What You Need to Know if You Want to Work at a Startup

So, you’ve decided you want to work at a startup, but haven’t secured your dream position just yet. It’s no small mission — just how do you land a job on a small team that’s looking to change the world?

This is our easy-to-follow guide for landing a job at a startup:

Know How They Operate

There is one key trait that distinguishes startups from other types of businesses. It’s not the organizational structure, the size, or the industry.

The one key trait is growth.

The difference between the new local insurance agency (which is a small business) and a startup is that the startup is set up to grow quickly and astronomically. Where a small business must generate revenue to support itself, a startup seeks external funding, unless the Founder is independently wealthy, but that’s rarely the case.

As my Uncle Lenny the big time New York City Accountant would always say, “Follow the money.” In the case of startups, their primary responsibility is to their investors. Where the funding for the company comes from is important to know because it has a significant impact on how the organization is run.

This affects the environment, the pace, and priorities of the company – by zeroing in on these, you’ll know which problems you might be able to help them solve as part of their team.

Be Where They Are

Most startups are full of enthusiastic, upbeat, open, communicative, collaborative professionals looking to connect, learn, and grow. With that in mind, these folks are constantly looking to meet new people who have similar shared values and new innovative ideas. They do this by going to a lot of events, such as meetups, conferences, and hackathons. You want to immerse yourself in that world.

Since startup employees are a very team-minded bunch, attending these events is a great place to start to get to know the people and the culture. It’s much easier to get into this social circle than it is in the case of larger, more traditional companies that are less open to collaboration.

In addition to connecting with startups through events and networking, you can also connect with them via job boards specific to startups. The most popular ones are “inside-Startups,” “AngelList” and “GarysGuide,” which also post industry events you can attend.

Last, be sure to join the startup’s mailing list – these companies will often advertise jobs to their customers or user base, which is very different from traditional companies. GE would never email their customers to see if they’d like a job, but AppSumo would. So, make sure to be on the mailing list of the companies you want to work at.

Reach Out Directly

Some startups work with headhunters, but for the most part they operate almost exclusively through word of mouth and their networks. They’re so fast-moving that they don’t have the time to go through 500 resumes or a traditional series of interviews rooted in bureaucracy. Instead they either hire friends or existing employees, peers of existing employees, or – and this part is important – they hire people who reach out to them directly.

This is a key and critical difference between startups and all other business: startups want you to reach out to them. They want to hear from you.

If you’re thinking “I’m not randomly reaching out to the startup founder. That’s presumptuous!” consider this:

#1. It’s not random. Assuming you’ve done your homework and are clear about why you’re reaching out, it will feel deliberate and intentional.

#2. It’s not presumptuous to offer to solve someone’s problem. It’s actually quite helpful.

If you have a corporate background, you might feel odd reaching out directly. Why in the world would you reach out to someone at a company and pitch yourself to them? The answer is that when someone with a helpful solution reaches out, startup founders and employees appreciate it. You’re doing them a service. You’re helping them with one of the things they value most: efficiency.

Be Prepared to Show Your Work

Another major difference between startup hiring vs small and large businesses is in what they value in an employee. And this is important. Many startups care far less about your credentials than larger companies, and more about what you’ve actually done.

If you didn’t graduate from college, but you’ve developed the backend of 8 fully functional websites, a startup will love this. If you worked at the same company for 15 years, but have nothing to show for it – they won’t care. Startups are looking for people who have done something and have something to show for it.

This is where your digital assets come in. The first thing they’ll look at is your web presence. Your personal website, portfolio, or side projects. What they’re scanning for is different than a big corporation. They’re looking less to see where you went to school or how long you stayed at every company you worked for, and more for what you actually did and how you added value and helped organizations meet their goals.

To that end…startups want to know:

  • What did you complete?
  • What did you create?
  • What results have you achieved?

There is no one in a startup that isn’t absolutely necessary. They don’t have enough money to hire people for unnecessary roles. They don’t have time to train you. For these reasons, you want to make yourself indispensable by emphasizing how you can help them reach their goals.

To land a startup job, you have to know yourself, connect with the team in the ways they’re likely connect, and show them you have what it takes to help create something new for the world. It’s a small price to pay for what could be one of the best career experiences of your life.

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