Our Salary Paths series aims to give fellow Elphas a reference point for salary negotiations and encourage more women to talk about compensation. We hope that opening up the conversation will contribute to more pay transparency and equitable pay.
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“You won’t get an opportunity like this again,” Mike said as he glossed over my two-week notice. He owned the ad agency where I’d worked as a junior copywriter through college. I was making $14 an hour and working 60-hour weeks without overtime (illegal, I know that now), and perhaps worst of all; I believed what he said — that my career was over before it even began.
I walked out of that office in Austin, TX, hopeless but free. I worked at my gym’s front desk while I updated my resume and put out feelers. Soon after, I got my first full-time job as a junior copywriter at a startup. It was 2018, and the salary was $37K.
After eight months at the startup, I moved into my next full-time role, a content strategy position at a privately-owned digital marketing agency. I spent two years there, and my salary grew from $50K to $60K. In 2021, the job market tides had turned in candidates’ favor. I capitalized on the opportunity by updating my resume and toggling my LinkedIn profile to “Open to work” mode.
My timing could not have been better. Within days of updating my profile, I had multiple screening interview requests. Due to their ultra-competitive salary and benefits packages, I zeroed in on two publicly-traded tech companies (an e-commerce giant and a B2B marketing platform). I interviewed at both companies, stating a desired salary of $75K and continuously leveraging their competing interest in me to expedite the process.
Eventually, company A screened me out, which I kept to myself as I continued interviewing with company B. In the end, company B did not give me the job. Instead, they offered the position directly above it. Accordingly, I requested a $10K increase from the $75K I had initially requested and some other concessions.
Two months later, I started my new $85K job. During my first quarter at the B2B marketing giant, I focused on learning the ropes and using my experience to reform outdated processes with “new” ideas.
As inflation and a jobseekers’ market raged, my employer reviewed compensation across all departments, comparing it to competitors’ salary ranges. This company-led effort translated into a $20K raise, officially increasing my salary to $105K. For context, just a year earlier, I was performing a very similar role at the digital marketing agency for $60K.
I must admit that many factors that went into that increase were outside of my control (timing, economic conditions, etc.). However, I believe there were a few actions I took that helped me influence the outcome and a couple of things I could have done better.
Things I will do better next time:
1. Do more research on salary ranges at competing companies.
I sold myself short by negotiating $85K upon starting at the marketing software company. I now know my salary request was way below the market price for my position. Next, I will inform my negotiation with industry and competitor data. Thanks, Elpha!
2. Negotiate my equity package.
Since I had only ever worked at privately-owned agencies and a venture-backed startup, I was surprised to find out I could negotiate my equity package. Looking back, I should have negotiated a better equity package with a more aggressive vesting schedule.
3. Take better advantage of the onboarding season.
Major companies know that it takes 3-6 months for applicants to fully onboard, sometimes more. I was so rushed to prove myself in my new role that I did not take advantage of a unique opportunity to engage in unhurried learning. Today, I find myself needing to fill the gaps left over from my onboarding in my day-to-day work.
Things I would do again:
1. Pad my resume with learnings from my “bad” work experiences:
My first two jobs objectively sucked. The hours were long, the pay was terrible, and burnout was a fundamental part of company culture. However, this was naturally conducive to wearing many hats and learning by doing.
Thanks to those bad experiences, I developed tremendous hard skills, which now serve as search-worthy keywords on my LinkedIn profile. Those skills included learning to use new software (e.g., Ahrefs, HubSpot, SEMrush, Google Analytics) and the communication skills required to survive in a cutthroat environment.
2. Use my agency background to stand out in a client-side role.
Advertising agencies and marketing firms are known for their often toxic cultures; my experiences were no exception. Trying to work on the narrow line between the client’s whims and the creative director’s ego felt like walking across the Grand Canyon on a tightrope. It also taught me how to work in a fast-paced environment with an ever-growing list of competing priorities and projects. These problematic experiences eventually turned into great answers to example-based interview questions like, “Tell me about a time you had to explain a new concept to a non-technical client?” or, “Describe a situation when you had to handle conflict in your workplace.”
3. Prepare for example-based questions based on the S-T-A-R interview method.
After researching and comparing notes with my peers and former colleagues, I knew I had to prepare for example-based questions. I learned that many major companies (including Amazon, McKinsey, and Microsoft) use the S-T-A-R method to formulate interview questions and assess candidates. Accordingly, I prepared some semi-canned responses using “situation-task-action-result” as a template.
4. Reply to all LinkedIn requests for “screening calls.”
After changing my LinkedIn status to “Open to work,” I received around two dozen requests and messages from recruiters and hiring managers. Though I knew I couldn’t pursue most of them, I responded to all of them, referring candidates where appropriate. Not only did this help me build new connections, but it also got one of my former colleagues a $40K pay bump!
5. Use competing interviews to my advantage.
I started interviewing at the ecommerce giant and the B2B marketing software company simultaneously. The former screened me out relatively quickly, but I ensured the latter did not find out. This incentivized the marketing software company to streamline my interview process and gave me additional leverage when negotiating salary (although I used that leverage poorly).
6. Believe that better opportunities await.
In hindsight, Mike was right — I never got an opportunity like that again. And you know what? I am glad. The belief that better things were out there has spurred me on in every one of my career moves, allowing me to leapfrog my salary one move at a time. And the next time I jump from one role to another, it will be a leap of faith — not fear.
All names (including the author’s) have been changed for this Salary Path story.