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Advice / Job Search / Finding a Job

5 Things Startups Want (That Aren't Work History or GPA)

Most job seekers spend a lot of time positioning their work experience just right—crafting their resume bullets so that their work experience sells them as the right candidate for the job.

But here’s a secret: When it comes to startups, it’s not always what’s on your resume that matters most.

Take our team at The Muse. Very few of our early hires had the perfect “on paper” background—our director of marketing came from sales, our creative director was a former teacher, and I was in corporate communications before making the move to editorial. And you’ll often hear stories of people with very little—or no!—real-world work experience join startups and land high-level positions in no time at all.

So, if it’s not work experience, what is it that startups want?

I recently asked this question to the founders and partner companies of Startup Institute, as well as others in the startup world, and heard a few key themes over and over. Here’s what startups look for—and, more importantly, how to show them you’ve got what it takes.

1. Drive

You’ve (hopefully) heard this before, but if you want a job that lets you clock out promptly at 5 or tend to frown upon doing things that “aren’t in your job description,” startup life probably isn’t for you.

Early-stage companies look for people who strive to find a better way of doing things, are eager to help the company move forward, and love jumping in where needed. “Startups have big dreams, but limited funds, limited resources, and small teams,” says Startup Institute co-founder and NYC program director Shaun Johnson. “Few things are more valuable to startup founders and leadership than an employee who’ll take the initiative to learn a new skill set to fill a company need.”

How to Show You’ve Got It

Start something! Nothing shows a startup that you take initiative on something you’re excited about like creating something from scratch. And (luckily), this doesn’t have to be a company—even launching a blog, planning a Meetup group, contributing to an open source platform, or teaching an online class is helpful in showing that you have the drive you’ll need for startup life.

2. Brilliant Thinking

At a startup, most of your work won’t be about following a set path that your boss and colleagues have laid out for you, it’ll be working with your team to figure out what that path should be. So, the ability to think critically about problems that you’ve never seen before is key.

As Francesca Romano, VP of talent and performance management at Collective[i] puts it: “Collective[i] values great thinkers. That’s not always the person with the highest GPA or the best SAT score or the most impressive advanced degree. Rather, it’s the person who asks why, and to what end, and how can I do this better. It’s the person who knows how to combine raw intelligence with experience, resourcefulness, and ingenuity to get results.”

How to Show You’ve Got It

Think about times you’ve solved a big problem, and weave that into your cover letter, networking meetings, and interviews. Better yet, if you see an opportunity to dive in and help the company solve one, do! “During an interview, an employee we were looking to hire found out we had a problem with some data analysis,” describes Liam Martin, founder of “The next day, he sent an email back with a full expert analysis of the data which he spent hours working on. We hired him on the spot.”

You can also show this by the questions you ask. Instead of sticking to the typical script of “What’s a day here like?” pose insightful questions about the product, users, and business model that show you can think deeply about the problems the company might face—and more importantly, their solutions.

3. Humility

You might think the job search is a time to show off, but that can hurt you when you’re talking to startups. “Working for a startup can really catapult you up a learning curve in a lot of ways, but it also requires extreme humility,” says Johnson.

Why? First, joining a startup means you’re going to make mistakes—and a lot of them. So startups look for people who can recover with optimism, ease, and ideas of how to proceed. Secondly, you’ll likely be asked to take on multiple roles, and unless you were a marketer / coder / salesperson / spokesperson / garbage collector in the past, you’re going to be doing things you probably don’t fully know how to do.

Oh, and about that garbage collecting? Yeah, you’ll probably be doing a bit of that in the early days.

How to Show You’ve Got It

While you always want to put your best foot forward, don’t be afraid to talk about your weaknesses. “A humble person has a good sense of self and a realistic grasp of his or her strengths and weaknesses,” says Elise James-Decruise, senior director and head of global training at MediaMath. (Here’s a great formula for answering that dreaded “what’s your greatest weakness” question.)

Also, have a great story prepared about a past mistake or failure. If you can explain what you’ve learned from it and how you ultimately turned the experience into something positive, you’ll show startups that you’re not afraid of the pitfalls you’ll inevitably encounter.

4. Passion

Startup founders (good ones, at least) truly believe in their business ideas. (Why else would they give up lucrative careers, their savings accounts, and regular sleep to make them happen?) So they’re not going to bring anyone on board to help turn their vision into reality unless they feel the same way. “Early-stage companies can’t afford complacency,” says Aaron O’Hearn, another of Startup Institute’s co-founders. “It takes passionate, driven people to grow a company—and that’s exactly what startups look for in their first employees.”

Jules Pieri, CEO of The Grommet, wholeheartedly agrees. ”I am not interested in hiring people who just want a job,” she explains. She says she primarily looks for people who can “articulate our mission and show a personal connection to it” as well as a “positive energy and a thoughtful attitude about their life and career.”

How to Show You’ve Got it

First, only put your time and effort into companies that you truly feel excited about. Remember that you, too, will be working long and hard (and likely without a huge paycheck), and it’s the passion for the company’s mission, product, or team that will keep you going for the long haul.

Then, go out of your way to show the founders or hiring managers just how passionate you are. Instead of sending in a form cover letter (which you shouldn’t really ever do), talk about how you first found the company, describe what you love about its products, and offer suggestions for what you could do to take the company to the next level. And find ways to get in front of people who work for the company: Attend events where the founders are speaking, use your network to get introduced to current employees, and—of course—if the company has a consumer product, use it!

5. Culture Fit

“I’ve never heard an entrepreneur say he or she hired someone who wasn’t a cultural fit because the candidate had the right skills,” says Marie Burns, who’s worked as a recruiter for several startups. “In fact, most startup CEOs would argue quite the opposite.”

That’s right—that small, scrappy, hard-working team you’ll be joining really wants to make sure that any new addition to the team is going to fit in, both now and in the future. “It’s the person who will not only fit in our culture but will amplify it,” says Romano. “The person who’s inspired by our vision and by the amazing people they’ll get to work with every day, and who knows that their enthusiasm and contributions will, without exaggeration, make the company even better.”

How to Show You’ve Got It

Culture obviously varies from place to place, so the best way to show you’re a fit is to, well, be one. Do your research on companies you’re interested in: Talk to people who work there, regularly scope out the company’s social media profiles, and look to sources like The Muse to get a sense of what it would really be like to work there.

Then, use what you’ve learned to show how you’d be a fit throughout the job search process—when you’re writing your cover letter, networking with current employees, and interviewing, especially in later rounds, when team members often screen for culture fit. Be yourself, talk about the things you’re passionate about, and ask thoughtful questions.

And if you can think of a way to boldly show that you’re a culture fit? Well, that might just be what helps you stand out from the rest. “One recent candidate created a full Grommet profile of herself. It was superbly executed to look just like a page on our site, but it went even further because it was daring and hilarious,” says Pieri. “I knew there had to be a confident, sharp mind and unconventional thinker behind that bold and creative move.”

So, drive, passion, humility—frankly, if you know you want to work for a startup, you’ve probably got these things in spades. The best thing you can do is to show off those attributes just as much as you do your skills. “Lots of people have skills,” says Romano. “What far fewer have is that certain light inside them—that brilliant, infectious, let’s-make-this-incredible tenacity. That’s what we’re always looking for.”

Photo of businessman writing courtesy of Shutterstock.