How to Get a Job at a Startup
I've recruited for a couple of startups. I've also applied to a fair share of them. Getting hired at a fast-paced, early-stage company is quite different than your typical corporate gig. If you are thinking of making the switch, we put together this guide for how to get a job at a startup. We hope it helps you navigate this new landscape and find the right job for you.
Start with your purpose
When looking for a startup job, the first thing I would consider is why you want to join one in the first place. Are you looking to gain lots of experience and get tasked with jobs you are woefully unqualified for? Are you looking for a specific mission you want to join, such as tackling climate change, improving workplace happiness, or decentralizing finance?
Startups are hard work. Even if you aren't a co-founder, being an early employee usually means long hours, stretching your comfort zone, and failing a lot. Be sure it's something you really want to do. And furthermore, be sure you are looking at startups that fit with your goals and personal mission.
Where to find startup jobs
The obvious first place to look for startups that are hiring is AngelList. And AngelList works fine. Most startups I've worked at advertised there. It is 'where the world meets startups' after all.
One issue with just applying for positions through AngelList is you will be one of many people doing the same. And AngelList makes it really low friction to apply. You can apply with literally a click of the button. This sounds nice in theory, but as we'll discuss later isn't necessarily how I'd suggest going about it.
Ideally, don’t wait for a job to be posted and then become just another applicant. Instead, find the companies you want to work for and find the person you need to talk to about working there. Be proactive. Get ahead of the curve.
One way to do this is via Crunchbase for your search. Do a search for startups who recently raised a large round (either seed or Series A) in the last few months. You can filter down your search around the company’s category, location, even who backed them. You can also set up an alert, so if nothing fits your description now, future startups that do will be emailed to you.
Why do this? Because companies that recently raised are probably about to make a lot of hires. Furthermore, they are probably swamped by a million things to do beyond recruiting. You might catch them at the moment in time before they've even had a chance to advertise the roles they are hiring for. The next step is to find email addresses for the relevant people (likely the founders) using a tool like Hunter and start reaching out and selling yourself.
Another way to find roles is to be active in communities where people you might want to work with hang out. Or better yet, work through your network to proactively seek out the startups and positions you want.
Personally, I have never gotten a job from AngelList/Crunchbase. I’m much more a “find someone you know, who knows a person you want to speak with” and “be active in communities you think may be related to areas of interested - i.e., Slack groups.”
Lenny Bogdonoff - Co-founder, Milk Video
What are startups looking for?
There are two main things founders are looking for in early hires for their startup:
- Does the person have the necessary skills and experience to contribute to the team?
- More importantly, is this person a true believer in our mission and vision?
Lots of people succeed on step one and fail miserably on step two. It's not enough to be a good fit from an experience or technical perspective. In the early days, it's all about finding the true believers - the people crazy enough to join the founders on the voyage into the void and drag the company to success.
How to get a job at a startup in 3 steps
To simplify it here's easy to follow guide for how to get a job at a startup. Or, at least, these are the steps I would personally follow if I were in the market for a new job and wanted to work at a startup.
Step 1 - Be selective about the roles you want to apply for
I would avoid playing a numbers game. Instead, be selective about the roles you decide to apply for. Be sure they match with your purpose for joining a startup in the first place (as discussed in the first section).
Why? Primarily because, as we've discussed, startups are a grind. If you aren't in love with the mission, or the role, it will be hard to jump out of bed in the morning and do the work day after day. In larger organizations, it may be easier to hide this fact. In startups, there is nowhere to hide. Whether you are doing a good job or not, or are enjoying the work, is generally pretty apparent to everyone.
Another reason to be selective is the process I'm outlining is relatively time-consuming. Again, I would avoid a numbers game and instead go big on the roles that absolutely feel like the right fit for you.
Step 2 - Go big on the application/opening email
Depending on how you found the startup (via a job board like AngelList or via the Crunchbase method), this will vary slightly.
If it was via a job board, read the job spec carefully about how they want you to apply. Sometimes you can click a button and quickly apply to a role (meh), but often they'll ask you to apply via email or a link. Make sure you do the way they prefer. Generally, they'll check both, but this is your first chance to show attention to detail.
Suppose you found it via something like our Crunchbase method. In that case, you can use various tools to find email addresses for the relevant people like Hunter, or they might list them directly on their website.
And now, go big on the application. Don’t just send over a generic cover letter and resume. Help them solve a problem. Share an insight. Show the founders the value you will bring to the team right away. Make your first impression a clear indication that you are someone who puts in the work and cares about the role.
I can’t tell you how many emails I get from applicants with no cover letter, no email subject, and just a resume. Your goal is to be the opposite of that person. Stand out in the application process.
Step 3 - Don't let them forget about you
Stay in touch after the first call if you are still excited about the role. (and if you are no longer enthusiastic about the job, let them know and maybe share why).
Send an email right after the interview thanking them. Send more thoughts and insights about the product/business/market. Again, keep showing the value you’d bring to the team. Don’t spam them, but make it hard to forget about you.