By: Nick Kowalski
There are a lot of blogs and articles out there about what it’s like to work at a startup, but I don’t feel like any really convey the experience I have had at Firefly. That’s not to say that they’re not valuable. Blogs like Danielle Small’s provide great condensed, organized points. Unfortunately, for those considering internships, there aren’t many blogs that give insight into the day-to-day lifestyle of interning at an early stage startup. My goal, in writing this, is to provide something a little different from the standard “10 Things I Learned” post. I hope to provide real, detailed insight into how I got started at Firefly and what my summer there was like.
How it all started
I didn’t really seek out Firefly, nor did they hunt me down. I don’t really fit the mold for a tech startup employee, if there is one. I’m a Philosophy, Politics & Economics major at Penn with no coding background. Until recently, I was dead set on working in finance. My internship search, in my sophomore year, reflected this. With the exception of Firefly, my applications were all to very conventional internships in the area of corporate finance.
It wasn’t until Patrick Leahy, a friend and fraternity brother of mine, mentioned that Firefly was looking for an intern that I even thought of applying. It seemed exciting, trendy, and different. I decided to give it a shot, and submitted my resume through Penn’s career search portal.
When I showed up for my interview, I didn’t know what to expect. It took place at a coffee shop at the corner of campus. I sat down at a cramped table with Dan, Patrick, and Justin, all with their laptops in front of them. Questions started with typical interview fare “Tell me a little bit about yourself…” and quickly got more challenging. I was asked about my interest in the startup area, and was given case problems to solve. The interview tied up with me asking some questions about their plans for the summer, and then I left and went on with my day. I few weeks later, I was offered the job.
In addition to an offer from Firefly, I got an offer for a corporate finance internship at a leading telecom company. To be honest, my first instinct was to take the corporate finance offer. It seemed safe. It would look good on an investment banking internship application a year later. In very practical terms, it would pay close to $10,000. On the other hand, Firefly had great but uncertain upside, and pay on commission. I decided to talk with close friends and family about my dilemma.
After a few long conversations, I came to the conclusion that Firefly was for me. I was only halfway through college. The window to take a risk and fail is pretty short. The upside at Firefly was huge. I’m human. I couldn’t help but get carried away with dreams of being an early member on the team of the next Box or Workday, helping to shape a huge company while making millions in the process. In a worst case scenario, if everything failed, I still had two years left of college and my whole life ahead of my to take the traditional track. It was a no-brainer. I accepted the offer from Firefly.
Joining the team
As the only non-founder on a four-man team, I work with and answer to guys who live and breathe their company. I have never encountered people so passionate about and absorbed in their work. In addition to their programming skills, each of the founders brought something special to the table. Dan’s ability to communicate and build a network astounded me. Patrick’s grasp of business and metrics is beyond his years. Justin’s attention to detail and problem solving kept us all grounded and focused. As a team, the founders were greater than the sum of their skills – I needed to keep this trend going with my contributions.
Fortunately, the guys made this easy for me. From the moment I started, Patrick, Dan, and Justin have definitely made me feel at home as part of the team. I was consulted on every major non-technical decision, and my opinion was valued. The guys made it clear that I had been brought on to do something they did not know how to do. Their humility made my job a lot easier. In a very uncertain industry, the founders didn’t pretend to be experts or try to look tough. They just wanted to see results, however I achieved them.
Our team worked out of a subletted suite in an apartment this summer. In between a kitchen, a washing machine, and some small bedrooms, we fit all of our desks into the same room and worked about an arm’s length away from each other. To be honest, I was uncomfortable with it at first. I always imagined going to work in a suit every morning, walking into a stately office with a full security, and sitting at my desk in my own little cubicle or office (lame, I know). I quickly embraced it, though. Every day felt like working on a group project with some friends. While we all had our own work, there was a constant discussion throughout the day.
I had a lot of fun while I got my work done. I appreciated the opportunity to joke around a bit at work – all of the guys have a good sense of humor. Further, the addition of Tony Diepenbrock and Ryan Shea of Graphmuse created a fun co-working space where a bunch of smart people bounced ideas off each other and fit a few jokes in between. The friendly environment helped mix things up and prevent burnout.
My official job title is Account Executive. My goal for the summer was to develop the sales process for Airtime for Email, and then Firefly. I was given free reign over my work, with the hopes that I would produce a system that could be replicated, again and again, to sell our products. This system including generating leads, making contact, establishing a relationship, initiating a trial, and negotiating a contract. This system would be established by trial. My summer would be spent tracking people down, establishing relationships, and selling our products.
Essentially, my job was to hunt people down and give them a call. Thus, I spent most of my time in the office generating leads and contacting people.
Generating leads is mind numbing. For hours, I would rip through directories, do Google searches, peruse LinkedIn, and basically use every legitimate method available to hunt down contacts. Early in the summer, most of my day consisted of prospecting, and it was miserable. Later on, I prospected as necessary to maintain a pipeline, but fortunately, it only made up about two hours of my day.
Calling people was more enjoyable. Cold calls were a scary at first, but I got over my fear of rejection. I developed a script. I learned how to establish rapport, pitch our products respond to objections, and get people to commit to a follow up. Sometimes, I’d reach out en masse by cold email, personalizing each message to the recipient. Although it’s quicker and easier than calling, it’s less effective, so I’d try to get on the phone whenever I could.
Once you move past the first call, you begin to establish a working relationship with a customer. You understand their job, their needs, and their problems. You demo your product, and see if it is a good fit for their needs. The interaction might end early, due to a lack of interest, or it could proceed through a conference, a demo, a negotiation, and eventually, a sale.
All the while, in the spirit of the lean startup, I would keep track of what worked and what didn’t. I met with the founders, and based on my work, we formed an effective process for selling Airtime and Firefly. Outside of the office, I would handle calls and emails to fit clients’ needs. Overall, I spent most of my time talking to customers and potential customers.
Once I finished up at the office, I’d head to my second job. Bootstrapped startups face some unpleasant realities. Five months after I started, I got my first paycheck a few days ago. In order to cover living expenses, I took a part-time night job at a local bar, where I still work. I consider myself lucky to have two jobs, but anyone who has left their day job to go to their night job can tell you that it is a uniquely exhausting experience.
Day to day, you’ll probably have to live a more simple lifestyle. It was good to know that everyone on the team was on the same page here. We all lived in cheap subletted apartments over the summer. We cooked (read: learned how to cook). Nights out weren’t that elaborate or crazy. You can complain about your limited budget, or you can work harder and make more money. Complaining doesn’t get you paid.
Once you finally get home, everyone seems to be really interested in what you’re doing, even if they don’t understand it. Although my sales job is pretty traditional, I found myself answering questions about Airtime and Firefly all the time. People are naturally interested in what you do, but unfortunately, they also love to tell you what to do. Advice is great, but when people are constantly telling you how to do your job, it can get irritating.
What have I gotten out of it?
My level of responsibility taught me new problem solving skills and how to handle high-pressure work. The lack of bureaucracy allowed me to start working with customers on day one. I learned how to pitch a product, respond to criticism, answer questions, and negotiate. If you make a sale, you learn what it means to serve a customer well after a deal is done. If you don’t make a sale, you learn, and you meet some great people. In the short time I have been working with Firefly I have developed a network of contacts throughout the technology industry.
Most importantly though, my experience opened my eyes to opportunities I had never considered before. At the end of the summer, I got an offer to stay on with the team, and I gladly accepted it.
You can look at my work as uncertain, high pressure, low paying. I prefer to see it as experimental, exciting, and satisfying. In a way that I don’t feel like I could anywhere else, I feel a sense of excitement in my work every day. I have picked up a new skill set, established a new network, and made a large, positive impact on Firefly.
I’d love to hear from you. Email: nick[at]usefirefly.com Twitter: @kowalskisn or Firefly’s @usefirefly Tumblr: snkowalski.com