I am teaching a SkillShare class this week with Christina Cacioppo called how to get a job at a startup. I am excited to dive into this topic as I have sorted through a ton of resumes and had a number of people reach out about this question. I have been speaking to a number of people recently who are at different stages of their lives – but all looking to work “at a startup”. Some are about to be college grads, some are switching from “corporate” jobs, and some are MBA’s looking for what is next. Others are engineers looking to get into something different. I encourage people to email me about these things because one of the most helpful things I can do is help source people. My email is available, and I welcome the outreach. Below are some thoughts on the discussion we hope to have as well as resources for those who cannot make it out to the class.
First ask yourself if you really want to work at a startup?
Many are exposed to the success stories but never see the tough times tech blogs, magazines, and interviews don’t share. Its a grind – no matter what. I try to convey the differences between a “normal job” and a startup. There are a lot of peaks and valleys, and not everyone is suited for the sometimes unstable nature of the roles. Next I ask them to pinpoint down further beyond “working at a startup” as their goal. What topics are they interested in? What categories do they want to work in? What problems do they want to help solve? These are the things I ask these questions to get a persons world view and hear how they express interest in a sector or company.
When I hear a company or sector from their answers, I will focus in on it with specific questions on that company or category. For example if someone mentions a certain company by name, I will ask them to explain what that business does to further understand their world view. Many people can identify a company they want to work at, but for no other reason then for its success or buzz factor. Seldom to they name the 2-3 companies in the space that are all trying to tackle the same problems.
The most important thing you can do for yourself before getting started is figuring out the industry and category you want to work in. There is a broad definition for a “Startup” and there are many that have nothing to do with each other. Clean Urban Energy just raised $7MM to turn “buildings into batteries” in Chicago. Tango raised $41MM to focus on mobile chat and video. Nestio raised $750K to make searching for an apartment suck less. Each of these could be considered a startup in one way or another – but each is in a completely different vertical.
By focusing on a category, you can narrow down your search to a few key companies that you believe in, and can see yourself working at.
You need to show that you have a passion for a specific category, and understanding of a particular problem, and an overall obsession with building and being part of a solution.
Once you narrow it down you should figure out a plan of what you will actually be doing. What’s your 100-day operational roadmap for yourself at the company? What will you be doing, when will you be doing it, and who will you need to help you? (Correct answer to the last question: as few people as possible.)
Getting in touch can be one of the things that can differentiate you from the crowd. Most if not all startups will have a formal job board or application process. I can’t stress this highly enough, but you should definitely apply through that process. All other avenues into the company through personal referrals, friends, blog posts, or other means will eventually have you submit a formal application which may include a cover letter and resume and having it already on file within the job system the company uses is extremely helpful.
Reaching out to a Company can be intimidating. You may think that they do not want to hear from you, or that you don’t have anything intelligent to say or offer. The truth is that most small startups are dealing with a series of problems and trying to answer a series of questions – if you can be helpful in tackling either, then you are someone they want to be in contact with.
The coffee equation
One path a lot of folks try is to write the hiring manager, or even the CEO about going to “grab coffee to chat”. I have recommended against this approach as it does not show enough information on your part.
There should be an inverse amount of energy and time put into a potential coffee meeting.
Let me explain with the following diagram
This may seem unfair, but putting in 4-5 times (or more!) the effort of the person you want to speak with does make some sense. A CEO is dealing with a number of different issues at the same time trying to keep his or her startup afloat. Things like employees, investors, a business model, the product, feedback, etc… all take up their attention. When you reach out to spend precious time with them – even 20 minutes – you are asking them to put all the other things aside in favor of your meeting. This is why I recommend to folks that they spend time craft an email that outlines at least 3 solutions to at least 3 issues you think a CEO is dealing with. I can promise you that if you touch on even 1 correctly, you are someone they want to spend more time with. This conversation may not result in a job offer, but it sure is a great way to get the attention of someone that is busy with a million other issues at the same time.
By spending time and energy on crafting a unique and thoughtful outreach request you will be differentiated from others. It seems obvious, but this small amount of hard work is usually disregarded, and you will therefore standout. Its an extra 20-30 minutes of work that will at least result in someone reading your note and hopefully responding.
Along with submitting your information through the official means, you want to make sure you are reachable. I always recommend to people that they should have a contact form, their email address, or some other means of getting in contact fast. If you can get a hiring manager, CEO, or investors attention by some means – you want to make the gateway to getting in personal contact very easy. I know of a ton of great blog posts that do not have an about page, contact page, or any way to get in touch with the author. Don’t assume that a comments box is enough as its probably too high of a barrier for one of the people mentioned above.
Finally, like most investments in this space, its about the person. People look for great team members that can work on hard problems and answer tough questions. Background, experience, and education all play a role – but in the end it about the right fit. There are a number of resources, top 10 lists, and other actions you can take all listed below. I think ultimately its about how you approach a sector, and how you participate. In a sea of sameness, standing out from the crowd can be tough. My best advice is to participate in the space, get your thoughts down publicly, and start a dialogue with as many folks as you can.
[Updating this area – please leave your resource in the comments and I will add it here.]
I asked this question on Quora and invite you to participate as well: What is the best way to get hired by a startup in NYC?
CrunchBase is a great directory of Companies both large and small
Alex Taub – Tumblr
Jake Furst – Foursquare
Bijan Sabet: http://bijansabet.com/post/335646309/how-to-join-a-startup
Charlie O’Donnell: http://www.thisisgoingtobebig.com/blog/2011/4/1/how-to-get-an-exciting-job-at-an-awesome-startup-in-less-tha.html
Mark Suster part two: http://techcrunch.com/2011/03/17/whom-to-hire-at-a-startup-attitude-over-aptitude/
Eric Stromberg: http://estromberg.com/post/4778188872/how-to-get-a-job-at-a-startup-if-you-arent-a-developer
Jason Shen: http://www.jasonshen.com/2010/get-a-startup-job-out-of-college/