When you get in at the beginning, anything can happen. Grads know that instinctively — 44 per cent surveyed by Accenture shared that they hope to join a startup, with only 14 per cent preferring to pursue a position working for a larger and more established corporation. After all, little is more appealing than a possibility.
But how do you get your foot in the door? If you’re competing against 44 per cent of your graduating class (or at least 44 per cent of their hopes and dreams), how do you stand out from the crowd?
Well, for starters, you’ll need to be flexible, creative, and willing to put yourself out there. You’ll also need a useful skill set that fills an unmet need. All that being true, though, there are also specific actions you can take to improve your chances.
Here’s where to start.
Before you commit time, energy, and effort to chasing your Silicon Valley dreams, though, you should ask yourself: Is working at a startup really for me? InternQueen founder Lauren Berger, writing in the Harvard Business Review, notes that as a fresh grad, there are several factors you’ll want to consider.
First, you’re likely to face a more complicated salary negotiation process than if you were to field offers from more established businesses. Unlike, say, comparing starting salaries among the Big 4, you’ll be looking at less of a narrow, standardized band with equally standardized benefits and more at a broad range that varies considerably from startup to startup.
Depending on their funding, that hot new token project or app company might be able to pay you quite well (and even offer perks like unlimited time off or a free daily lunch order through UberEats). Just as likely, though, is a package that disappoints compared to what your peers are seeing. Are you prepared to navigate that process, advocate for yourself, and negotiate a deal you can live with?
You’ll also be taking on considerable risk. During your salary negotiation, you’ll want to ask for equity as a significant part of your total compensation package so that you can share in the success if your company hits it big.
But the truth is that most startups don’t become unicorns like Uber or ClickUp. Roughly 90 per cent of all startups fail, usually within the first five years. Unless you get very lucky, your equity is more likely to become worthless than earn you a ticket for early retirement — and you’ll find yourself back on the job market to boot.
Finally, Berger observes that you’ll need to be prepared for a certain degree of chaos and disarray. Startups are constantly evolving and that means your job may be whatever the moment calls for. You could have to wear several hats (the average startup has only four employees) and can typically expect to work long hours, often under considerable pressure.
If you’re someone who wants consistent supervision and is not comfortable taking a high degree of initiative and responsibility, you should probably look elsewhere.
Still with us? Here’s how to get your foot in the door.
All that being said, working at a startup can be a tremendous opportunity for the right person. You’ll learn a ton, develop valuable skills, and may even get to experience the genuine thrill of building something new from the ground up.
You’ll make connections with co-workers that could last throughout your career. And while you should always remember that a job is a job before anything else, some startup workers even find a sense of family and belonging in the midst of the hard work and stress.
Here are three ways you can improve your chances of breaking into the startup scene.
First off, applying for a startup job is unlikely to be as simple as pulling up a jobs board and firing off some applications.
For one thing, many early-stage companies keep an extremely low profile. Some may not even have a website, let alone a careers page — and even fewer will post open positions on popular jobs listing sites.
So you’ll likely have to do some extra legwork. If you want to be strategic, Cryptonumerics founder Hassan Bhatti recommends finding out which startups have recently raised venture capital money (he suggests using Crunchbase or Angellist to do so). Then narrow that list down to companies you’d actually like to work for.
Now, you’ve got a list of startups you’re excited about that are also probably hiring, as most venture funding goes towards building out teams. Right away, you’ve improved your chances.
Sahil Bloom, managing partner of SRB Ventures, takes that idea even further. He suggests creating a list of two to three midlevel team members at each of the top 10 venture capital firms in your country or sector, reading up on them on LinkedIn or Twitter, and then sending each a short, personalized message asking for a quick call to learn more about the companies their fund is invested in.
If you do get someone on the phone, Bloom recommends asking which companies they are most excited about and which have shown strong early growth. Then take the time to learn more about each company your new VC contact recommends. Again, these are firms that are more likely to be hiring or might be especially good long-term bets.
Now, we should be frank that while Bloom is offering a bold strategy here, as a student, you probably won’t succeed in getting through to anyone at a VC. If so, your next step should be to go local — reach out to incubators or accelerators in your city (your university may have one!) as well as startup co-working spaces (they’ll be excited to brag about the cool companies using their space). Ask them the same questions you’d ask a VC.
You can also jump into Slack and Discord communities for early-stage startups and founders. Hang out, make good comments, and get to know people.
Soon, you will no longer be just another job seeker, but a savvy operator armed with insider information.
It’s a truism in Hollywood that success is not about what you know, but who you know. This is equally so for anyone looking to earn a place at a startup.
So your first step should be to figure out a way to connect with someone who currently works for each company on your list. If you apply cold (without that contact) your odds of success will be much lower.
Now, the easiest way to do this is through your personal network. If you’ve made inroads on Slack or Discord communities, then you may already be talking to someone on the inside (maybe even the founder).
LinkedIn can also be incredibly useful. If there is a company you want to work for, look at current employees and find out if any of them are close (first or second-degree connections) on LinkedIn.
If you already know someone there or have a connection who does, great! Reach out to that person or ask your connection to make an introduction. Write a brief message sharing that you’re really excited about the company, list specific ways you can help their team, and add that you’d love to schedule a quick chat.
If you don’t have a close connection, that’s okay too — you can make one. Start following current team members who are active on LinkedIn. When they post, make a useful comment.
Do this consistently for several weeks and then reach out asking for a chat. By that time, you won’t be a stranger anymore. For the tech community, especially, you can take the same approach on Twitter (which is also a great place to immerse yourself in industry knowledge and learn more about what’s driving conversations within your chosen sector).
If you’ve made any contacts with VCs, local incubators, or accelerators while you were finding out which startups may be hiring, reach out to them again too. Pick your favourite company in their portfolio or cohort. Then share specific reasons why you’re excited about that company, how you think you could add value, and ask them to connect you with the founder or head of talent so you can pitch them directly.
After all, what better way to get on your dream startup’s radar than with a referral from a major supporter?
Now, we’ve touched on this already, but it’s a big idea that bears repeating. Approach every step of your hiring journey (and your career, for that matter) by asking yourself: how can I help here? What can I give?
It’s easy to get caught up thinking about how great your life is going to be when you’ve signed on with your dream web 3.0 startup just in time to see your token-based compensation 10X in value. But that day may never come — and if it does, you’ll just move on to chasing the next thing anyway.
Instead, put your attention to what is in front of you and how you can contribute or add value. If you’re meeting with a friend to ask for an introduction, think about what you can do to help them or advance their career. If you’re posting in a Discord community, think about how you can write something that will be genuinely useful to the other members of the community.
Most importantly, take that same attitude into your conversations with everyone at each startup you decide to approach. Whether you’re meeting with the founder or a newly hired HR assistant, your mantra should be “how can I help this person?”
Learn everything you can about your chosen companies and use that information to figure out how you can add specific value. Don’t be just another candidate, but a contributor who offers concrete, unsolicited ideas for how that company can do something better.
The more you focus on what you can give to others, the more valuable you become.
If you’re willing to roll with the punches that come along with working for a startup, opportunity awaits.
Take the time to find out who may be hiring. Dive into your chosen sector. Make connections within a company by building relationships on social media or by becoming part of digital communities for entrepreneurs. Aim to give more than you get in every interaction you have.
Then keep at it. You’ll be amazed what can happen with enough patience and persistence.
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