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Advice / Job Search / Networking

3 Startup Job Search Strategies That No One Tells You About

When I made the decision to ditch my corporate life and start searching for a job in the startup world, I eagerly scoured the web for advice columns and articles to guide my endeavor.

The advice I saw most often you’ve probably heard before: Network, check websites each day to see who’s raising money and reach out to those companies, work for free to demonstrate your value, familiarize yourself with key players in your target industry, go to tech meetups. These action items make for good advice—points any job-seeker cannot ignore—but they miss some important things that must be considered, especially in the startup world.

Keep these three tips in mind as you start your startup search, and you’ll be sure to find your perfect gig.

1. Stop Thinking That You’re Searching for a Job

People far too often view their job search as a means to a specific end—an annoying pit stop in the race for end-of-the-rainbow success. Abandoning this mentality is critical because early-stage startups are rarely looking to hire—for specific roles, that is. Instead of planning a hiring strategy, startups are more likely to hire as needs come up, or even opportunistically hire when they meet someone awesome who can offer something to grow their business.

So, while every move you make should position you for success, it won’t always be clear where that success will be or how you will end up there. Just because somebody you meet doesn’t have a job for you, doesn’t mean he or she doesn’t have valuable advice. Or a potentially meaningful connection. Or maybe just some refreshing qualities that will motivate you.

For example, five months ago, I messaged a college friend and startup founder with whom I hadn’t spoken for a while. She didn’t have a job for me, but she eventually connected me with one of her good friends, who much later referred me to the CEO of Virtru—the company I recently joined.

If you just dive in looking for the job, you’ll probably get turned away at the door with a “sorry, we’re not hiring.” In fact, you might want to drop the phrase “job search” altogether. “Relationship building” and “opportunity chasing” describe the process more accurately.

2. Find Any Opportunity You Can Pursue; Pursue Any Opportunity You Can Find

Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz famously claims that there was no “silver bullet” for his company’s return to glory, but rather six transformational elements that helped it achieve its goals. Instead of wagering Starbucks’ success on one (or even two) cure-all initiatives, he embraced multiple opportunities to manage the uncertainty that lay ahead.

Execute your startup search similarly. Reject silver bullet tactics that you think might magically land you your dream gig. You don’t have an accurate understanding of the opportunities that already exist for you (or that will soon), so don’t make assumptions. You should undoubtedly prioritize certain options over others, but keep a courageously open mind. Should I email this company? Reach out to this contact for an informational interview? Go to this networking event? If you have to ask, the answer is always yes.

Early on in my search, I longed for a role with a booming startup that was founded by a longtime buddy. While I knew his team had qualms about hiring friends, I saw the peripheral values in pursuing the opportunity to its fullest, even if the chances of an offer were slim. So in a two-week span, I identified a major conference with huge relevance to this company, volunteered on a Sunday morning with the conference planners to skirt the $1K admission fee, and used a full day of PTO to collect eight hours worth of conference presentation notes to give to my friend to help him grow his business.

Sounds like a lot of work for something unlikely to pay off in a job offer, and it certainly would have been much easier to just say, “no, not worth it.” But even though my buddy remained unwavering in his (completely astute) no-friends hiring policy, it was absolutely worth my time. He respected the initiative that I had displayed and took me under his wing as a result. His mentorship remains one of the most valuable motivators in my life.

But if I hadn’t said yes to those initial questions that I asked myself, he wouldn’t have said yes to me. Find. Pursue. Repeat.

3. Start Thinking Like an Entrepreneur Before You Get Hired

Most people covet startup jobs because they want to learn how to be entrepreneurs. More often than not, they want to learn how to get sh*t done. But, as several founders advised me, the best way to learn how to get sh*t done, is to get sh*t done. This doesn’t mean you need to launch your own company. It means you must constantly assess the lessons around you and apply them as skills you will need down the road.

So, instead of resenting a company that rejects you, solicit feedback from the team, just as a founder would from a potential investor who reacts poorly to a pitch. Instead of stressing over how to juggle your current job with interviews and other tasks, embrace the importance of time management, and step up to the challenge with confidence.

The biggest letdown in my search came when a dream business development job with Codecademy—a company that I deeply admire and one that I was referred to by my aforementioned mentor—fell through the cracks. Still, the first thing I did upon hearing this news was craft a thank you note to the team, in which I requested feedback, asked for referrals to any other promising opportunities, and expressed my gratitude for the company’s interest. As a result, I learned how to improve my interview prep process, received a referral that ultimately led to a different job offer, and developed new friendships that both sides have continued to enjoy.

A successful entrepreneur firmly believes in his or her product and constantly tries to improve it. Your product is you (and pivoting is not an option). Continually invest in R&D.

People often place startups on a pedestal because of the rigorous process I just outlined. This rigor can be discouraging, as funding rounds seem to increase at a much faster rate than the job openings one would expect to come with them. But by embracing the inherent uncertainty of your startup search, there are two certainties you can expect: You will one day find a job that made your relentless search worthwhile, and you will be a much more capable person because of it.

Photo of strategy drawing courtesy of Shutterstock.