What you see ahead of you is a comprehensive step-by-step guide to scoring that startup job you’ve been dreaming of. Please use responsibly.
Related: How to start a business
Step 1: Is a startup job right for you?
Ping-pong tables, beanbags, glass walls to draw on, bright coloured slides to get you from point A to point B in less time and with more endorphins, and of course that fridge full of beer and milk on a Monday morning. The startup office dream… Well, there are some startups that are leading the trend with nifty office design, but unfortunately, we’re not living in a world where that’s industry standard yet.
And of course the same goes for the actual work you will be doing. The hype around startups has never been this big. Most people either dream of building their own company at some point in their career, or they’re excited about the possibility of joining the fiery team of a high-growth startup.
The truth is that you are probably going to be working harder, doing more hours, going way out of your comfort zone, and taking on more risk with your career. There are plenty of reasons not to go for a startup job, but if you’re the start-up-kind-of-person, the benefits will definitely outweigh the disadvantages.
If you thrive in uncertainty and like to take on more responsibility in a semi-chaotic environment the upside of a startup job can be pretty rewarding. You will get the chance to rub shoulders with some of the real innovators in your industry and bask in their wisdom. The learning curve is steep, and it tends to go up every time you think it’s about to flatten out. Whenever you get used to one task, you may be asked to jump on something new. If all goes well, your team will become your second family and work and life will begin to blend together in the right kind of way.
At the end of the day, you need to ask yourself what kind of work environment will make you feel happy and productive, where you see your career going and how much risk are you willing to take? And if you’re still not sure, then maybe it’s a good idea to have a look at getting an internship in Silicon Valley before you jump head first into the startup chaos.
Step 2: Know what you want
What industry do I want to work in? What position am I best suited for in a company? How do I see my career developing over time? These are a few good questions to get you thinking about where you want to end up. If you are just starting your career, you can also look at a few other questions that may help you figure out how you want to start your professional life.
But with startups, things are not always so straight forward. Working in one music-sharing tech startup may be an entirely different experience from working with the company’s direct competitor. In fact, you may find more similarities in two completely unrelated startups. This is mostly due to the size of the company and the team dynamics, the personalities of the founding members will shine through much more than in a corporate environment, where your ‘distance from the top’ is greater. The smaller the company, the stronger the impact of every single team member on the overall work environment will be.
Keep in mind that the human element will play a significant role in your startup job hunt. The section about culture will cover more of this.
Step 3: Check your brand
You’re about to send your application to some of the most tech-savvy and resourceful people on the planet. You can bet that startup teams and their founders will know where to look to find out more about you than you could cover in an interview. So, check your personal brand.
Get on your favourite search engine and do a search for your name, but make sure to turn your browser on ‘Incognito’ otherwise you’ll get biased search results. You want to find out what other people see when they try to look for you. Check out all the links that lead to you, including social media, websites and all the other dubious things you’ve been up to in your past life.
Be online as you want to be seen. Checking social media links you want to clean up is important, but go beyond that. Think about the things that are missing when you search for your name. Can you provide more information about yourself online? The more you put out there yourself, the better you can control how you appear to people who haven’t met you yet.
Update your LinkedIn profile. If you haven’t got one, get one. Even if you don’t want to use it for the many other useful things you can do with it, consider it your online CV. This is where employers will usually look first. Here’s a quick checklist but you may also want to look at a few extra valuable hints for setting up your LinkedIn for the start-up job hunt:
- Make sure all your important experience is shown,
- But don’t overload it with by telling the world that you were flipping burgers and driving pizzas in your high-school years if you have other relevant experience,
- Ask people you’ve worked with for a reference. You can ask teammates from a university project, but the more professional the referee, the better,
- Put some thought into the skills you want to select because recruiters will want to see the right terms,
- Ask for endorsements for your skills.
If you’re a designer or developer, there are many platforms where you can present yourself and your work. Carbonmade, Behance, Dribble, or some more of these tools are perfect for designers. Of course, nothing beats setting up your own website to showcase your talent.
Step 4: Forget the CV
You’ll be happy to hear that the CV you’ve put so much effort into is probably not going to get looked at very much in your startup job hunt.
A CV has its place in the corporate recruiting environment where the processes are very clearly defined and the person specifications can be matched to hundreds of CVs at a time to find the statistically optimal candidate. Things work very differently in a startup.
First of all, the founders do not have the time to focus on optimising this process and they shouldn’t because the process doesn’t happen as frequently as in their corporate counterparts. Startups are also more likely to take on personal referrals or to recruit within their networks to save money and get high quality.
On top of that, LinkedIn has taken most of the traditional CVs thunder. Your LinkedIn profile, that personal website and your online portfolios that we mentioned in the last section are there to give your dream startup more information about you than you can pack on a 2-page, ideally 1-page CV.
But if you do prefer the more traditional route, there are a few points to consider when setting up your CV for a startup job.
Step 5: Use your network
Ok, you know what you want, you’ve made sure you’re on top of your personal brand, and you’ve updated your CV. Now it’s time to start the hunt.
If you’ve had the chance to work in the startup scene before, or even launched your own startup, this should be second nature to you anyway. In your case, it’s only a matter of putting yourself out there.
You can start by looking at the people you know well in the industry you want to find a job. At this point, it’s worth creating a quick Excel file or to use another tool to build up the list of people you know. You can then mark them off as you begin asking them. If you want to work with them, be direct and let them know why you want to be part of their team. They will probably be looking for go-getters to help them grow their business. Don’t ask, don’t get.
Dust off relationships with people outside the specific industry you are interested in too. If you want to work in the music app industry, ask your friend who’s building an analytics platform. He may just have met the next Spotify at the startup conference he attended.
Again, let them know that you are looking for a startup job and be specific. Your friend has a lot on his mind, and she really does want to help you, but it’s your job to make it easy for her. Give her all the specs! What kind of startup are you looking for? What position do you want? What are your skills?
If you’re just getting started and haven’t built a strong network yet, start now! Get involved in local startup communities, attend startup events, find the people in your city and just ask them if they’re happy to grab a quick coffee with you. This is your chance to get your foot in the door of the startup world with someone who’s been there for a while. Ask them for their advice and to tell you about their experience in the field and you’ll be surprised to see how willing they will be to help.
Step 6: Look on startup job sites
There’s a reason why these startup job sites are popping up all over the web at the moment. Startups want to get access to talent they wouldn’t be able to reach through their networks, and they are often more open to considering the global talent pool of remote workers than the corporates are.
Most job sites will let you filter by industry, region and skills. Use this to browse through the list of hiring startups, but stay focused on finding startups that match your dream job criteria. Our startup jobs aggregator allows you to search opportunities that have been posted on a collection of other startup job platforms.
Another great place to look for startup jobs is on AngelList. They have a startup jobs page where “over 5,000 of the world’s best startups are hiring” (at the time of writing). AngelList is also ideal for stalking startups that you’re interested in. You can see which startups are up and coming, check out how they pitched themselves to Investors, and see how much they’ve raised.
Step 7: Use their product
If you’ve found a startup you’re excited about, it’s probably because you’ve already had the chance to get to know their product or their team. But if you’ve come across this startup in your job hunt, it’s time to get into the trenches to show the team you’re ready to fight alongside them.
This part is easy and fun. Play with their product. Have a look at tutorials and spend some time reading up on user feedback or reviews. This will give you a good idea of what people love about it and where there may be space for improvement — which may or may not end up being part of your job!
Get a trial version, or if it’s not too expensive, make the investment and incorporate it into your day-to-day life. After all, if you love their product, why wouldn’t you be using it yourself? And when it comes to the question of what you like about their product, they’ll be able to feel the excitement in your responses.
The same goes for the company’s mission.
Step 8: Love their mission
Do you want to build a strong connection with the founder? Adopt their mission as your own.
The mission and vision of the company are the powerful ‘why’ that is driving the entire company forward. If you need a reminder of why ‘why’ is such an important word, Simon Sinek can give you a quick crash course with his world-famous TED Talk on ‘The Golden Circle’.
Founders are looking for the people that will help them achieve their vision. You need to show them that you are the person they’ve been looking for, not just because you fill a gap in their team, but because you love what they do and what they stand for.
If the founding team feels that you are on their side and ready to take on the world for what they believe in, you become an invaluable asset to their team. Their thoughts will be: “this guy is going to do anything to make this happen”. Ultimately, you are being hired by people, so emotions and gut feelings will always play a significant role to in getting you on board their team.
Bottom line: be passionate about the company. If you don’t really care much for their mission, then do yourself and the founders a favour and keep looking until you find a startup that you can be passionate about.
Step 9: Get the culture right
You can see by now that the startup world has a much more ‘touchy-feely’ approach than the corporate world. And it gets even more emotional in this section.
Startup teams are characteristically small. Even the bigger ones are small enough for you to get to know everyone at some point in your time there. You’re also going to have to wave adieu to the classic 9-5, for better or for worse. Expect to be building relationships quickly and expect your work and your free time to flow into each other in a beautiful mess.
You will be spending a lot of time with these people. Fact. And if you really are the average of the people you spend the most time with, then make sure you choose those people wisely.
The culture of a company is defined by the values that all employees adopt here, by the traditions, and by the way people interact with each other. Your dream job needs to have an additional dimension. You know what industry you want to work in, what kind of job you want, and what mission you associate with, but it’s equally important —if not more— to make a conscious choice about the environment and the kind of people you want to be working with.
So where can you find this? Here are a few places to look:
- The startup’s job posting: they often mention it and you can hear it in the language they use,
- Their ‘About’ page,
- Their social media channels (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.),
- Crowdfunding campaigns,
- YouTube videos,
- Articles written by them or about them,
- Reviews on Glassdoor.com or Salary.com from the perspective of employees,
- Or check if you know someone who has worked at the company, or find someone through LinkedIn to ask them. More likely than not, they’ll be happy to tell you about the company.
Zappos’ culture has become a big inspiration to startups and larger companies alike, and many have Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness as their bible for company culture. More and more startups understand the importance of hiring based on values and culture fit as well as talent and skills, so you’re likely to be selected with this in mind anyway. And the startups that are lagging behind and don’t get the culture right are probably not the ones you want to be working for.
If you believe you fit well with the startup’s culture and their culture is what you are looking for, then it will be easy to show the team that you are a great fit. Just make sure to know their culture and where possible the specific wordings they use and feed these back to them in the interview, in a non-salesy way.
Step 10: Know the industry & competitors
Ok, so you’ve got the passion and culture steps covered. Now it’s time to get analytical.
Like with any other company, it’s always helpful to know the industry and who is competing in that space. For startups, knowing about the competitive landscape they are in is even more crucial, as they are fighting for every new client they can get in a market that doesn’t know them very well yet. At the early stages of building brand loyalty and growing a following, it’s incredibly important to keep an eye on competitors.
The founders will be very impressed if you can mentally map out their competitive landscape. Know where the startup has a competitive advantage and you can offer your opinion on why you think this is working so well in their industry. Be careful with critical feedback at this stage. You don’t want to sound like an arrogant know-it-all who comes in on the first day trying to teach the founders how to run the business they’ve been building for five years.
The industry defines the product or service. Ideally, it’s also an industry that you are interested in yourself, so make sure you show the founding team that you know what’s going on out on the battlefield.
Step 11: Do a skill check
This is where it gets personal. You’re being hired to become an asset to their team, and they will be looking for certain skills. Apart from the technical skills and talents specified in the job description, there are a set of skills that most startups will find useful in their fresh hires.
- Flexibility and Adaptability: are you able to adapt to changes quickly and efficiently? Will you learn quickly when you’re needed for something else? Startups are in constant flux. Show them that you can wear many hats and that you’ll be able to wear them well with a little bit of coaching and a lot of self-taught practice.
- Creativity: your creative input can shape the startup and define its future. That’s a lot of power and a lot of responsibility, but it’s what founders look for in their best teammates. Creative solutions to problems, big and small product innovations and new ways to access markets, are great ways to apply your creative mind to add tangible value to a startup.
- Team Player: We’ve covered this one, but let’s reiterate: you’re going to be in a team. Be good at it.
- Execution: in the startup world it’s all about great execution and when coupled with great ideas, you become an indispensable asset to any company. Think of a few situations where you took a project from ideation through to completion, or where you implemented a significant change.
- Hustle: this skill—or rather attitude—goes hand in hand with great execution. Simply put, hustling is turning a ‘No’ into a ‘Yes, please! Here’s a cheque with my signature, when can we start?’ Can you give an example of where you kept going when odds were stacked against you and achieved that ambitious goal you set yourself?
- Proactivity and Curiosity: there is always a better way of doing things. Show the interviewer that you go beyond the call of duty to make the startup a success. Consider examples where you did way more than what was asked of you, e.g. by improving an internal process, researching better alternatives or brainstorming a new strategy.
For the interview, prepare some examples that show the founders or the recruiters that you have these valuable ‘soft’ skills.
Step 12: Be their biggest fan
If this really, really is your dream job, then don’t take no for an answer.
You’ve invested all this time in finding that dream job and preparing for it. By now, you’re catching yourself daydreaming about sitting on those soft, squeezable bean bags and sliding down the bright coloured slides to get to the glass covered brainstorm room, from where you can see your cheerful teammates having an intense ping pong showdown.
If you’re serious about this job, and you can’t imagine another startup being such a good fit for you, then don’t give up here. It’s time to whip out those hustling skills and show the Founders your passion really does make you the best candidate for their position.
You need to become their biggest fan. Use their product regularly, interact with the startup on social media, be their voluntary brand advocate and try to get conversations going with other members of the startup’s team. If you end up being known internally as their stalker, you are doing everything right.