How to Land a Killer Job at a Tech Startup Out of College
By Jason Shen & Derek Flanzraich
Welcome ReadWriteWeb readers! We hope you enjoy our super-long post – useful for all startup-oriented folks, but specifically geared towards non-engineers. Neither of us have strong coding experience and we found that there weren’t many good resources for us in our search to join the Next Big Thing. So we wrote the guide we wished we had.
Want to read other stuff by us? Check out The Idea or The Execution? Here’s What The Greatest Minds in Tech Say by Derek and Two Mindsets to Adopt at Work and in Life by Jason.
So you know you want to work at a startup, but have no idea where to start?
We’ve been there. Here’s our advice on how to land an incredible, fulfilling gig at exciting startup just like we did. It’s a mix of the stuff we did, the stuff we wish we had done, and the stuff we’ve learned from others who’ve traveled the same path. We hope you find it valuable and would love to hear your feedback on it!
1. IS THE STARTUP WORLD FOR YOU?
Compared to most post-college jobs, startups are an entirely different beast. Your typical recent grad faces a world of awful meetings, outdated training, absurd time-tracking, and mountains of paperwork. Startups cut almost all of that out. They need employees who are 30 times more productive because they’re trying to be that much more disruptive. They’re operating with fewer resources yet need to demonstrate much higher growth. They’re constantly iterating and changing based on immediate feedback from users. They’re fueled on Red Bull (Tony Hsieh-approved!) and coffee, Chinese take-out and In N’ Out burgers.
You’ll be doing “real work” 95+% of the time. Real work is cold-calling potential customers, troubleshooting support issues, writing copy that goes on the website. And to do it well, you’ve got to know your stuff, get up to speed quickly, be flexible, deliver under constant pressure, prioritize wisely, and often work super long hours.
Both us were happy to take on these challenges. We started stuff in college and loved the feeling of working with a tight-knit team to make big things happen. We didn’t want to be just employee #10,431, we wanted to be 11% of a tiny 9-person team. Instead, at a startup, you’re more likely to avoid corporate politics and sit on fewer soul-crushing meetings while rapidly growing your skill-set, learning from and hanging out with brilliant and passionate co-workers, and maybe even making an impact on entire industries? Does that get you fired up? If so, read on. If not, you’ve got other options…
2. FOCUS – ONLY TARGET A FEW STARTUPS
We think Jason Cohen puts it best: you’ve got to approach this like you’re getting married. What companies are most exciting to you? Which do you think could use your skills most? You’ve got a vision for where your industry is headed, so which companies share that vision (or inspired yours to begin with)? You’re going to have to go all-in on just a few startups because it’s your only shot at getting a job at one of them. What does going all-in mean? It means doing a ton of research (see #3), networking & building relationships (see #6), and proving you’re worth it (see #5) on just a few targets.
One of us (Jason) made a spreadsheet of all the companies he was interested in, ranked them, and stayed focused on only the ones that made his final cut. The shotgun approach rarely works here – because startups don’t have time to read your lame, vague-because-you’re-shotgunning-it cover letter.
3. KNOW YOUR INDUSTRY IN & OUT
Once you have the short list of firms you want to target – it’s time to hit the books. In a big company, it’s understandable if you don’t know everything about your industry. An associate level PR person at Random House doesn’t need to know everything about the iBooks battle with the Kindle, just how to write a solid press release and run a book tour. In a startup, everyone’s involved in strategy. And usually you’re all betting on a vision of where your industry is heading that’s crucial to your success.
We both immersed ourselves totally in our industries. Learn all the facts, figures, insight, and more about it. Read all the major industry news, subscribe to all the popular blogs, follow all the major players on Twitter, and set up custom Google Alerts. Before you know it, you’ll know enough to set yourself apart from others.
Why go through all this trouble?
Because domain expertise matters. The phrase “do your homework” hit home for us here because unlike in school, what we studied now actually mattered. And from the startup’s perspective, all things being equal, they want to hire the kid who knows what’s happening in their space.
4. GET GOOD AT SPECIFIC STUFF
Startups are paradoxical. Because the companies you’re most likely looking at have probably received some sort of funding, they don’t have to act like a small business – which constantly focus on staying cash flow positive. However, they are often on a bigger time crunch to demonstrate traction and capitalize on big opportunities before anyone else. They need people who can make an immediate impact on their “bottom line”, whether that’s users, revenue, traffic, or something else.
So, you need to be “plugin-able,” able to do stuff that helps the company from day one. A consulting firm might take you if you’re smart and run you through a month-long training course on Excel and Powerpoint. A startup needed your work done yesterday – so you’ll want to be ready to roll with some kick ass skills. Luckily, much of this stuff can be self-taught – and it’s worth learning.
One of us (Jason) crafts, sends and tracks open rates & click throughs for a personalized email newsletter to his friends. Think that’s silly? Email is a serious business. This skill comes in handy when he got put in charge of his firm’s email marketing campaigns. The other (Derek) has built two thriving online communities - which you could imagine would come in useful as when working in social media marketing. So what’s your thing?
The good news is you may be a pro at this stuff and not know it already. Are you awesome at crafting, personalizing, and sending email marketing campaigns? Have you built up 10,000 Twitter followers yourself from scratch? Are you an Adobe Photoshop master? Can you write captivating content? Take stock of your skillset – how can you leverage what you already know?
5. PROVE YOUR WORTH
So you’ve read up on all the latest industry trends. You’ve polished some ninja/jedi/pirate -level skills. Think you’re ready for prime time?
Not only do you need to have the knowledge and the skills to be successful, but you need to prove that fact to potential employers. The way we’ve found that really works is building an strong prescence on Twitter, LinkedIn and your personal blog
You know your potential employer is going to google the crap out of you– just like you’ve been doing for his/her entire industry. So do you want them to find embarrassing MySpace photos? Or thoughtful, passionate and memorable ideas on your industry? Show off the skills you’ve learned with a little portfolio of projects. Organize your best blog posts so they’re easy to find and read. Get your colleagues to vouch for your intelligence, passion and results on LinkedIn.
This sounds like personal branding. But it’s much more. Proving your worth means turning a “no thanks” to a “let’s talk to this guy/gal”. It takes time and effort– but it pays off.
6. GET A REFERRAL – OR BECOME A FRIENDLY FACE
A referral is when someone within the company recommends someone they know to join the firm. You want a referral. Startups almost never had “openings”, especially for business jobs, and the only way you can convince them to give up desk space and a precious chair is by proving to them you’re 100% fully committed to everything about them. Because startups don’t have HR departments, having someone who will vouch for you is huge.
The fact is – good people know other good people and referrals cut through the noise. Why do you think companies throw down thousands of dollars on referral bounties? In an ideal world, you’ve built a relationship with people inside the company. And if you haven’t? Don’t be afraid to ask them for a coffee chat. If you want to work at this company, the people that work there are probably awesome. So what could be better than to reach out and start getting to know them now?
No Referral? Becoming a friendly face is a good start. Here’s one way: Volunteer. Startups love free labor. If you start using your new-found knowledge and skills to help your target startups on on a “just ’cause I really like you guys” basis – they will be much more inclined to talk with you down the road when something opens up. We’ve definitely seen this work.
7. SEND IN A KILLER, PERSONALIZED, AND MEMORABLE APP
Referrals won’t always make the difference, especially if it’s a hot startup. One of us had three different referrals at Twitter and didn’t get an interview. So get out the big guns. You’ve gotten to know your space, chosen the startups that matter, proven it online, and reached out to be involved. Now do something different. Do something memorable. Something that proves your enthusiasm and dedication to the company. Alec Brownstein took out ads on Google for executives at Ad Agencies he wanted to work at and sent them to a landing page of himself. Genius– and it worked.
Believe it or not, both us actually independently made and sent personalized powerpoint presentations that were obviously made for that company and that company alone. Those sure got attention. Many people build dedicated websites or totally redesign their resume to stand out. You’ve got to show them you’re different, so think outside of the box. WAY outside of it. And no copy-paste. This needs to be genuine or they’ll tell in a second.
8. BE YOURSELF
There’s no room in a startup for douchebags (to put it bluntly). Everyone is trying to get as much as possible done and often the only way to do it is through close collaboration. Remember the coffee, red bull, and junk food? Who are you going to want to share that with? Who’ll keep a sense of humor when it’s 3am and the new feature launch is hours away? No matter what, in a small group of people there needs to be incredible amounts of trust and comfort. Because ultimately, entrepreneurship is about happiness, not money.
So be yourself. Be professional, of course– but don’t be afraid to joke around a bit, reveal personal things about yourself, talk about totally irrelevant shared hobbies, and more. Jason got into a heated debate about the future of newspapers during his interview and Derek discussed his three month stint playing a man in a 12-man historic drag show. If you don’t come across as real and authentic, they won’t take a second look.
Why should you be yourself? Because, at a startup, you’re committing to an awful lot. You want them to hire and be thrilled about who you are because, if they aren’t, why in the world would you want to commit your skills, time, and contagious enthusiasm and passion to them? A startup whose vision you share is one thing, but you have to be thrilled about who you’re going to be working with, too.
Epilogue: Getting a job at a startup takes time– it won’t happen overnight. There are a lot of steps to take but, we’re guessing, most of these you were on to already. It’s also important to keep in mind that startups don’t hire in advance. An established company can sometimes hire people months before they begin. But months in startup terms is eons. They’re moving faster than the speed of light– in two months, they could have pivoted in an entirely new direction, gone bankrupt, or sold to Google. Who knows? So, while all your friends are getting job offers left and right, don’t worry. Work on writing killer blog posts, building strong relationships, and more. If you’re 100% committed to the startup world and have the hustle to prove it, rest assured you’ll be downing red bulls and helping to build stuff that matters before you know it.
Jason Shen graduated from Stanford and now works at isocket, a startup that powers direct & self-serve display ads for Techcrunch and other web publishers. You can reach him at jasonyshen [at] gmail [dot] com.
Derek Flanzraich graduated from Harvard and now works at Clicker, a startup that’s the ultimate guide to internet television. You can reach him at derek [dot] flanzraich [at] gmail [dot] com