Be the Small Fish

“How was your summer?”

As a reply to this question I give the expected, “Oh, it was great, and yours?”

I ask it too, of course, sometimes cringing when I do. I don’t mean to suggest that I am not genuinely interested in how my friend or professor has spent his past four months. In most cases, I truly am. But let’s face it: it’s small talk and nine times out of ten, we know the response before we inquire. It’s simply the necessary conversation starter before we get into the good stuff. (Or in some cases, the convo ends there, and I think that maybe I didn’t have as much in common with that guy from my seminar last semester as I thought I did.)

In any event, as this question has been posed to me time and time again since my arrival back on campus, I have begun to think more about my response to it. Am I being sincere or just giving the expected reply? Sure, the response is bland, but it is truthful – actually, more truthful than I realize.

This summer was one of my best. There was little time spent at the beach, I have no summer tan to boast of, and the barbeques and boozing were kept to a minimum. Most of my hours were spent in a tiny office on the 15th floor of 39 West 37th, or on the Metro North commuter train. (Unfortunately, the real world is not as cushy as the life of a student.)

This was no fancy internship. I had worked my ass off trying to get it, almost giving up on the search, when I unexpectedly heard back from the senior editor at a startup magazine called Tango. And, lo and behold, three days after taking my last final of my junior year at Colgate, I was sitting in the Tango office right next to the CEO, beginning research for articles for the magazine’s Issue Three.

I certainly felt the financial pinch this summer: I was compensated little for plugging in a full workweek’s hours. But even that tested my creativity. (Yep, that was me walking through the drive-through ATM to avoid paying the $1.50 fee at another bank.) We played musical power cords in the office, as the Tango team had just two adaptors for three Laptops. I was even without a desk for one afternoon, balancing my Laptop on my knees as I e-mailed various publicists. But despite it all, the experience of working for a small fish was a great one, and I strongly encourage other students to consider taking a risk and looking more seriously at startup companies.

The experience was invaluable. Tango is tiny but growing. When I began in early May, just three editors were working to create the entire publication. There were generally no more than five or six people in the office at one time. This created a tight-knit environment and forced close working relationships, allowing me to participate in all of the company meetings and giving me the opportunity to voice my opinion on major decisions – from products to be featured, the image on the cover.

I have to admit, I was shocked at how many projects were tossed at me from day one. The first week flew: I saw very little downtime, scrambling to fact-check, copy edit and organize an article on fall fragrances with my boss.

The managing editor gave me the go-ahead to write a column for the website; the highlight of the summer was an interview that I conducted with the director and star of an upcoming documentary.

This is not to say that the job didn’t come with its share of stressful moments. There was that Friday morning when I had to drive nearly all over the tri-state area to get an audio recording to our senior editor by 5 p.m. There was also that afternoon that I rode the elevator the 15 flights down, contemplating how I would make it 17 blocks in ten minutes in rush-hour traffic to deliver magazines to our CEO at a meeting with advertisers. It was under these circumstances that my problem-solving skills and resourcefulness were put to the test.

I took a risk this summer, and it paid off. As the lovable Drew Barrymore says, “If you don’t take risks you’ll have a wasted soul.” It seems to me that Colgate students often get caught up in landing the right job with the right company. We don’t want just any Wall Street company, we want Goldman. But why serve coffee for The New York Times or Harper’s when you can enjoy a couple awesome months at Tango?

We’re a smart, highly driven, intellectually curious bunch of kids emerging from Colgate. Eventually, we’ll make it to the big time. In the meanwhile, why not consider start-up companies as stepping stones while we’re young and energetic? Give the little guys a chance; it’ll be a win-win scenario for both parties.