How To Get Hired By A Startup

Written by
Rebecca Smith

Published
Dec 29, 2021

Dec 29, 2021 • by Rebecca Smith

Startups are the hubs of growth in the United States and worldwide. These are the businesses taking on incumbents and offering novel solutions to old problems, or, most radically, solutions to problems people never knew they had. The upside for a successful startup is vast, but startups generally have a high failure rate. This balance of risk and reward, and the fact that many startups simply cannot afford to pay competitive salaries, means that many startups offer a compensation component based on stock options. If you work in a successful startup, you could make more money from the growth in your equity than you would work for an incumbent. The chance to change the world and the tantalizing prospect of massive upside makes startups especially attractive to a generation of workers ready to take risks and care about making a meaningful impact on the world. That very attractiveness means that startups are inundated with CVs, making it hard for any one candidate to stand out. In this article, I will explain how you can rise above the crowd and get hired by the startup of your dreams.

Demonstrate Curiosity

Startups are looking for lifelong learners, the curious, the people who are problem-solvers, who can see things that other people cannot see, and make connections that others cannot. In the most basic sense, creativity is about being able to connect previously disconnected things. For instance, when Apple came out with the iPhone, nobody thought customers wanted a computer in their pocket. It was Steve Job’s genius to see that a phone could also be a computer. Today, that insight seems banal. Creativity starts from curiosity, from a questioning attitude, and an insatiable desire to find answers to those questions.

Be Adaptable

Startups are in a stage of their lifecycle where things are constantly changing. Not everyone can thrive in that kind of environment. A startup may find that its original mission has to evolve dramatically to survive. For instance, SecondMarket went from a marketplace for illiquid assets to a business that helps private companies, investors, and other issuers manage their liquidity, fundraise and communicate with stakeholders. A startup needs people who can adapt to the rapidly changing competitive landscape and business demands. Look at Apple: it went public as a computer maker, but today, the iPhone drives revenue. A founder may unearth a fantastic opportunity for the startup in the United Kingdom and decide to set up an office there and ask you to relocate. Can you relocate? How flexible are you?

Team Players

Successful venture capitalists all understand that a team’s quality, cohesiveness, and harmony are vital to a startup’s success. Perhaps the best startup team ever, the founders of PayPal, has been talked about for decades. The “PayPal Mafia” team includes such luminaries as Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, and Roelof E. Botha.

Startups are eager to have team players, people who can take on more responsibility than you typically will in a more mature company, and who can work with other people. At the top of this article, I mentioned the high failure rate of startups. Well, startups want to reduce their risks to increase their odds of becoming a success. Conflicts within the team can only heighten the company’s risk of eventually failing. Show that you are a team player and have broad shoulders.

This is even more important when you realize that startups have tiny teams, so you will not only have to take on more work, you will have to work very closely with a small group of people, for long periods. Tensions are bound to emerge. And as the demands pile on, you may feel under enormous pressure. Startups are looking for people who can negotiate this potentially explosive ecosystem with finesse. Some people just enjoy taking on more work and working with others.

So you have to check your ego at the door and think of the team before yourself. You are there to solve problems, and if you want to be valuable, you are there to solve problems that others may not be aware of and may not even be within your remit.

Go for Gold

The competition is insane, so you have to do more than just what’s necessary. Some of the most successful applicants have created infographics, websites, and social media accounts as part of their application process.

Many people approach companies from a very self-centered place: “This is who I am, these are my skills, give me a job!” Well, the truth is, many people are doing the same thing, and the even more brutal truth is, it’s pretty likely that there is a candidate out there with the same set of skills as you. You are, on paper, interchangeable. The real difference-maker is showing that you understand the company. Find out everything you can about the company. Look at industry reports, publicly available company reports, read newspaper articles and any other information you can get so you understand the company, its competitive landscape, and above all, its needs, its pain points.

When you have an idea of the company’s pain points, you can then think about very concrete ways to help the company with those pain points. If you can demonstrate real value to the company by going the extra mile and thinking about your role within the organization and how you concretely believe you can help, you will give it something to think about. You just stood out from the crowd.