How to Get Hired at a Startup


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 youexplicitly 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.

Implications:

  • 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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Founder of three companies, Jason writes about marketing, selling, and geekery which apply equally to startups and personal careers. Find him on his blog or @asmartbear on Twitter.
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Discussion

  1. Anton Ranestam on the 28th November

    Very nice tips! Really got me thinking on how to really approach a company and make a good first impression.

  2. Alain Raynaud on the 28th November

    And of course, the ultimate pro-active attitude is to attend a Co-Founders Wanted meetup (http://www.meetup.com/Co-Founders-Wanted-Meetup/)

    That’s where you can find super-early startups and get a real piece of the action.

  3. James Yu on the 28th November

    Biggest tip for developers: do a side project. This could be anything, from building a website that integrates with Twitter to trying out a new business idea with widgets. Founders are much more impressed with developers that get stuff done and have a passion for something outside of your 8-5 drudgery.

  4. Anh Tu Sam on the 28th November

    Hi Jason,

    being a hard-working but happy founder these tips will probably never apply to me . But still.. great insights. Thoughts that went through my mind when interviewing or working with candidates within the first weeks and have never been written down.

    Best regards from Germany,
    Anh Tu

  5. Daniel on the 28th November

    Solid post. I just got hired at a startup about a month ago and was following most of these tips accidentally. As I see it, the corollary to these tips is, if you want to work in a big, faceless bureaucracy, then feel free not to follow this advice.

  6. Amin on the 28th November

    Thanks for the tips.

    We are actually in the process of hiring our first employee and this has actually been helpful for us too.

  7. Tom Leys on the 28th November

    It was the final point that I found most interesting – once you are in a startup, you have to make things happen, not just take commands. Most startups are too busy doing to tell you what to do, and the last thing a startup needs is someone else to manage. What they really want is one more totally independent part of their team.

    Programmers need not complain about this, most programmers I know wish that they had this kind of independence in their current 9-5 job. It is a huge opportunity if you can quickly identify what needs to be done and get it implemented.

    • Rondal on the 1st December

      Great article and I couldn’t agree more with Tom.

      When not freelancing, I actually prefer working with smaller companies as the potential for creative exploration is greater. The trade-off though is that it takes a lot more initiative to get projects approved and a careful balance between what you job title says you do and the other little tasks that are implied.

      In a good start-up there is a clear understanding of these tasks, or the very least a manager who is willing to clarify them. In a bad one, there is: “oh, I didn’t tell you that your graphic design duties entail toilet scrubbing?”

  8. Belinda on the 30th November

    Thanks for yet another great article :-) My day job is at a company that is still largely in start-up mode. We grew, and then shrank, and are now rather steady again (12 employees). It’s definitely hard… my biggest hurdle has been stepping past the “that’s not part of my job description” mindset and just DOING what needs to be done, regardless of whether I think it’s below my skill set or have never done it before.

  9. Brittany on the 30th December

    I’m looking forward to implementing these tips in my job search! Thanks a lot!

  10. Jonathan van de Veen on the 9th February

    Good post. I’ve worked at a startup (employee number 2 :-) ) and I agree with the poinst you’ve written.
    There are practical matters to consider when going to work for a startup. Obviously money is one of them. Startups tend to have (very) limited budgets. One thing I’ve learned is to have a very clear agreement on when you get what kind of salary. What I’ve seen is that a company owner may very well think you make enough money and spend the money on something else, while you have worked your butt off for the past years and would like to see some of that back.
    But also your home situation is one of those. Do you have a wife and kids at home? Are they going to be ok with you working at least fifty hours a week and sometimes in the weekends?
    And then there is your own commitment. Ar you willing to leave that safe job with limited overtime and put this company in the center of your life for the next years?
    One thing I also find a factor is traveldistance. It may sound weird, but if you have to spend three hours a day getting to the office and back, you’re already in a rough spot. Add that up to a twelfe hour workday and see if you can do that for a week.
    Another thing I’d like to point out is that you really have to be willing to do ANYTHING. It means you might have to do the dishes, because there is no dishwasher. You might have to go to the shop to buy printer paper or pens. You might have to water the plant (or use coffee :-) ). There are going to be a lot of jobs that need doing, that are not fun, but there are also a lot of things you get to do that you normally don’t get the change too.

  11. John on the 11th February

    I have now participated in three separate businesses started by myself and as of last month I sold my last one which was my main job. I am now bored out of my mind and don’t want to be the idea guy for the next year. Although, I need to get back in the start-up game as quick as possible.

    I want to be early in the company because I love working a lot and trying to solve the million little problems that arise everyday. Is there anywhere on the web that allows me to meet fresh start-ups? I could do the llc registration, but then that is way to much work just to find out that most of them don’t even have a model.

    I tried all the sites on Google, but haven’t found many real startups that want jeans and t-shirts and only looking nice if your with the client who you need to dress up to.

    I would like any advice you can offer….Thank you and wish the best to you all.

    best,

    John

  12. RSHolman on the 18th February

    Great article – I wrote a couple of articles about my recent transition from one start-up to another and how I used current tools to get there.

    Here’s the first:
    http://upandstarting.com/2009/09/22/when-its-time-to-move-on-part-i/

  13. Matt Ryan on the 18th February

    Hey John,

    I don’t know where you are located, but if you are out in Silicon Valley, you should really look into getting involved with some Meetup.com groups in areas of interest. I’ve done this and met some interesting people doing really cool things. Nothing has really led to a job, yet, but I’m still rather new to this whole thing.

    Also, check out the websites of the big VCs. They have job postings for the companies they are backing, since natrually, when the companies succeed, so do the VCs.

    If you want some more info, hit me up on Twitter @MattKRyan

    I’m going to be Tweeting a lot of the info I’m finding on Start Ups these days.

    Matt Ryan

  14. John on the 27th February

    RSHolman, good article, but any luck on part 2? Matt, looks like you just started your twitter account good link building job though.

    I am in Chicago and started a website to pass the time. If anyone has any local info please comment and we can hook up from there.

    John

  15. Joel on the 1st February

    Good timing, I’m currently on my way to an interview with a startup company. I’m more concerned about the conditions of working at a startup (stability?) and someof the comments above have been quite good.

  16. Zach Zuber on the 22nd March

    Yes, I always thought that it was ridiculous for me to create a résumé that looks like everyone else’s (same format, concepts, etc) Why in the hell would I do something like that if I am trying to be “individualistic” and stand out against the other “10,000” (exaggeration, well maybe not) college graduates/people who are trying for the same position. I find it hard to believe that kids take “resume” building classes (probably better known as business communications/preparation, whatever). Well, as I think about it, it’s exactly because as you said,” they are not fit for a startup” or at least haven’t been exposed to the awesome and kickassness that comes with being in one!

    P.S. I’m in college!

  17. Robyn L on the 21st May

    This was a very solid article. We deal with over a thousand startups who are trying to hire (various stages) every day and it’s true, that working (and therefore interviewing) within the startup ecosystem is a different animal than traditional corporate America. Do your homework, but mostly be ready to bring and exhibit not just talent, but equally important- passion and drive. Not every startup is going to be around for 2 years, but the experience is going to last you a lifetime. If you’re ready to start looking by the way, we have over 10,000+ jobs daily and these companies need you.

  18. Bob on the 29th December

    The key to getting hired, whether or not there is an opening, is to customize your approach. If not, you won’t stand out or get an interview.

    Companies hire people to solve problems (both positive and negative). Your ability to uncover your target employers problems and position yourself as the solution is what will get you hired even when there are no job postings.

    Here are a few potential problem areas. Completing projects on time and on budget, improve product quality, improve customer service, increase sales, reduce costs, enhance online marketing, etc.

    Once you isolate a problem area, where you have experience, identify the hiring manager and focus your marketing campaign on delivering answers and recommendations to that person.

    Done well will lead to an interview!

    Bob Prosen
    CEO
    The Prosen Center
    for Business Advancement

  19. Manisha Singh on the 8th February

    Awesome post!!
    you have shared every points very well,at first time personality,and intelligence , creates effective impression at you.

    Thanks you lot.

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