Your Super-Sized Guide to Landing a Cool Job at a Hot Startup
We’ve seen a trend with our Big Interview users and interview coaching clients — the corporate ladder has lost some luster and more people are looking to land jobs at startup companies.
The startup world can certainly look appealing. Startup jobs typically offer dynamic work environments, more opportunities to contribute and gain new experience, better access to senior management, and even the chance to get in on the ground floor of something big.
Of course, startup jobs can also have drawbacks including less stability, more demanding work, dealing with mercurial founders, and the chance that your seemingly promising startup could flame out with little notice.
However, if you’re the type who values excitement, the ability to step up and be a key part of the team, and the chance make something truly amazing happen, working for a startup might be the perfect fit.
But, how do you get that dream startup job?
This How to Get a Job at a Startup guide will give you the tools, tactics, and techniques to increase your odds of getting that startup job (and maybe even some stock options that will be worth something someday).
We’ll start with the big picture and then get into more detail about what to expect during your startup interview.
Overview of the Startup Job Market
Sure, working for a startup is a bit risky. Many of today’s hot startups may not even exist in 2 years. However, is it really any riskier than working for a corporation these days? With lay-offs and reorganizations, the days of working 25 years for your gold watch are over.
In fact, some studies indicate that startups are where the jobs are these days. The Kauffman Foundation, for instance, conducted an extensive study and discovered that in the U.S. economy, job growth only occurs through startup firms.
The study also determined that one-year-old firms generate nearly one million jobs per year, while those that have been in business for ten years create only 300,000 jobs annually.
Even if you’re not sold on the joys of startup life, as a job seeker, it’s always a good idea to be in the know about where the jobs are (or will be) and evaluate your options.
Pros and Cons of Working for a Startup
Of course, there are pros and cons when it comes to working for a startup. It takes a certain kind of person to get hired and thrive in a startup environment.
There are also many different types of startups — from brand-new ideas to fast-growing, venture-funded businesses. Each company offers a different risk/opportunity profile and it’s important to do your homework.
Let’s start with the cons that you should be aware of.
Con No. 1 – Risky Business
Brand new startups open their (often virtual) doors every day. Some go on to fame and fortune. Sadly, many fail to succeed long-term and end up closing within one to five years.
Mashable reports that 75 percent of all startups fail – 25 percent within the first year. Working for this type of unproven business is a definite risk in terms of long-term job stability. But it’s one that can pay off if the business takes off and you were there from the beginning.
If you’re thinking about accepting an opportunity at a new startup, it’s even more crucial than usual to conduct your due diligence and evaluate the risks involved in taking the gig. Look at revenue projections, funding, management team, key partnerships and other milestones that indicate the company has some legs.
A more established startup, especially one with a track record of growth and committed investors, is a less risky proposition.
Con No. 2 – The Experience Conundrum
Most startups have unique and specific needs for their employees. Working for a startup is decidedly different from working for your average corporation.
Startups are looking for versatility in the people they hire. They need workers with can-do, will-do attitudes, interests, and experiences.
You must be flexible in your expectations when working for a startup. More importantly, you need to be able to show a diverse background and multiple talents in order to make a favorable impression.
Oftentimes, startups are looking for jacks of all trades – people who can walk into the business and handle multiple tasks and handle them well.
This is in sharp contrast to the traditional established business that typically looks for highly-skilled specialized employees.
In fact, startup managers often worry about hiring employees without startup experience because they don’t want someone who is too mired in the corporate cubicle culture. (Read on for how to address these issues in a startup job interview)
Con No. 3 – Smaller Initial Salary
For those who prioritize high salary in the immediate term, a startup may not be the right choice.
Most startup career paths begin with starter salaries. The financial rewards come later when one of these things happens (Entrepreneur.com calls it working toward the money):
• Your startup hits big and there are raises all around.
• You cash in the new skills and talents you’ve developed as part of a startup for a leadership role at a more established organization
• You’ve proven your worth and now offers are pouring into your email inbox for higher-paying positions across the corporate sector.
In any event, the lower salary is likely to be a temporary situation until you’ve had the opportunity to show people what you’re worth, and the startup company begins to thrive.
Now let’s look on the positive side.
Pro No. 1 – Venture Investments
Venture-capital-funded startups have already shown enough promise in the early stages to attract investors willing to pour money into the business in exchange for an equity stake.
While these startups can be risky in their own right, your odds are better. Venture funding means great expectations from experts outside the organization so you know you’re not the only one taking a chance. Venture backing also means it’s more likely the company will have enough funding to grow over time (and keep paying your salary).
Pro No. 2 – Nearly Unlimited Growth Opportunities
There’s something to be said about being there from the beginning. If you can look beyond the risks and grow as the company grows, then you have the opportunity to enjoy substantial returns on your investment of time, energy, and effort.
A startup environment also allows you to challenge yourself — raise your hand for projects outside your comfort zone and beyond your pay grade. In bigger companies, employees are often limited by their job title and their place in the hierarchy (this is especially true for entry-level and younger workers).
Pro No. 3 – Invaluable Experience
You’ll wear a lot of hats in your role as a startup employee. With this wider range of experience, you’ll also have more opportunities to learn new skills, develop new talents, and test your mettle in leadership roles much faster than in corporate America.
Whether your startup booms or busts, you’ll open up more doors than you would have by sticking with a corporate job where you’re limited to a more standard job description.
Pro No. 4 – The Perks
While each startup is different, some of the common startup perks include cool colleagues, relaxed dress codes, more frequent recognition for your efforts, a genuine sense of accomplishment when goals are met (and responsibility when they are not), and the absolute certainty that your contribution matters.
How to Find Job Opportunities at Startups
Of course the real trick, which some may see as an additional con, is the discovery of opportunities to get your foot in the door with a new startup organization.
While startups do account for a large number of jobs each year, they don’t always advertise these positions through traditional channels. This means you’ll have to do some creative thinking and networking in order to be considered — or even learn about available positions.
Be Where the Startup Jobs Are
It sounds so simple, but there are still relatively few cities that are big for startups. San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and New York City are probably a few of the names you know, but there are other cities (according to Bloomberg.com, Tech.co, and Popular Mechanics.com), some surprisingly small, that have significant startup communities, including:
• St. Louis, MO
• Ashville, NC
• Boulder, CO
• Raleigh, NC
• Cleveland, OH
• Bend, OR
• Franklin, TN
• Rockville, MD
• Detroit, MI
• Kansas City, MO
• Austin, TX
Visit Startup Job Boards Regularly
While networking is critical (see below), it’s also wise to visit job boards for startups regularly. This will help you get a sense of the market and also alert you to specific opportunities. Sites to consider for your startup job search include:
StartUpHire — Browse thousands of startup job openings in cities across the US.
Venture Loop — Narrow your search to companies with venture backing.
Angel List — Find jobs at earlier-stage startups backed by angel investors.
Join-Startups — Check out this daily-updated list of jobs at venture-backed startups
Startup Job Fair — Attend a startup job fair in your city
Underdog.io — Explore this curated “talent marketplace,” which claims to match candidates with their ideal startup opportunities.
Digital NYC — Get information about the NYC startup community and new job openings if you’re based in New York City.
Don’t limit yourself to just browsing jobs. Use each visit to learn more about the companies that are expanding and the types of roles most in demand.
Learn the lingo by reading the posts – even the ones that do not appeal to you.
Explore the different types of startup jobs available and the roles you might be able to fill within the organizations.
Build Your Network
Networking is the single most valuable tool you have at your disposal when it comes to securing a job with a startup. Most cities have active startup communities and regular events that make it easy to plug into the scene.
Networking helps you meet the right people and gives you an opportunity to learn about positions before they’re even made public. This minimizes the pool of competition and allows you to cash in by literally being in the right place at the right time.
However, not everyone has a contact list overflowing with venture capitalists and startup founders. This means you will probably have to do some work and get out of your comfort zone if you want to expand your circle and connect with people who can help you with job leads and advice.
One easy first step is to use meetup.com to find and attend events for your local startup community. Make friends, make connections, and get to know what projects people are working on. Share your thoughts and expertise.
Look for LinkedIn groups that are related to startups in your area. Join the groups and the conversations going on in these groups. Reach out to your current LinkedIn contacts to see if they can make introductions to friends in the startup world.
Join Twitter and follow people who are dialed-into the startup community in your city. Learn, converse, and get to know the people behind the startups. Many influential founders and venture capitalists are very active on Twitter and share valuable advice and insights.
Sign up for a class or workshop on a startup-friendly topic. Look for organizations like General Assembly, which offers online and live (in NYC) events featuring cool speakers and expert instructors on topics like programming, digital marketing, and more.
There are also plenty of other places to find free or low-cost online training on related topics (Coursera, Treehouse, Code Academy, etc.) These online courses also offer opportunities to connect with others in the startup world.
What to Expect on a Startup Job Interview
Now that you know about where to find the jobs, it’s time to get educated about the interview process and how startup interviews tend to differ from typical big-company job interviews.
Naturally, startup interview processes vary as much as the companies themselves vary. A lot depends on the startup’s size, stage of development, culture, and industry.
In general, though, startup interviews tend to feel more conversational and less formal than corporate interviews. This is because of the focus on smaller teams, less hierarchy, and each individual wearing multiple hats. As a result, you’ll find more of an emphasis on fitting in with the culture and being able to contribute and collaborate well.
You’re still likely to get some of the standard questions. Your interviewers will want to know about your background, what you’re good at, and what you’re looking for in an opportunity.
Some of the common job interview questions that are particularly important to ace in a startup interview include:
Tell me about yourself — You’ll need to grab them from the beginning with a strong answer to the get-to-know-you opening question.
Why do you want to work here? — This is critical, especially if you don’t have a background working for startups. What interests you about this particular firm (make sure you do your research on the company and its business model and its competitors)? What makes you ready to work in a startup environment like this one (especially if coming from a bigger firm)? Motivation is a key factor in the startup interview because the hiring manager needs to know that you’ll be committed to doing what it takes if hired.
Why should we hire you? — This is basically a variation on the “What are your strengths?” question. You have to know how to position yourself as an asset for this particular company and this particular role.
You will probably also get some unusual questions that reflect that particular startup’s culture and personality.
Your interviewer wants to determine if you can do the job, of course. However, if you clear that first screening, they will also want to get to know you
They may ask you about your hobbies or what you did last weekend.
They’re not just making polite chit-chat with these questions. They’re trying to learn more about your personality, your values, and your drive — and maybe a bit about how you balance your professional and personal lives.
Another curve-ball that you might experience in a startup interview is criticism or confrontational questions. Startups move at a fast pace and the people who are building the company often lack the time or patience to handle things with kid gloves. It’s important to know that you can take criticism and understand the value of it.
In terms of format, your startup interview may be less traditional than a standard interview, and may include a video interview or panel interview.
What Startups are Looking For
Startups, in many cases, are looking for employees who can play different roles and contribute in multiple ways. You may be called upon to handle a wide range of issues from disgruntled customers to technical difficulties and problem-solving troubleshooting over Skype.
Some days, you may be called upon to do all these things before your second cup of coffee.
Here are some of the competency areas that most startups are looking for:
• Fast Learner
• Great Communicator
Be sure to prepare interview stories that demonstrate your fit in these areas, especially if you’re coming from a more structured environment.
What Startups May See As Deal Breakers
Ultimately, startup companies are still employers. They’re looking for certain things from employees and may have pre-determined ideas or biases that make it harder to get hired for the job you want.
It’s best to know about any potential objections in advance so that you can proactively address them in your resume and interview presentation.
1. Too Corporate – Many managers at startups have the perception that a “corporate type” won’t be able to jump in and perform. This is sometimes unfair, but it’s true that many corporate employees are used to more structure and more resources and struggle to adapt in a startup environment.
If you’re a corporate type or an unproven new grad, you need to show that you will be willing and able to get hands-on and be resourceful.
2. Too Inexperienced – Depending on the position that you’re interested in, lack of experience could be a huge stumbling block. While startups are known for seeing youth and energy as advantages, they still need to know you have the experience to do the job.
Think hard about how to position the experience that you do have to demonstrate your potential to do more.
You can also emphasize your drive and your passion for the product or service. The good news is that startups offer lots of opportunity to advance once you get a foot in the door.
3. Too Old – Can you be too experienced for a startup job? Unfortunately, age bias can be a real challenge at some companies.
In the world of startups, the focus is often on new and cutting-edge. Hiring managers can often overlook the value of a more seasoned perspective. They may worry about a more experienced hire being too set in their ways.
Another issue is money. Many startups don’t have the budget to compete with established firms in hiring experienced candidates.
If you really want a shot at that startup job, it’s up to you to show what you bring to the table and counter any objections (spoken or unspoken). If you do this well enough, you may gain the leverage to negotiate for a higher salary too.
Bonus: Former FBI agent Chris Voss discusses salary negotiation.
Here are some ways to counter age bias at a startup:
• Show them your energy — The real issue (whether they know it or not) is not age. They want someone with the energy and willingness to step outside their comfort zone and continue to learn and grow. Demonstrate your drive and passion.
• Wow them with your tech prowess — You need to show you have the required technical expertise. It might be worthwhile to take some classes or seek out some mentoring so that you’ll be able to talk the talk.
• Save money discussions for later — Make it clear that your priority is finding the right position and save the salary discussions for when you have more leverage. Don’t count yourself out with premature compensation discussions. Make them love you and you’ll have leverage for negotiating compensation and other benefits when the time comes.
Your next dream job may be at a startup, but the competition is fierce. This guide will help you win them over before and after the interview.
Do you have additional tips? If you are involved in hiring for startup positions or have recently landed a startup job, we’d love for you to add your thoughts in the Comments.
Humor: Here’s a funny clip from the HBO show “Silicon Valley” highlighting some not-so-unusual startup interviews: