at Kingston. This is of course partly because of the degree I did and the course I did and don’t get me wrong, university is definitely a great option for some, but it’s not for everyone and you can thrive in a career without a degree. When I left university, I had over £40,000 of debt, and could have spent those four years getting stuck in at a startup and working my way up the ranks – whilst earning money!
As for people leaving university and looking at startups, I would say definitely apply for startups where you are passionate about the product and feel the culture is a right fit for you. Do your research – is the company aligned with your beliefs and core values?
Once you’ve started working at a startup, volunteer and get stuck in. If there are opportunities within your job to work in all areas and/or shadow other teams – do it! It will help you figure out what you want to do in the long-term. Also, take advantage of all the opportunities and courses that they are offering you to further develop, grow and learn. I’m sure you’ll become a pro in something that I bet you had no idea even existed before joining a startup, like Zoho or Zendesk.
If you could write a letter to your 18 year old self – what would you say?
As I’ve mentioned above – forget uni and get into a startup ASAP. You’ll thrive more in this environment! Follow your instincts and don’t give in to parental pressures of going to university. If it’s not for you, then it’s not for you. Also, keep doing you because you’re awesome, even at 18.
Inspired by Sarah and/or want to share your story? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or reach out via Twitter – we’d love to hear from you!