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Why hiring from non-tech backgrounds is critical to your startup's success

Brittany Nickell

  • As a classically trained opera singer, I never thought I’d find my way into the world of startups, but the skills I learned as a performer have been essential to my success in my role as Director of Customer Support.

  • In this blog, I aim to document our journey to this point, and also make a case for why being open to folks from non-technical backgrounds can be critical to your startup’s success.

Joining Dover as employee number seven

As a classically trained opera singer, I’ve had the privilege of performing on some of the world’s best stages. During the peak of my career, I was traveling to a different state almost every week — not only for performances but auditions and competitions too. This, combined with the fact that pay wasn’t always stable led me to look for a remote job that could offer flexibility and a steady paycheck.

A friend of mine from the opera scene already worked with Max, one of our founders, at his first company, Zinc. When the idea of Dover was born, he asked her if she’d be interested in coming on board to help with this “new thing he was building”, but she was more interested in seeing Zinc grow, as she’d helped build a team from the ground-up. He asked her to refer someone who was well-spoken and could help him answer customer emails, schedule candidates for interviews, and send follow-ups.

When she graciously recommended me, I’ll admit I was super nervous. I knew I was capable, but I wondered if I’d fit the bill as someone coming from a non-tech background. In my cover letter, I did my best to explain how my skillset made up for not having a more formal technical career to put on my resume.

At 10 pm, my inbox pinged with a response: “Seems like a fit,” Max wrote. And just like that, I was hired as a recruiting coordinator — the first iteration of the team that handles all of our email correspondence, scheduling, and follow-ups with candidates for roles at top startups.

How my time in the arts translated over to a role in tech

After I got hired, I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to keep up in an environment that seemed so foreign to me. I’m a perfectionist by nature and as a performer, I was used to being told that if I couldn’t do something, they’d find another person who could. When I expressed my concerns to Max he countered by argument by saying that the fact that I had become a “master of my craft” in another industry meant something. Though I’d never thought about it in that way, he was right. Every artist I know has a particular type of drive that can’t be taught.

It makes sense when you think about it — in the arts, you’re an entrepreneur for… yourself. On any given day, you might double as your own PR team, your own web designer, your own career coach, or your own assistant. You’re in charge of developing your skills and building relationships with the right people — and the only person making sure you do all of those things is YOU.

In my first few months at Dover, I put that experience to good use. While the term “soft skills” is often thrown around as secondary to “hard skills”, I’ve found them to be critical to Dover’s success when scaling. Here are the six skills I used daily in my performing life that are also critical to building customer relationships:

  1. Networking: As an opera singer, I regularly had to represent the companies I performed for at networking events, galas, and performances. The art of being able to communicate, empathize and relate to folks with vastly different personalities and age groups is a skill I believe all artists have in their back pocket. For many venues or organizations, these events aren’t just nice-to-have — they’re key drivers of donations and building donor relationships. They literally keep the lights on. Similarly, Dover is nothing without its customers — building relationships is the only way we’re able to continue to grow.

  2. Resourcefulness: Like a startup founder, every dollar I made as an opera singer went back into myself (my “company”) as education and training. This translated into a mentality and drive that made me resourceful: I needed to make sure I did everything in my power to be successful — failure was not an option. Just like startup founders, artists put all of their eggs in one basket and say “I will not settle for anything but success.” It was going to work out because, well, it had to (and I’d thrown much of my savings into it). Self-sufficiency is a highly underrated skill, and in the startup world it’s key to building a team. You need people who can think on their feet, stay agile and come up with solutions without getting overwhelmed.

  3. A “show must go on” mentality: I’ve had so many things go wrong in a live performance: nerves, forgotten lines, mixing up sections of music in my head. It’s bound to happen, and the key to making sure no one in an audience notices is to course-correct in real-time. The same can be said for customer calls. If you work for startups, you know that sometimes, the product misses its cue. Even if it’s a small bug, being able to think on my feet on live calls and come up with fast solutions was key to improving early versions of our product and building trust with customers.

  4. Active generosity: I think there’s a misconception that artists are one-dimensionally selfish and conceited. While it's true you do have to have a healthy dose of narcissism to be successful in this career, you are also usually on stage with other people. Your success drives their success. In the startup world, I still think the phrase “there are no small parts, only small actors” resonates — proactively helping new teammates get onboarded and troubleshoot issues doesn’t only benefit them; it benefits our team and the company as a whole.

  5. Storytelling: Even if you feel like you have a killer product or company, you’re only as good as the story you’re able to tell, and artists tell stories for a living. Pitching companies to candidates and pitching our product to customers is critical to Dover’s success. I also compare this to founders pitching themselves to VC firms — in some cases, you get ten minutes to funnel years of training and focus into one conversation, with the hope that people will get a really good idea of who you are and what you can do. You better make sure the story you tell is compelling, coherent and highlights what makes you unique.

  6. No half-measures: If you want to be successful in the arts, you can’t approach it half-heartedly. Though it might sound dark, my professors and coaches constantly reminded us that if we didn’t want to improve or do the work, someone else would. Feedback was often pointed and sometimes devastating, pushing people to not settle for good enough. This very clearly translates into tech — every day dozens of new companies are founded at a similar velocity to companies that are failing. Having people on your team who are willing to go full force into a project and not settle is key to growing quickly and building something world-class.

From 1 to 83: scaling our team with artists

During the summer of 2020, Dover was scaling quickly, and I couldn’t handle every customer relationship on my own. Additionally, as the pandemic reached a peak, many of my artist friends had been displaced because of venue shutdowns and performance postponements. These are hard-working, smart, and dynamic individuals that were looking for security in an unstable world.

Max asked if I knew anyone who would be a great fit, and I immediately reached out to Thomas, a friend of mine from my days at the Merola Program at the San Francisco Opera (and a classically trained pianist!) Thomas joined our recruiting coordinator team and referred a few folks of his own. One referral led to another, and our team quickly grew to 15 and numbers 83 today across recruiting coordinators, interviewers and support team members. Thomas has since moved into a role on our business operations team, taught himself SQL, and has started working on a few coding projects of his own!

Before Dover, I had never once been told: “It’s okay that you haven’t done this before, and we’ll teach you.” I appreciated that Max, Anvisha, and George could see the value in hard work, and had enough belief in me and our team that the rest could be taught.

Today, I’m proud to say the most represented schools at Dover are MIT, Berkeley, and (my alma mater) The Manhattan School of Music. If you’re a startup founder, hiring manager, or recruiter, I urge you to build your team with folks from diverse backgrounds and watch your company go from seed stage to rocketship.

Brittany Nickell