Whether you’re changing jobs mid-career or just starting out, you face the challenge of building up a resume to show that you have experience. I’ve been asked by people countless times,
“How do I get experience if nobody will hire me until I have experience?”
This feels like a real Catch 22, huh? In this article I’ll describe what’s worked for me over and over again during my major career transitions.
It’s really simple. Invent your own job for an organization you love and be willing to work for free, if necessary.
If you are capable of doing a job but have no experience, you’re a risky bet for a company. You won’t win in a head-to-head comparison against other candidates, which is why applying for jobs hasn’t worked for you. So, you must lower the company’s risk in bringing you onboard. How do you do that? By volunteering your time in exchange for getting experience.
The easiest place to start is the company you’re CURRENTLY working at. You just ask around to see if you can take on some additional projects. This is pretty common. But, if that doesn’t work, then you’ll need to work or volunteer part time somewhere else.
If you think most companies won’t let you work for free, you’re right (some organizations aren’t legally allowed to let you volunteer). However, you just need ONE company to say yes. So, be persistent.
How do you find these organizations? I always encourage people to work on things they’re really passionate about. You’ll be more authentic and connect emotionally with the people at the place you approach. So, create a list of your favorite companies or people in the categories listed below. It’s better if they’re in your town and not really big or famous, but don’t worry about that right now.
- nonprofit organizations
- small businesses (restaurants, retail, etc.)
- newspapers, magazines, radio stations
- authors, artists, bands
You’ll be surprised at how much help many of these organizations need. I guarantee it. One universal truth is that every organization looks better from the outside than from the inside. They need more help than you think.
Look at your list and imagine yourself working with these organizations or people. Think about the skills you have or want to develop. Think about what you’d love to do with them. Are you excited? I sure hope so… it’s your list!
Now, read the sentence below. Burn it into your memory. OK?
The easiest job to get is the one you invent yourself.
Doing this avoids competition with other more-qualified candidates. So, here are your steps to make this happen:
- Identify an organization you love (and why you feel that way)
- Learn about their current challenges (probably via online research)
- Describe how you’ll provide value while learning on-the-job (write it up)
- Pitch to the organization
- Volunteer, if necessary
You just wrote a job description, created a position, and then applied for it without anyone else to compete against.
If you get turned down, just say thank you, ask them to let you know if anything changes in the future, and try the next organization on your list. Expect this to happen a few times. Be persistent!
A few tips to improve your chances:
- Get introduced via a referral from someone you know who can vouch for your character, passion, intellect, etc.
- Organizations might not have precedent for what you’re proposing, so walk them through the approach you’re taking, how you’ll help them, and what you are wanting to get in return.
- Be open-minded to what they offer you, but don’t agree to something unless you’re going to get the experience you seek. Yes, you need to provide value to them, but you’re there to learn!
Here’s an example. Let’s say you want to be a Product Manager. It’s a tough field to break into. Fortunately, products needing to be improved or created are everywhere around you. You follow the steps above and answer:
- Organization: Local animal shelter (because you love dogs)
- Their challenges: They have too many pets needing adoption and because their web presence is really unimpressive, they aren’t able to reach potential customers and donors effectively.
- Your value-add: You’re pretty good at building websites and have a lot of personal experience building your social media following.
- Pitch: You offer to spend a few hours with the animal shelter learning about their business needs. You offer to improve their website so it’s more modern and can take donations, create an Instagram account for them to post cute photos of pets needing adoption, setup a Mailchimp account to send out newsletters, and track how their pet adoption rate and new donations (their key metrics) improve over time.
- Volunteer: They tell you they have no money, so you offer to work for free as long as they give you access to what you need to do the job well.
Congratulations, you are now the lead Product Manager for your local animal shelter :)
You do the job really well and follow the best practices of product management (which you’ll be learning through books, online articles, etc.). After a few months you’ve helped solve some of their problems and can explain your process, which shows you have the experience and entrepreneurial spirit that employers want to see. And, just as importantly, you enjoyed the work and helped a cause you care about. Well done!
Trust me, this works. Not at every organization, but for some. I’ve worked with several award-winning authors and nonprofits through this approach. At first I volunteered for them, then later they paid me to do some website development work. And, while I was at Google, I volunteered part time to help other teams who were working on ocean conservation projects. I loved doing it. And, years later it set me up to start an ocean-related project at Google X, which then led to me getting a job as the founding CEO for an ocean conservation foundation. That was never my plan, but I kept setting myself up to get closer and closer to the work that I was most passionate about. (Check out my post on creating your own luck.)
I’ve advised many people to follow this strategy with good results. So please, give it a shot and let me know how it goes. Good luck!
Note: Updated in April 2020. Originally published in May 2015.