We’re sharing stories of people’s early careers. Everyone we interview has worked for a startup early in their career. We hope reading about others’ experiences at startups will help you make more informed career decisions!
At Otta, we’re advocating for working at fast growing technology companies. We think this is where learning opportunities and development potential are highest.
Kate Tonks is currently running Business Operations at Avant Arte. Kate studied Chemistry at Oxford, and started her career in management consulting. After two and a half years, she made the jump into the startup world. Kate joined Nested, a proptech startup, as its fourth employee. She started in a generalist operational role and within a year of joining was managing 8 people (Kate also hired and managed me for my first few months at Nested!). After almost three years, she left for new challenges and recently joined Avant Arte, an art discovery marketplace, as their 2nd full-time employee. I met Kate for a chat in Kings Cross.
Tell me about your journey to joining a startup
I studied Chemistry at university and had just finished my Masters when I was thinking about what to do next. I spent my whole fourth year in a basement lab, which wasn’t much fun and convinced me I didn’t want to be a scientist.
Like a lot of people, I left university and wasn’t sure what to do. I’ve always been interested in learning about businesses and thought consulting would be a good option.
I joined a small consulting firm, and liked the fact it gave me a lot of variety and I could work on different industries and projects. I worked there for two and a half years and saw it as good training.
By the end of my time there I got frustrated by the up and down nature of the work. You’re either on a project 100% and working long hours, or ‘on the beach’ (a term used in consulting to describe when you’re in between projects) and not doing anything productive.
I also didn’t like that I wasn’t working on anything tangible and couldn’t see the impact of my work. I was making PowerPoints and thinking about strategy at a high level, but never got to see anything being implemented.
When I decided to leave consulting, I wasn’t sure what to do next. I was considering a few options: either going to do an MBA, working for a bigger company in their in-house strategy team, or working for a startup.
I figured that startups are a bit like an MBA but without the cost, so I decided to take that route. You learn a lot about building businesses when you’re working for one that’s growing quickly!
I ended up joining Nested in early 2017 as the first operational hire, and their fourth employee (Nested grew to over 100 employees by the end of 2018). The main factors that drew me to Nested were the high quality of the team (The CEO and CTO were second time founders), the stage of the company and the breadth of the role. They were also backed by top investors, which tends to be a good signal!
What were you working on at Nested?
When I first joined, my role was very broad and covered everything operational across the whole customer journey. I worked on customer service, valuations, sales, contracts, and more. It was great, I had no idea what to expect (and don’t think the team did either!) but I learnt a huge amount.
Over time, I specialised in the valuation side of the business, where I was responsible for making sure all the properties we lent against were valued appropriately.
I built out the team and all the processes behind it. I also took on more responsibility for surveying and underwriting as the business grew.
I learnt so much and got exposed to many different parts of the business I wouldn’t have learnt about had I been at a bigger company. Progression was also fast, and by the end of the first year I was managing a team of 8 people.
How did it feel growing and managing a team?
I really enjoyed building a team at Nested. I liked creating a positive atmosphere where people are working together towards the same goal. Having a team that’s motivated is super exciting. Especially when there’s lots to do and everyone is learning fast.
You spent a similar amount of time at Nested as you did in consulting, but had a lot of different roles at Nested, how did you make that happen?
I actually wasn’t very good at making it happen! Pushing for opportunities at work is something I need to work on.
I was really lucky that I was working in an environment where a lot of opportunity was being handed to me, and I was making the most of it when I was given the chance.
What made you decide to leave Nested and look for something else?
I missed the excitement of being part of a really small team, and the breadth of responsibility that comes with it. I loved working there and got so much out of it, but ultimately didn’t feel that motivated by working in property, and felt my role was getting quite specialised.
After almost three years, I had got the most out of the role that I could, and I was ready to go and join a small team in a new industry, and learn about something totally different.
What’s your new role?
I now run Business Operations at Avant Arte, which is a really early stage startup.
Avant Arte works in collaboration with top artists to produce high quality limited edition works for sale online. They’re exploring new ways to open the doors to art collecting and inspire the next generation of art collectors.
They currently have over 1.6 million followers on Instagram and their mission is to make art radically more accessible for the next generation.
I’m the second full-time employee (there are a few other part time employees and contractors), so it feels great to be back working at that early stage of the journey again. Avant Arte is not your typical early-stage startup. It’s a business that’s already generating quite a bit of revenue and has an existing customer base to tap into.
The challenges for the business are a lot more on the supply-side. We need to answer questions like: How do we build an artist pipeline? How do we keep pace with demand while maintaining a luxury brand?
A lot of the editions we market sell out in a minute or less, so it’s an interesting business to think about scaling. When you have a model that works you want to scale quickly, but we have to be careful with the impact that has on the brand.
Do you think what you learnt at Nested will help you at Avant Arte?
100%, it already is. When working for a startup you’re exposed to so many different areas of the business. From my time at Nested I learnt about recruitment, HR, marketing, sales, finance and most other aspects of the business.
A lot of these learnings can be applied to any fast-growing business. I’m only in my fourth week at Avant Arte and I’ve already started using lots of the skills I have developed over the last few years.
Do you have any advice for people considering working at startups?
There are a few points I would consider when choosing which startups are good to work for.
The number 1 thing for me is the team. It's super important that the team and management are quality. You can get a good feel for this by looking at people’s backgrounds and how they come across during your interviews.
The quality of investors backing the company can also be a good indicator of company quality, because good investors often back the best companies. To find out who the good investors are, you can read the articles online or see who invests in the type of companies you think are great.
The product that the startup is building and the sector they operate in are also really important. Long-term, it’s hard to motivate yourself if you’re not interested in the industry or the product you’re working on.
Finally, make sure the role is one that’s going to interest and challenge you. Don’t just take a customer service role because you think it’s a good opportunity to work for a startup, take it because you love customer service and like the business. Finding a role where the day-to-day work interests you will make you more likely to succeed in it.
Going to work for a startup was definitely the best career move I ever made. I’d highly recommend it!
Want to share your story? We’ll buy you a coffee whilst we do the interview, and then give you £25 in Amazon vouchers as a thank you. If you’re interested, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a bit about yourself and your career so far (a few short bullets is fine!).