To get the attention of a growing startup, you must stand out.

But you already know that. The real question is: How can you separate yourself from the pack?

Creative resumes and memorable interviews can do the trick, but they are not the only pieces on your chessboard. When you submit a resume through a job board, you group yourself with every other applicant who has done the same. Now that doesn't sound like a great way to stand out—does it?

If you’re hoping to make a lasting impression on your dream startup, you must first reframe your approach. Instead of asking, “How can I get a job?” boil the broader question down to a crucial, more focused challenge: “How can I get the founders’ attention?”

There are endless answers out there, but these three tactics have worked best for me:

1. Send Cold Emails to Current Employees—and Actually Give a Damn

I’m dumbfounded by how many job seekers don’t grasp the importance of cover letters and emails. These are career-altering first impressions, yet all too often they’re mired in mediocrity and long-windedness.

When generic job search messages come across our Virtru support desk, I never finish reading them. If a person can’t express his or her value to our company, how can I trust his or her ability to express Virtru’s value to our users?

Approach your cold email cover letter as your would-be first marketing assignment for your new team. Be scrappy. Be funny. Be insightful and empathetic to your audience. Be thorough and action-oriented.

Candidates who can effectively analyze and demonstrate a startup’s value present an instantly compelling skill set to the company. They don’t need to waste precious email space tooting their own horns.

2. Complain to Startups You Love

I’ll spare you the clichéd metaphor that finding a job, making a sale, or getting a company to notice to you is like picking someone up at a bar. In my opinion, these actions have nothing to do with reverse psychology or playing hard to get. Instead, my tried-and-true tactic relies on something less sexy: customer support. Understanding this concept will turn the tide when you can’t get direct responses from founders and other decision makers.

Your emails to generic company mailboxes (e.g., support/feedback/ usually get filtered to an assigned representative, who then decides whether to respond to or escalate your request. Support teams are often understaffed and cross-operational: Meaning, the same person who communicates product bugs to developers likely sifts through job applications and inbound business inquiries as well.

Amid all of this back-end hoopla, one thing holds true: Support teams will prioritize responses to unsatisfied users and customers (especially at early-stage startups, where customer development is the holy grail). Fortunately, this means you have an attentive team member at your disposal—as well as a wonderful opportunity to cultivate your soft-selling skills.

Start by expressing your loyalty to the company (think: You’ve always admired this startup, which is why you feel so strongly that a particular product or process should be improved). Then, request to be connected with an appropriate person to discuss further, but make no mention of your career interests whatsoever.

These steps will secure conversations with the right people. So, even if these conversations aren’t framed around hiring, you’re getting valuable time with members of the company. After your discussion of how services could be improved, follow up with an email that shifts the topic to your interest in working together in the future (i.e., as an employee).

3. Seek Out Successful People Who Want to Share Their Stories

My best tip for a rewarding startup job search is to stop approaching it as a job search. Instead, focus on developing long-term skills and relationships (especially with individuals you admire). You should always keep a list of folks like this—people you look up to, whose career paths have always inspired you—and reach out to these role models to connect.

Do not ask them for jobs. Do not ask them for connections. Definitely do not ask them if you can “pick their brains,” because this phrase connotes laziness and one-sided rapport.

Instead, try expressing your appreciation for the impact that these people have made on your life. Describe specific qualities or experiences that have motivated you to succeed. Explain that these traits are also what motivated you to reach out, and convey your desire to cultivate the relationship further.

You’ll be surprised by the responses you get. Once you’ve built a relationship, these influencers may ask how they can help—offering to blast out your CV and send job openings your way before you even ask. Interestingly, telling people how much they inspire you will inspire them to help you.

Executive coach Steve Farber describes this effect, explaining that, “The greatest leaders aren’t the ones who focus on their own greatness—they’re the ones who focus on making other people greater than themselves.”

Because successful startups thrive on differentiation, honing your ability to stand out will serve you well long after your secure a new gig. In just five months at Virtru, I’ve used these three strategies to get introductions to investors, track down new sales leads, expedite support ticket requests, and even get more bacon in my salads at Sweetgreen.

The extra bacon alone has made it all worthwhile.

Photo of man courtesy of Shutterstock.

Updated 6/19/2020