How to Leverage a Nontech Background (and Fight Imposter Syndrome)

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Investors might find a thousand reasons not to believe you, but keep in mind that your background is probably not one of them. A 2020 Pitchbook survey found only 15 percent of investors value background, which is less than half of what it was the year before. Even better, the same study found that profitability increased 8 percent where executive branch pedigree was decreased.

Related: What VCs Look for in a Startup Investment

These statistics show that there’s a new trend venture capitalists are valuing, and understanding what VCs are looking for can help minimize the effects of imposter syndrome that those with nontraditional backgrounds tend to feel.

What’s the value of a nontraditional background?

In a world where everyone seems have a million-dollar idea it can be difficult to find investors and support for yours. Another thing that could seem to be a barrier is: A non-traditional background outside of the FAANG realm. This means that you don’t have any experience at tech giants like Facebook/Meta or Apple, Netflix, Alphabet’s Google, and Amazon/Apple.

Many startup ventures start with founders who work part-time and have a full-time job. Some founders don’t have staff, or the roles and responsibilities of their team members are unclear. They might have a subpar prototype. They might be working in a garage or basement rather than in a real office. They may not have attracted enough customers or received funding.

Related: No Coding, No Problem: How Anyone Can Be a Tech Founder

However, a nontraditional work background filled with diverse experiences should be celebrated when entering the startup world. Many of the top executives I know are not tech-savvy but are product-oriented people who have found a partner in technology. Collaboration is possible because of the differences in perspective and vision.

I, for one, have a marketing background. My first job after college was as a chocolate ambassador for Hershey’s, flying the Hershey’s Kissmobile .. I was a youngster with no life experience at the time. But they gave me the keys and trusted me to represent their brand across the country. I was essentially a child when I became a business owner. No boss was available to change my tire or to help me with any interpersonal issues. I had to think quickly and think on my feet, just like entrepreneurs.

What do venture capitalists look for?

The key is to understand your unique skills and how to use them when it comes to acquiring VC financing as a founder from a non-traditional background. Do you have a non-tech background? When planning your pitches, start with these steps:

1. Embrace your ability to think like a buyer

With a nontraditional background, you’re likely more able to distance yourself from the tech and keep your focus on the business challenges of the consumer. You can ask the consumer questions and see what they are willing to pay. What problem is the consumer facing that a product could fix?

If you don’t have a background in tech, it’s much easier to see the product’s real benefits and drawbacks. Also, it’s easier for you to learn how to improve it. When you’re too close to your product, it can be hard to disconnect from it, which can often lead to your business failing and losing funding. Marketing is about building relationships and being believable. This will help you to empathize with your customers and VCs better.

Related: Imposter Syndrome in the Boardroom: How Executives Handle Self-Doubt

2. Speak multiple industry languages

Having a nontraditional background can expose you to myriad industries and roles, which allows you to absorb the vernacular of different industry spaces and to shape-shift effortlessly to different situations. This experience will help you to understand how to generate revenue from other industries.

A 2019 Deloitte study found almost half of the U.K.’s CIO 100 recipients didn’t even have tech backgrounds before becoming CIOs. After a background in consulting, Melissa Bell now heads Danaher’s global IT department. She told Deloitte that her liberal arts education taught her how to prioritize information and communicate ideas effectively.

3. Flex your skills from past experience

Another advantage of having a nontraditional background is the ability to draw on your experiences working with individuals across diverse backgrounds and within cross-functional teams. When pitching VCs and persuading others to join the company you’ve founded, you need to draw on your people skills. My background in marketing gives my unique advantage when it is comes to building strong customer- and sales-oriented cultures. It is important to tap into our diverse skills sets to be a great executive. This allows tech companies run by CEOs with marketing backgrounds to approach tech in a refreshing manner.

Recognize your weaknesses and learn from them. You should be proud of your strengths and have a strong support group for your weaknesses. Bring in someone with the necessary tech experience if you feel you don’t have the right skills for the project. When I was building products for Discover, I had the responsibility of making sure that my teams were cross-functional. Without cross-functionality, our products wouldn’t have made the cut. Every person has a different perspective. Use your past experiences and those of your team to create a healthy mix of skills.

Don’t feel inferior for entering the tech industry with a non-traditional background. Multi-industry awareness is so valuable. You can think from the perspective of the consumer, have a larger vocabulary, and are able to connect with people authentically. These assets can be leveraged to your advantage, even if you don’t have a traditional background.

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