Lots of people want to work at startups these days. And for good reason. When I left my former positions at big companies like Microsoft and Amazon, I caught the startup bug and got hooked on the challenge and opportunity they provided.
But the thing that we all love about startups – that they’re different – is also the thing that can make getting a job at one a little tricky. The rules for getting a job at a startup don’t exactly conform to the traditional wisdom out there for job-seekers applying to big companies. If you are looking to break into the world of startups, shedding the idea that a good suit and a polished resume are all you need to get in the door will be key for landing your awesome new position.
Even though startups and startup culture have become so prevalent in business today, most of the job-searching guides and wisdom available to job-seekers has to do with how to get hired at a traditional company with traditional rules. What you used to do to get a job doesn’t necessarily apply in the startup world, and many of the traditional requirements need a new spin to catch the attention of one of these fast-moving, driven teams.
In my career, I’ve interviewed over 600 people and hired over 70, many of those for the startups I’ve worked at or was helping as a consultant. Based on that experience, I’ve put together a simple guide for getting hired at the startup of your dreams.
Why is startup hiring different?
At a big company, you might submit your resume to the HR department and then wait weeks before you first hear back about an interview. At startups, there are compressed timelines, and not enough people to do everything. Things move a lot faster and you have to make more noise (or be more noteworthy) to get noticed.
If you haven’t worked at a startup before, you’ll likely be surprised by the intensity of the work and the environment – and this intensity is no different for the hiring process. The people in charge of hiring at a startup are often working on lots of different items than at your typical large company (hence the saying “wear many hats”).
Instead of meeting with an HR rep or recruiter whose entire day is about screening employees, you could be communicating directly with a busy founder, CTO or CEO. This means they don’t have tons of time and if you don’t make an impact right away, they might just skip over you.
Because of the fast pace and limited resources, hiring managers are looking for candidates who can hit the ground running and be passionate about their role, without a lot of prodding. Culture fit and willingness to do the hard work it takes to launch a company are some of the biggest factors that folks doing hiring at startups look for.
Were you a superstar at your last job?
If you want to work at a startup, you should be; and your resume, cover letter, and communication with the company should reflect that. Didn’t do so great at your last job or in school? Well, you’ll have to counteract that by making a splash somewhere else, like with your own personal projects, an open source project, or with an organization you participate in.
Startups look for people who are going to have the ability to make meaningful changes within their organization. With smaller teams and more at stake, the impact an individual can make on the company or their team is potentially huge. Standards are high and priority is given to candidates who show they’ve got the passion and skills to get the job done..
How can I improve my odds of getting hired at a startup?
- Look at local tech news for companies that have been funded recently. This means they likely have money to pay you, and that someone has done some due diligence before you (ie. the investors). Look at VCs who you know and respect, or who have funded companies you know that have had successful exits, and see what companies are in their portfolio. You may find a company you weren’t aware of but who fits your criteria.
- Connect with employees. Use Twitter and other social media to follow employees of companies you’re interested in. You can judge pretty quickly which employees are open to connecting online – just take a look at the public-ness of their LinkedIn and Twitter profiles, whether they maintain a personal website, and how often they communicate with other people publicly. This way you’ll be able to focus your time and energy on people who are already showing they are open to building relationships.I’ve mentioned this statistic here before, but it bears repeating: over 80% of job offers come through referrals. The startup world is no different; if anything, it relies even more heavily on referrals, as high-quality employees strive to bring in more of the same to make their teams even better. If you build relationships with people on teams you want to join, you’ll stand out from a crowd of applicants as a known quantity who’s proven an interest in the organization.
- Have something compelling to offer! Personal projects (bonus points if they’re related to your future job – like open source contributions to the tools they use) give CEOs and hiring managers something they can see and evaluate for quality before even meeting you in person. Great examples of this include a personal website, blog posts, or even just being present and having a network (so start meeting people and attending local events). They shouldn’t Google you and find nothing.This is your way of demonstrating how awesome you are before you ever sit down for an interview or write a line of code. Show them exactly what you’re into and how much work you’re willing to put into something you care about, even when you’re not getting paid for it; they will make the connection and be able to see how you’d function on their team, and be more inclined to bring you in.
- Go to local events in your vertical. Go where your targets are at (as saying I shamelessly stole from a pickup artist). This means going to meetups, conferences, networking events, and anything else you can find where you can meet other people doing your kind of work – and maybe even who work at a company you’ve got your eye on.And just like meeting high-quality ladies in a pickup scene, you’ve got to actual talk to your targets when you go to these networking events. Don’t be shy about introducing yourself. Remember, you are pursuing them so you can’t wait for the CEO to notice you – be a little bold and introduce yourself.
- Tell them you like them. When I’m hiring, I always want to pick a candidate for whom my company their first choice. In my opinion, if someone is passionate about engineering the kind of software my team is building in the specific market we work in, then they’re going to work harder and more passionately than someone who just needs a job. This means candidates who make that clear will certainly get my attention over others. If you want to work somewhere specific, don’t be coy about it – let them know you want them!I once got an email from someone who explained that he had heard about Decide on the radio, and our work was such a perfect match for his interests and skills that he just had to get in touch with us. Although he wasn’t looking for a new job at that time, if he had applied for a position on my team 6 months later, I would have remembered his passion for our technology and been much more inclined to find a place for him.His email was so memorable because he had clearly made a point to become quite familiar with our company, our technology, and our team. He didn’t just explain his own skills, but also mentioned that he was the “go-to guy” in his group of friends for finding deals online – so what we were doing at Decide was of particular interest to him. If you feel the same way about the work a particular company is doing, don’t be shy about letting them know. They’ll notice.
Landing a job at a startup isn’t easy. It’s a competitive field where most of your competition is the best of the best. But that’s why it’s such a great place to work, and why it’s worth taking the steps to improve your odds as much as possible.
If you work in the startup world, what were your secrets for getting hired? And if you’ve hired people for startup jobs – what have successful candidates done to get your attention?