Knocking Down Doors

Smart start-up lessons for smart start-up people

How to Get a Job at a Tech Startup

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You want it all. The free soda, the vesting schedule, the company outing to Cabo, and the thrill of changing some small part of the world.

You want to get a job at a tech startup.

The problem you’re running into is that you don’t know who’s hiring, you don’t have any seemingly relevant skills, you can’t get anyone to call you back, and you go into interviews shaking like a leaf.

Let’s fix as many of those as we can in one shot.

Today, we’ll look at the realities of finding the dream job, the hurdles you’ll likely encounter along the way, and what you need to do to clear those same hurdles.

Getting the job of your dreams isn’t easy, so buckle up for a bumpy ride. To help smooth things out, here are some tips for the aspiring startup employee:

Go to school for computer science or a related field. Then move to San Francisco with a bad idea and lots of spare time, which you use to develop a product, get noticed, have the product fail, and then get picked up by the next hot thing

If I were a time traveler, this is the method I would use. Your mileage may vary.

By the way, if this one works, feel free to mention me in your next book—or just cut me in on that sweet, sweet equity.

Figure out where you fit in

I have a friend who, as a young man, wanted to be a CEO. There wasn’t anything more to it than that for a very long time. The problem with those huge blanket statements—sort of like, “I want to work for a startup”—is that they’re so large as to be impractical.

The first step to getting a job at your dream company is to figure out:

  • What your dream company makes
  • Who runs the show
  • What the company believes
  • How you would fit into the mix

Knowing these basics helps you determine what your next steps are.

Your goal should be to take the long list of companies you think you love and to winnow it down to a short list of real winners. Don’t get attached to a company until you know its entire story.

Look at Facebook. The company’s new mission is “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” If you’re interested in working toward that mission, you should add Facebook—or the startup equivalent—to your shortlist.

At Capterra, we have four core values that drive us everyday: Seek the Good. Do Great Work. Be Ridiculously Helpful. Keep On Getting Better. You better believe I spent a full day thinking about what those meant before my interview.

I also looked into our founder, Mike Ortner, to see if I could work for him. I wanted to know what he cared about, what kind of leader he seemed to be, and what he expected from his employees.

Then I looked at the product to figure out how Capterra made money and if I could support that mission. Finally, I thought about all those and how I could help.

We’ll talk more about this later, but knowing your place is more than just fitting in—it’s giving back.

Find a product you believe in

We’re going to cover understanding the product and how important that is to getting in the door a little later.

Right now, I want to talk about how believing in the value of the product should shape your search.

There are an uncountable number of startups in America right now. I say that because startups are firing up and failing constantly, and so there is no fixed number of these things.

The reasons startups fail are probably also uncountable, but you can put most of those reasons into a few buckets: product without a market, bad cash management, bad leadership, and good competition are big ones.

Knowing what the product currently looks like and being able to envision how that product grows into something better and more valuable is key.

Twitter (red), Snap (blue), and the S&P (yellow) since March 2017 (Source: Google Finance)

I don’t want to kick anyone while they’re down, but look at Snapchat and Twitter. The chart above shows their stock prices since Snap (Snapchat’s parent) went public in March compared to the S&P 500. The S&P is up some piddling amount, but it’s still beating out Twitter and Snap.

That’s in part because those products haven’t figured out how to monetize efficiently. Both companies raised billions in capital before going public, which means they didn’t have to focus on making money until they were huge enterprises—so big that change became incredibly difficult.

If they hadn’t gotten that money, or if the purses had been tighter, both would have died. This is just how it goes. If a founder can’t convince the market to either pay for the product or float the company, you’re going to be out of a job.

Take a long, honest look at what your “dream” company makes, how it comports itself, and who’s steering the ship before you spend any more time applying.

Find a point of contact

Every time anyone I know is looking for a new job and I casually mention it to my uncle, he immediately says, “80% of the jobs aren’t advertised.”

It’s hard to hear, but it’s also true. Not only are those jobs not advertised, the ones that are are often hidden deep beneath layers of individuals.

Take this all-too-common anecdote from the New York Times. “Like many recent college graduates, Ben Kim felt he was casting his résumé into an abyss when he clicked ‘apply online’ for the hundredth or so time. ‘The most common response was nothing,’ he said.”

Luckily, finding the right people is almost the easiest thing in the world—if you know where to look. Twitter and Google have opened the floodgates, giving every startup founder a direct line to the outside world.

In tech, most of today’s best businesses a) have some Twitter presence and b) are actively engaged online. If you find a company you love but don’t have a contact, just start interacting online.

The Gmail trick

I almost hate sharing this because it’s such a neat trick—also, it makes me look a bit like a stalker.

Gmail has a “feature” of sorts. It learns who people are and logs those people into some database in God-knows-where. Then it uses those contacts to make Gmail a lovely experience by inserting extra information into your mail compositions.

Every startup on the planet uses one of maybe three email combinations: FirstName@Company.com, FirstInitialLastName@Company.com, or FirstNameLastName@Company.com. My email, for instance, is Andrew@Capterra.com, but it could also have been AMarder@Capterra.com or AndrewMarder@capterra.com.

If you type either of the wrong addresses into Gmail, it will just have them sit there. If you type my real email address in, it will pause a second, then drop in my picture and full name. Let’s try it.

We’ll make this anonymous this so no one gets hammered with email. I choose a startup at random that was mentioned in the first article I clicked on.

I go to the main site, get the domain name, then go to the About Us page and find the founder’s name. Got those two in hand and away we go.

The Gmail trick in action

First try. First name at domain. See how that picture pops up when I hover over the email? That means you hit pay dirt.

Gmail will help you find just about anyone’s email address with this little trick. Startups are perfect for it, too, as they never, ever give interesting email addresses to their employees.

So, if you can’t connect on Twitter, shoot out the digital cold call and see if anyone bites.

Sell yourself to anyone who will listen

Now that you’ve made a connection, you need to explain why what you do is worth their while. One of the biggest mistakes I see people make when they apply for jobs with Capterra is that they focus in on what they like about us.

“I saw your video games and flexible work hours and nice people and whatever. I want in on that.”

That only tells me that you like nice things. What are you bringing to me? Come to me with your skills and a basic understanding of my needs.

If you want a job as a content writer for the little financial startup, explain that you previously studied to be a real estate agent and how that experience can help me connect with my audience. You know I need someone who can speak the lingo without getting lost in the numbers, so tell me how you’re going to do that.

Every founder knows their startup is a cool place to work; you don’t need to tell them that. Look up their funding rounds, figure out who their big customers are or could be, find flaws in their user experience, rewrite their marketing copy, just do anything to show the value you’re providing.

While there’s a temptation to jump right to the top, try talking to the people on the front lines. They’re having trouble with single sign-on? Have they looked at X, Y, or Z? How can you make yourself valuable to that person, who can then go on to explain your value to their boss?

Demonstrate the product knowledge you gained earlier

Once you’re in the door and sitting down for the interview, it’s time to pull out all the knowledge you gleaned earlier.

The best thing you can do, in my opinion, is explain your understanding of the product. This kicks off a conversation where you—the applicant—get to show off your homework, while learning more and more about the business.

Most startups give a lot away in interviews. If you know what problems a company might be facing, the interviewer’s body language or actual words will let you know when you’ve touched on an actual issue. Those clues give you places to focus your prepped sales pitch.

“I saw that your site looks really different on mobile—how’s that working for you?”

“Ugh, it’s something we’re working on.” (This is startup code for, “We’re hosed because we don’t have a front-end developer.”)

“I’d love to try out some mobile design tricks I picked up from Andrew Marder, a smart, funny guy whom I’m soon going to be sending small, unmarked bills to.”

“Oh. Yeah, that would be great. Honestly, we’re kind of hosed because we don’t have a front-end developer.”

Knowing the product you’re going to be supporting is a huge key to finding out what the needs of the business are. Now we really need to talk about why you…

Don’t lie to the people you’re talking to

Everyone has read a job description, seen that they match 99.9% of the requirements, and just fudged the one—clearly insignificant—thing. The content creator job that needs five years of experience, a degree in accounting, and managerial experience… oh, and familiarity with OneBookPlus, whatever that is.

Five minutes, YouTube, got it.

What you can’t do is go to an interview and be anything but honest. Don’t be the nice version of yourself if you’re usually a cynical son of a gun. Don’t pretend to understand how databases work if you’ve never worked with one. Don’t tell them you love coming into the office if you know full well that you’re going to WFH everyday.

Startups move like lightning. If you present yourself in an unsustainable way—which is to say, if you lie about who you are—you’re just going to get fired. I’m not talking about ten days of weirdness, I’m talking about ten hours of weirdness.

Just be honest. Think about it like this —does it make you happy to be someone else all day long? If you have to keep pretending to be someone else, are you going to last long?

Just don’t lie.

Join us for more on startup jobs

Later this year, we’re going to run some live sessions on getting startup jobs with Qs, As, and surprise guests. If you’re interested in hearing about those, shoot me a line and I’ll let you know when they come around, or you can follow us on Twitter.

If you’ve got any other great tips on how to get a job at a tech startup, drop them in the comments below to help everyone else find their dream jobs.

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About the Author

Andrew Marder

Andrew Marder is a writer for Capterra. His background is in retail management, banking, and financial writing. When he’s not working, Andrew enjoys spending time with his son and playing board games of all stripes.

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