I used to be square. But college and the job markets told me I had to be round. For a while I was trying to be round. Now I know it's okay to be the square that I am.
August 2012 update: I'm so happy to have received a lot of great feedback on this article. If you have used it to help with your goals let me know. Nothing I like more than to hear about people doing well.
This is a post originally appeared on BumeBox.com
Startups are hot. But even as economic cycles come and go, startup culture is here to stay and will proliferate because it a proven effective model in aggregate. This is a guide to help you get into a startup. Although the guide is oriented toward the tech market the strategies apply to other startup industries as well.
The beauty of startup culture is that it breeds more innovation and solves problems quicker than any traditional corporate environment or structure can. People have noticed. Recently Steven VanRoekel, the newly minted Chief Information Officer for the United States, praised startup culture
“Going forward, we need to embrace modular development, build on open standards, and run our projects in lean startup mode." [full article here]
His plan to fix the federal government using startup ideologies is great validation for anyone in the industry or trying to get in it. But how do you get into a startup? For anyone outside the tech startup industry, and most inside it, you are going to have to put some work in to maximize your opportunities.
Don't Do It
Startups are great right? Not necessarily. Few companies ever make the great fortunes that the press loves to romanticize (and fewer still are the people that actually make the money). Most startups fail. Startups are hard and require much much more work than any "regular" job. Startups can be an emotional roller coaster. Startups will affect your social life. And then there's the risk...
Before you get into a startup you have to understand your motivations. Take money and success out of the picture because in all likelihood they will not become reality. Startups truly are not for everyone. Are you in it for the destination or the journey?
If I haven't scared you away yet, here are some tips.
Startup Job Resources
There is certainly no shortage of paid job boards online. Most though are not suited for startups because they don't have relevant candidate filters. Some work well but I haven't used any enough to give an official endorsement, so I would like to outline more effective strategies that will find you the best opportunities before they are available anywhere else.
Tech Blogs. Although they can be sensationalist at times, blogs like Techcrunch, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb among others are your go to resource for the pulse on the tech world. One subject they all love to write about are new financings and companies that have recently come into money. This spells opportunity for the job seeker because one of the main reasons companies raise money -- especially early stage companies -- is to hire people. Pro tip: let @vcdelta do it for you.
VC Job Boards. Almost all venture capital firms with big enough portfolios have job boards that they fill with positions in companies they have an interest in. Off the top of my head Sequoia,Accel, Union Square Ventures, and KPCB have great job boards and they are all updated regularly, but there are many more.
Hacker News. This online community is an infamous hangout of technophiles, geeks, entrepreneurs, and investors. Visit HN regularly to learn more about the tech side of the tech industry. Another benefit of HN is that the community regularly discusses job openings and opportunities in the tech community. The most recent thread is here.
Quora. You can find lively discussions on literally any topic in the world on Quora, but it is especially a hotbed for people in the tech startup community. Just as on HN there are also discussions on hiring and employment opportunities. Bay Area startups are on a hiring binge.
StackOverflow [honorable mention]. StackOverflow is a hardcore question and answer site for programmers and has a robust careers section. The only reason it gets an honorable mention in this context is because there is not much here for non-technical people to find, and all job postings are paid, not earned organically as they are in the aforementioned resources.
Startup Job Strategies
As you hopefully already know, mass emailing your resume out will not get you the job. It's harder than that as it should be. You have to make it easy for the hiring manager to quickly differentiate you inquiry from the rest of the crowd. If you don't go above and beyond your boring resume will just be another piece of paper on the manager's desk.
Portfolio. Without a portfolio there is no other way to truly see what you have done or have accomplished, this is especially true for the engineering and design folk. Put it online and make it accessible to the world. There are many tools online for you to do this and that could be a post on it's own.
Personal Website. Everyone should have a personal website or contribute to a blog of some sort, whether it's your own or part of a content network. It gives the hiring manager an opportunity to get into your head and see what you have been thinking, making it easier for them to evaluate if you are a good strategic and/or culture fit with their organization. It is also the ideal medium for you to demonstrate expertise in your industry or skill set you claim to be so good at on your resume. Bonus points here for design or flares that show your prowess. Jeff does this with his website, try highlighting stuff on the page - so cool!
Networking. Networking for the sake of networking is fruitless without an end goal. Start with identifying the industries, verticals, and companies you are interested in and work from there. LinkedIn is your best friend when navigating other companies and facilitating introductions. The reality is that any professional referral you can get to a hiring manager will beat out a cold approach any day, so start meeting people today that can get you where you want to go tomorrow. Having relevant industry professionals that are close to you is also the best way to find jobs before they are even available. Surely it is easier to get a job when you do not have any competition. Pro tip: use Startup Digest to find out about industry events.
Google. It's 2011 so you had better bet you will get Googled. Although it's very tough to selectively push websites to the top of your search results, it's much easier to remove unfavorable material from your name. Same goes for your activity on social networks. You are responsible for your own online identity.
Free Work. This is probably my most questionable strategy, but selectively doing work for free is one of the best ways to get into any company, especially startups. Charlie Hoehn wrote a shortebook about it that I highly recommend. Startups are inherently short on time and money so hiring can be a painful process because it eats up both of these resources. The strategy, put simply, is to find the person you want to work for or network with, do some work you think will benefit them or their organization for free, and do it remotely for a couple weeks. At the end of the project you deliver quality work that required no management, direction, or money. If done right it should blow out your competition. Admittedly this is probably more suitable for the junior level crowd, but it is effective.
To Infinity, and Beyond
Ultimately what makes the startup job search so difficult are two main factors. The first is that startups are generally short on resources necessary to recruit and evaluate high quality candidates. Second is that the future of your organization and your position is always changing, sometimes very rapidly. When you are hired at a startup your employer is essentially making a bet on your expected future value at their organization, not necessarily your ability to do the job on day one. This bet is similar to the bet VCs make on startups. Mark Suster said it best when he explains that he invests in lines, not dots. By that he means the more points of reference he has to base your abilities on, the better able he is to asses your future potential and thus can make a more informed investment decision. So then, the job seeker needs to start making indicator lines of past successes for their future employers, and they need to start early. Above all else, make it easy for your prospective employer to say YES.
You should follow me on Twitter (@yes)