There are 1,523 articles about how to get noticed, be presentable, and format a résumé for getting hired at a big company with a real HR department.
OK, I admit I made that number up. But there’s a lot.
But what about getting hired at a little startup? What if you want to be employee #10? Or #1? Surely the rules aren’t the same when there is no HR department, no recruiter, and the founder is going to show up to the interview (at the coffee shop since there’s no office) wearing Birkenstocks and a T-Shirt that says:
The rules are different at a startup, and that extends to getting a job. Here’s some tips for how to land that awesome, exciting, enviable, high-stress, low-paying job.
1. Approach it like getting married
When you work with only a handful of other people, all struggling to make ends meet and sharing a cramped little space, it’s more like a family than a workplace.
No one has a title, everyone helps everyone with everything, everyone works too hard and too long, you eat most of your meals together, you work on crises together, and you also share in the pure elation that is getting revenue from happy customers.
What does this mean in terms of your behavior, attitude, and expectations?
- “Can I get fully emotionally behind these people and this idea?” is more important than “What is the working environment?”
- “I am passionate, helpful, thoughtful, and ready to both argue and set arguments aside as necessary” is more important than “I need to know the plan of action and what is expected of me.”
- “Will this be fun?” is more important than “How will this look on my resume?”
2. Do your homework
Don’t just spam your resume and standard cover letter at the company.
A startup is equal parts personal and professional, so it doesn’t make sense for you to want to hook up with “just any old startup.” So do your homework first: Check out their website, blog, Twitter, etc. Find the founder’s blog, Twitter, etc..
What you should ask yourself:
- Do I like the way they approach selling and marketing?
- Would I be proud to work here?
- Do the founders sound like people I could rally behind?
- Does it seem like this company thrills its customers?
- Do I understand how this company makes money?
Of course this is sensible advice regardless of what kind of job you’re seeking, but in a startup you’re much closer to the lifeblood of the company and the whims of the founders, so it has to be a good fit.
Besides, companies get spammed with cookie-cutter resumes and cover-letters all the time — you need to stand out as startup-type material!
3. Your personality, intelligence, and cover letter is more important than bullets on a resume
HR departments look for key words in your resume to “weed out” people who don’t qualify. Education, years experience, technologies, sales numbers.
These are (mostly) irrelevant for startups. Why?
Besides being a three-time entrepreneur myself, I constantly meet and talk with startup founders. Almost never does their resume “prepare” them for starting a company, and it doesn’t matter.
What does this imply for you? If bullet points and education didn’t matter for the founder, it doesn’t matter for you.
If you explicitly say the following, you’ll impress the founders and stand out from 99% of the crowd:
“Look, we both know bullet points on a resume doesn’t tell you whether I’m “startup” material.
“It’s stuff like getting things done, making intelligent choices, knowing when to question what we’re doing and when to just make it happen. Knowing how to fail fast and be honest.
“That stuff doesn’t appear on the resume, so let’s just get to the interview so we can both see whether I’m a good fit.”
At my company, you’d instantly earn a spot on the interview schedule.
4. Engage the company beforehand
Nothing gets the attention of a new startup like other people talking about them!
You want their attention? Want to stand out from the pack before you even send in the resume? Try some of these:
- Leave comments on their blog. (Real, insightful stuff — not “Great point.”)
- Review their product on your blog; make sure they know by pingbacks, Twitter, and an email.
- Talk about them on Twitter using their @Twitter name so they see it.
- Talk to a friend about their product, collect their feedback, and present that to the company as “We were talking about you and I thought you’d be interested in what we said.”
- Ask insightful questions to their support team — questions that might require the support person to ask other people inside the company. Now multiple people have heard of you.
If you can pick out the names of some founders or employees, you can make it even more personal.
5. Be “proactive,” not “reactive”
This rule isn’t just about getting their attention; it’s also about how your your attitude in general.
Startups have an infinite number of things that need doing. Everyone needs to make decisions every day and take responsibility for the results.
- If you’re stuck, you go get the answer. You don’t check email and wait for the next meeting.
- If you’re done with something, you find something else to do, whether that means asking someone or just doing.
- Prioritize action today over planning for tomorrow.
- Prioritize asking questions over making assumptions.
- Prioritize gathering information over shuffling things around a whiteboard.
This kind of “Get Things Done” attitude should permeate everything. Startups need people who are OK with moving fast even if it means you don’t always make the right decisions. That’s just life.
Most people can’t cope with this kind of “cowboy” attitude, and that’s OK! It’s weird and hard. It’s also why most people aren’t cut out to be in a startup.
If you are, that’s awesome! Now make it known in your interview and cover letter.
Do you have more tips? Leave a comment!
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