Depending on who you ask, working for an early-stage tech company is either an insanely risky or incredibly rewarding move. But one thing’s for sure: If you’re extremely driven, passionate, and willing to dive right in (and you understand the differences between the start-up world and everywhere else), this type of gig can be a great way to grow your career.
Of course, once you decide start-ups are for you, how do you make a start-up decide that you’re the one for the job? To learn more, I asked people from several burgeoning companies to share what type of applicants they look to hire, and how you can set yourself apart from everyone else.
Everlasting Curiosity and the Ability to Adapt
If you’re looking for a job, you’re obviously looking for some form of change. But at a start-up gig, change is most likely non-stop, so you’ll need to embrace it—and be prepared to quickly adapt and evolve along with it.
New York-based SecondMarket’s Aishwarya Iyer, who serves as Public Affairs Manager, explains:
It takes a certain type of person to thrive in this environment. You need to have everlasting curiosity, be comfortable with change, and have the ability to quickly adapt.”
In SecondMarket’s case, the company has transformed from a marketplace for illiquid assets in its early days in 2005 to now completely focusing on the needs of companies such as venture-backed start-ups, community banks, funds, and more. And it looks for employees who’re excited to evolve and transform along with it.
Have you ever started and led any professional (or personal) organizations or meet-ups, suggested new company initiatives or programs, or learned a brand new skill that became valuable to the team? These things all prove curiosity and willingness to shake things up and evolve the business.
Check Your Ego at the Door
At a start-up, you can make a huge impact and take on more responsibility than you’d be able to in a more traditional corporate environment—and that’s one of the reasons working at a start-up is so attractive. But sometimes, that all-hands-on-deck approach means taking on extra work and wearing hats you might not have expected.
When you're working on a small team, you can't be afraid to roll up your sleeves and do the unglamorous work. For example, we hired a software developer a few months ago. Not only is he a smart engineer who can solve complex technical problems, but he also builds IKEA furniture and goes to Costco to buy snacks for the team. ‘Handyman’ and ‘Team Dad’ weren't part of the job description, but he thrives at a start-up because he doesn't wait around for someone to tell him what to do. He proactively finds problems that need to be solved, and just takes care of business.”
Think about ways you can bring your natural talents or hobbies to the table to help out the team—this could mean teaching a coding class to the non-developers, taking a junior employee who needs the extra guidance under your wing, or offering to launch and manage the company blog—and explain why you’re excited to do that during the interview process.
Don't Just Do Your Homework—Go for Extra Credit
Competition is fierce in the start-up world, so going the extra mile during the application process doesn’t just mean remembering to follow up with a nice note after the interview. Some job applicants have famously been known to create resume infographics, dedicated social media accounts, or websites that showcase why they should be hired for the job.
What’s the magic formula for your dream company? Stalk the company and its employees online, find out what makes them tick, and then figure out how you can contribute. For example, San Francisco-based ZeroCater includes a "bonus" in some of its job descriptions, requesting applicants to submit a short video about their most impressive accomplishment. Steffi Wu, the company’s PR Director, shares:
I'm always surprised by the number of candidates who don't submit a cover letter, much less a video! If you truly want a position at a start-up, doing extra credit like a video (even if it's an unedited webcam clip) can go a long way in distinguishing yourself from other candidates. In addition, we pay close attention to what candidates choose to ask during phone interviews. Do their questions reflect mostly what they can get out of working here or what they can contribute? It's awesome when people skip the typical, broad ‘day-in-the-life’ and ‘company culture’ questions and dig much deeper into what we do, how we do it, and what we're looking for.”
Show Your Passion for the Product
If you’re already an active user or advocate of the company’s product or service, it shows that you’re passionate about the same things that the employees are, and that you really get what they’re trying to do. Whether it’s providing unsolicited and constructive feedback about your experience using the company’s product or service, starting insightful discussions on the company's blog posts, or engaging with its social media accounts, these actions all go a long way in proving you are already a natural evangelist and spokesperson for its mission.
One of the best ways to show a company you know its product and community is by being an active, engaged user both before and during the application process. At Skillshare, our most recent hire actually got noticed by being such a successful and involved teacher on the platform.”
“We actually get a lot of job inquiries via our site's general ‘Contact Us’ link. I think there's something very telling of an individual who reaches out this way; it shows that he or she is both proactive and, more importantly, a user and appreciator of our product. It's exciting to know someone loves what we're doing that much.”
What happens when you’re passionate about the work that an early-stage company is doing, but said company doesn’t yet have the budget or capacity to hire? Consider working on a part-time or volunteer basis. This may not work for everyone, but if it fits your lifestyle, interning or demonstrating your value in other ways can help get your foot in the door.
We've found the most valuable thing is just to start working with candidates, whether it's on the side for a few hours or as a full (paid) trial. There's no surer way to tell if someone has the passion and work ethic to fit in with our team. If you're dying to work for a company, don't be afraid to put in a little time first to prove your worth!”
The bottom line is this: If you can prove you have what it takes to go above and beyond the typical job description, take risks, thrive beyond your comfort zone, and exude unstoppable drive and curiosity, you’ve already set yourself apart from the pack. And you're that much closer to getting your foot in the door of a fast-rising start-up.