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Landing a Job with a Startup, Part 2: Demonstrate Your Fit

By Neil Patrick

Landing a Startup Job

If you read Part One here, you’ll have discovered some ways you can get onto the radar of startups with a view to being hired by one. If you have followed these steps, you will now have some contacts within the startup community.

This post provides interview tips on how to succeed in being hired by a startup. This is a significantly different process to normal job hirings. Here I’ll explain why and how to present yourself in a way which appeals to startups.

How Startups Find Job Candidates

While your personal network is your trump card, startups do still advertise on job boards. But they are selective.

They often use technology focused sites like Stack Overflow. Many also post on local university career boards.

Nonetheless, research with startups shows that most feel the best hires come from personal networks or career fairs not job boards. Startups seldom use recruiters and some even report bad experiences with them (usually because just like the candidates I’ve interviewed, they didn’t recognize how startups are different to mature businesses).


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The Skills Startups Seek

The stage and size of the startup determines what type of skills they are seeking. (Read Understanding Startups to understand the different stages of a startup.)

A brand new startup’s first hires will likely be in the areas of IT, sales, and operations because these are the essential activities the business needs to create revenues. Only extremely well-funded start-ups with deep pockets can afford to do otherwise. And these are few.

Later, when the startup has reached around 15 or more people, more specialist roles will probably be hired such as marketing, financial planning, and HR.

Until that later stage is reached, these tasks are either outsourced or done by whoever is best able to do them. Ideally, therefore, having skills in the startup's coding language is valuable.

Startups also seek people who are adaptable, enthusiastic, and quick to get stuff done. If you have this sort of attitude, you are in a strong position even if you are not a coder.

When I was interviewing candidates for a start-up, few of them bothered to find out much about our business before the interview. They asked questions they could have answered for themselves, if they’d bothered to look. But hardly anyone did.

Instead, their questions were motivated by their wish to satisfy themselves that our business would be a secure pay check for them for as long as they wanted. Wrong attitude for a startup job!

Startups are risky, and they hire the people they know won’t panic when the going gets tough -- because it usually does.

The risk-avoidance attitude is a serious turnoff for the interviewer because it reveals that the candidate is more concerned about what the startup can do for them, rather than what they can do for the startup.

Find a Way to Get Involved

If you really want to work for a startup, don’t think "How can I get hired"? Instead, think "How can I get involved?"

Startups care as much about your passion and motivation as your qualifications, your past experience, or your past accomplishments.

I am not saying your experience and accomplishments don't matter. They do, just as with any job. The difference with a startup is that startups are focussed almost entirely on progress and growth. They are about speed. They are about results. Everything else is secondary. So, enthusiasm and getting stuff done is what matters most to them.

What better way is there to demonstrate your enthusiasm than by getting involved before you have been hired? This isn’t always possible, but if you are able to help people out by doing something for them right away, why would you not?

Some people say this is dumb. That it’s just a way to get exploited. Well, sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t. In fact sometimes it’s the way you get hired almost effortlessly with only the most cursory of formal interviews.

Don’t be reluctant to offer your help if you spot a startup you like, and there is something you can do for them. Maybe you can have a short contract and get paid, or maybe you just do them a favor, demonstrating the speed and quality of your work.

Focus Your Resume

You’ll still need a well-prepared resume. Just because startups hire differently, does not mean you can be sloppy and casual about your resume.

But unlike a resume for a more established business, a resume that has appeal to startups is different. They seek are people with these types of personality traits:

Teamwork

Energy and urgency

Problem solving

Resourcefulness

Adaptability

Courage

Accountabilty

Enthusiasm

Every job in a startup requires people to have the courage and tenacity to relentlessly push on and just get stuff done. You’re unlikely to be criticized if your work isn’t perfect. You will be seen as a problem very quickly if you are always the one who is seen to be holding up progress.

So even if the bones of your resume are the same, the things that you evidence and emphasize may well be different to the resume you present for a mature business.


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Ace the Interview

You should expect that the most senior people in the business will be doing the interviewing. You’ll not be meeting a line manager and an HR person. You’ll be most likely meeting the founder(s)/Chief Exec/MD and senior managers.

If you get offered an interview with a startup, it’s vital to prepare properly. Most people fail interviews with startups not because they have some gaping flaw in their skills. They fail because they do not convince the business owner(s) of their commitment and ability to make things happen.

Unlike jobs with established organizations, startups are seeking true passion. Yes, I know this is a cliché, but in this case it’s the truth.

Entrepreneurs are passionate about their business. It’s not just their job, it’s their whole life. They are not about to hire someone who doesn’t share their passion for the business.

Communicate Your Passion

I believe the best way to do show your passion is to do your homework properly. That means spending plenty of time on research. You need to find out everything you can about the business. Not just what it does, but:

  • Who is involved?
  • What stage of investment are they at?
  • What’s their product or service?
  • Who are their investors?
  • Who are their competitors?
  • What are customers saying about them?
  • What’s their strategy and their competitor’s strategies?
  • What are the regulatory issues?
  • What can you see in their current business operations which can be improved?

As a result of this research, you’ll have much more than just a set of facts at your fingertips. You’ll have the vital information to turn your interview from a Q&A about you, into a discussion about the business. And because you have done your homework, you’ll be able to show that you understand the business.

Most entrepreneurs are overflowing with enthusiasm and passion for their business. So they love to talk about it. And if they don’t have to explain things to you, the interview takes on a whole different character. It becomes a conversation not just about you but about the business and you.

This takes some of the stress out of an interview. Better still it can prove that you are genuinely enthusiastic if you are asking smart questions, which show that you have real enthusiasm for the business. And this is what can tip the balance in your favor.

Finally, remember that hiring by startups isn’t a binary decision typically associated with normal jobs. In startups, things are always fluid, and a "no" today, can easily become a "yes" tomorrow if you stay connected and keep the relationship alive.

More Information About Startups


About the author...

Neil Patrick is a veteran of start-ups, having been a founding director of three start-ups to date including the largest venture capital backed start-up ever in the UK. He’s also a visiting lecturer on the MBA courses at Cardiff University Business School specializing in Entrepreneurship, Corporate Strategy and Marketing. He is a mentor for business start-ups at the Innovation Centre for Enterprise (ICE) in South Wales. He is also the Editor of a popular careers blog, 40pluscareerguru. You can follow him on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/neilrpatrick, on Twitter at @NewCareerGuru, and also on Google+.


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