Get All Access for $5/mo

The Fastest Way to the Top? Work at a Startup. You could learn a lot by working your way to the top of a well-established company, but who has time for that?

By Stephen Key Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

It's one thing to learn about something by studying it, like with picking up a book or taking classes. I think first-hand knowledge is priceless, and I did discover many of the basic tenets of business by working for myself. I'm sure you could learn a lot by working your way to the top of a well-established company, but who has time for that? Which leads me to a piece of advice I wish someone had given me: Work at a startup. Do it sooner than later.

Working at a startup taught me more about business than any other endeavor has.

In the mid '80s, long before startup culture was red hot, I joined a toy company that was rapidly growing in Fremont, Calif. Looking back, the two years I spent there were the absolute best of my career. I only wish I had joined one sooner.

Related: Why I Left the 'Coolest Job in America' for a Startup

Before I joined Worlds of Wonder, I supported myself by selling my handmade soft sculptures at street, county and state fairs. After a few years, I even opened my own retail store in Capitola. Eventually, I began freelancing for prominent stuffed toy companies such as Applause as well.

I didn't realize it at the time, but I wasn't learning very much about business. Or rather, I wasn't learning much more. I had a mentor, but he had never worked in a very formal or typical business environment. I wasn't working with anyone who knew more than I did. I was stubborn. I didn't know any better.

Eventually, I realized that I needed to join an actual company. After years of disdaining the mainstream, that was exactly what I needed to become.

There's a quick way of doing things and a slower way. Startups are relentlessly fast paced. They have to be. My colleagues at WOW were extremely dedicated. We shared a common goal. Time was not on our side. There was never enough money.

It often felt like we were working 24 hours a day. I was the last to leave at night and the first to arrive in the morning, because I slept in my office multiple nights a week, sometimes even using my work materials (plush fabric) as a blanket. If that sounds extreme, it's because it was.

Related: When Picking a Startup to Join, Think Like an Investor

It was crazy, yeah, but it was also incredible. I felt empowered and like I was part of a family. Because there were never enough people to do all of the tasks that needed to get done, I got to take part in so many different aspects of the business -- quickly.

Forget climbing the ladder -- there was no ladder! People were promoted based on the quality of the work they did, not where they had worked before or gone to school. It didn't matter who you knew or whose ass you kissed. If you were someone who could be counted on to get a job done, you were rewarded for it.

I raised my hand at every opportunity. No job was too big or small. I didn't care, because I wanted to learn as much as I possibly could. If I'm being honest, half of the time I didn't know what I was doing. But that didn't matter as much as it probably should have, because no one else did either.

These are some of the opportunities I had. I got to help design hit toys such as Teddy Ruxpin and Lazer Tag. I traveled overseas to Bangkok and Hong Kong to make sure they rolled off production lines looking good. I worked with licensees, including Disney. (Visiting Walt Disney Studios in Burbank was a dream come true.) I traveled to New York City to set up our exhibit at Toy Fair. I glued eyelashes on Pamela: The Living Doll. I got to meet the creative team behind the Muppets at Jim Henson's studio, which remains a highlight of my career to this day.

It was truly a whirlwind adventure. How could I forget it?

If you follow my advice, chances are, you will be more excited to wake up for work every morning than most, and you will also be in over your head. Relish it.

Related: 6 Reasons to Ditch Your Corporate Job for a Startup

Stephen Key

Co-Founder of inventRight; Author of One Simple Idea Series

Stephen Key is an inventor, author, speaker and co-founder of InventRight, LLC., a Glenbrook, Nev.-based company that educates entrepreneurs in how to bring ideas to market.

Want to be an Entrepreneur Leadership Network contributor? Apply now to join.

Side Hustle

This Former Disney Princess Lived 'Paycheck to Paycheck' Before Starting a Side Hustle at Home — Now She Makes $250,000 a Year

Victoria Carroll's income was "sporadic" until a friend encouraged her to take her talents to Fiverr in 2018.

Growing a Business

Beware of These Risky Sales Tactics That Are Doomed to Fail or Backfire

Every business owner can learn from the failed sales tactics of a defeated car salesman. Know what they are to avoid losing your sale.

Business News

Can ChatGPT Help Start a Business? I Tried the Latest Version, GPT-4o, to Find Out.

I tried ChatGPT for business advice, from the perspective of a first-time founder looking for ideas and guidance.

Business Ideas

63 Small Business Ideas to Start in 2024

We put together a list of the best, most profitable small business ideas for entrepreneurs to pursue in 2024.


Build These 10 Habits to Become a True Leader (and Not Just a Boss)

This article explores the distinction between being a boss and being a leader, outlining ten key habits that transform mere management into true leadership.