For many business school graduates, a job in a Fortune 500 company is the ultimate goal. After completing the Master of Business Administration program at the University of St. Thomas, Jay Rajaratnam took a different path: He went to work for a three-year-old, privately owned start-up called ATI Chemical Distribution.
“I met these guys before I started my MBA program,” he said. “I did a market research project for them. At that point, I told my wife, ‘This is the job I want after I’m done’. We stayed in touch. I took two weeks off after graduation, and then I started full-time.” He exchanged a smaller starting salary for a potential ownership stake in new business.
ATI is a broker for raw materials, mostly in the agricultural industry. Rajaratnam’s consulting project was looking at opportunities in the cosmetics industry. In his full-time role in business development and sales, he continues to look for new markets for the company’s products. “I just had my first confirmed sale,” he said. “I just started cold calling, refining my pitch every day. I kept adding new products, figuring out new suppliers and new ways to accomplish the sale.”
Rajaratnam estimates he called on 350 companies to generate four or five solid leads. “You can’t take failure. The first month I was calling, and I wasn’t getting anything. You just keep going. Once in a while, I’ll ask the other guys in the office, ‘What did you think of that call? What would you do differently?’ You have to make it not a ‘sales call.’ You find out what their issues are, what they’re currently working on that you can help out with. Then you get back to them with a solution.”
As for going to a start-up vs. an established company, “It comes down to what your strengths are,” he said. “That’s one of the things we explored in our Leadership class, and I took the Strengths Finder. I learned you need to tailor your work to your strengths. I’m fortunate I had the chance to work in large corporations. I worked at Best Buy and at the Ford plant in St. Paul, and my MBA internship was at Ecolab. For me, personality wise and who I am, what my passions are, I just see myself being more successful at a smaller venture.”
Rajaratnam recalled what entrepreneur Justin Kaufenberg, founder of TST Media, said during a talk at St. Thomas: “You want to be the last founder, not the first employee.”
What is there about the start-up company that appeals to you?
In a smaller company, especially a newer smaller company, there aren’t as many processes in place. You have to take the initiative to lay down the path. At a bigger company, there’s going to be a lot of processes, a lot of set rules and regulations. For me, the fact that I got to beat down my own path, that really appealed to me.
What are the challenges of a start-up?
It’s an advantage and a disadvantage to have those processes in place. Right now we’re trying to get a product imported — we’re trying to figure out how to get a product EPA certified. I have to do that, rather than having someone to hand it off to. We’re such a small company, I can’t go to someone with a specialty.
Is a start-up riskier than an established company?
There’s a lot of insecurity in a start-up, but I think working in a big corporation gives you a false sense of security. Look at the recession — the downsizing that a lot of companies are going through right now. Nothing in life is really certain. Here, you know you have to swim or you’re going to sink.