How To Get A Job At A Startup (Even If You Cannot Code)

Even before the success of HBO’s TV show “Silicon Valley,” there has been great demand for startup jobs. Many people have asked me in the past about taking the right steps to find a startup job. Given a recent increase of questions, I spend some time drafting this post to provide you with a good base to get started.

What you will learn:

The different early startup stages – When to get in
Job options at a startup – There are also non-engineering jobs
Where you can find startup jobs – Don’t even think about monster.com
Hacks and tips to get ahead – Set yourself apart from the competition

Early Startup Stages

I’m focusing on the traditional tech startup with lots of software engineering work. So the startup is probably looking for engineers during all stages.

Idea (Team size: 1-3 founders)

During the idea stage, founders are building out their team of co-founders and often still tweak their initial idea into something that is fundable. Hopefully, at this stage the team will get lots of feedback from potential customers and works on developing an MVP (Minimum Viable Product). Startups at this stage mostly raise money from friends and family.

If you are not one of the initial founders, it will usually be pretty difficult to get a position at this stage (Your best bet is to either be a founder or an engineer if you want to join at this stage).

Seed (Team 2-10, mostly engineers 1-2 non engineers)

Between the idea and seed stage, there is a pre-seed stage where the founders or the CEO usually spends much time with raising money. At this stage, a first prototype should have been developed.
Hopefully, the startup has some revenue (little) at this point, which shows investors that the product has gained some traction and it could be worth investing. It is rather uncommon for a startup during the pre-seed stage to hire non-engineers on a full-time basis. But I have seen interns joining the team during pre-seed.

After the company raised their seed round, they are most likely looking to hire their first team members. This can be a great time to begin talking to the startup if you are interested in joining early.After you raise some money, you can spend them on a new computer to play free slots

Tip on the side, if you join the company before or directly after the seed round, be ready to take on every job that gets thrown your way. Keep in mind, you are building the foundation of the company so be ready to do recruiting, sales, ordering lunch, support calls and more all in one day.

Series A (Team 10+, healthy balance between engineers and business people)

The company has successfully raised their seed round, expanded their team and their product shows some serious traction. Now it is time to raise Series A to grow the company and conquer new markets.
As the company expands, they are probably looking to fill marketing, sales, operations and other positions. This is a good time for non-engineers to join a startup that has already proven itself. At this stage there is less risk involved and the salaries are probably closer to actual market rates.

When should I join?

Now that you know the different early stages, we can talk about the right time to join and whether or not you should bring some programming experience. The best time depends on your current lifestyle. If you have many bills (or a mortgage) to pay, a family to feed and other serious obligations, you probably want to minimize your risk. If this is the case for you, it probably makes sense for you to join a startup at a later stage.

Did you just finish school and you want to experience the startup life from start to end? Then get in as early as possible and expect to earn a lot less than all your peers at major corporations (therefore you’ll hopefully get some equity, which can have a big upside).
Both options have pros and cons, it is up to you to decide how safe you want to play it. Feel free to ask any questions in the comments and we can try to find a good solution together.

What are my job options at a startup?

Different startups have different ideas of these roles. This should just enable people to look beyond the various engineering positions. If you feel offended by any of the descriptions shoot me a quick email and I might make some edits.

Engineering

You probably don’t need to read much further, if you are an engineer. Send your resume to all startups that look interesting to you and chances are good, you’ll be invited to a couple of interviews by the end of the week. At least here in the valley, engineers often feel like a beautiful girl in a bar full of lonely men. Pick and choose 😉

Sales (Especially B2B)

A good sales team is important, especially for B2B type companies. Sales has a bad reputation, people think of the sleazy sales guy who knocks on your door on a Saturday morning.
Nevertheless, startup sales can be a great position to improve your confidence talking to clients and learning to pitch business ideas. The best sales people love making connections and know how to hustle, they reach out to various companies and are not shy to pick up the phone 100 times a day.
Working in sales allows you to have a direct impact on the bottom line of the business. Some startups will offer a % commission for sales, so if you do a good job you can make a lot of money.

Recruiting

Especially in early startups (pre Series A), recruiting positions are often mixed with office manager or operations positions. Most startups first work with external recruiters, before bringing someone onboard full-time.

Make sure you are familiar with LinkedIn and that you are well connected. You will probably spend a lot of time speaking to prospects on the phone, browsing resumes and scheduling interviews.

Marketing / Growth Hacking

You are responsible for growing the startup by any means necessary. Before applying make sure you know what the following terms mean: SEO, SEM, inbound, outbound, linkbuilding, landing page and Adwords (and there are many more)

This position has actually many different faces; it really depends on what the startup understands as marketing. I have seen positions where the marketing guy/girl spends most of his/her time tweeting, updating Facebook and writing blog postings.

Other positions were heavy business focused in the sense of analyzing the market, LTV, competitors etc. and even engineering focused (look up growth hacker).

Office Management

This person makes sure that everything in the startup is running smoothly. The following are some of the tasks that would come to my mind: writing emails on behalf of the CEO, helping with recruiting efforts, setting up company events/offsites, managing payroll, ordering office snacks, planning hackathons, finding and comparing office spaces, scheduling interviews and many more.
This position offers great insights on how a startup operates on all levels.

I don’t want to add too many descriptions, but let me just name a few more positions and you can ask me if you have any questions: Customer Success, Support, Business Development, Data Scientist, HR Manager, UI/UX Designer, Community Manager, …

Where can I find Startup Jobs?

You might be used to websites like Moster.com and Craigslist to find a list of positions, but those will usually not work very well for startups.

So where can you find free-lunch-ping-pong-table startup jobs? If you are not an engineer from a top tier university, expect to spend some time on research. This is your first chance to prove that you are made out of startup material.

Here are a couple suggestions for you:

  • Google has a simple, but amazing feature that allows you to set alerts for specific keywords. Whenever, a new website containing your keyword/s shows up in Google, you will get an email with a link to this site. Knowing that startups begin hiring whenever they raise money, will give you a head start. There is no need to wait for an official job posting – Attack, attack, attack! I would set an alert similar to “raises seed” or “series a”. You can also follow @vcdeals on Twitter for a similar effect.
  • More traditionally, many startups share their company stats on AngelList (Angel.co). Sometimes to attract potential investors, job candidates or just because everyone else does it. AngelList is probably your best bet if you are looking for job search capabilities comparable to Monster.com
  • Network like your life depends on it. Attend events like Startup Weekends, Meetups, Mixers, … Knowing someone on the inside gives you a much better chance to make it to an interview. Hard to believe, but most people actually enjoy helping others. If I have a good conversation with someone and I can help him or her out with a quick introduction, I’m usually happy to help. Please, don’t be that person who skips the conversation part.
  • Google is your best friend, just try searching for “travel startup” and check out a couple of pages. Nothing keeps you from reaching out to interesting companies. Use Rapportive to find almost anyone’s email.
  • Read at least Techcrunch and Hackernews everyday. The startup scene has it’s own language you don’t want to end up being the bozo.

When you start to reach out, I would make use of rapportive, boomerang and yesware. I listed those under my 10 best productivity tools.

The next steps

Find a startup you like and apply. However, don’t apply through AngelList. Company’s can see how many applications you sent (overall). I would recommend to use the startup’s website to apply. The best person to contact, if you are looking for a job, is usually the CEO or one of the founders. You can find more tips for your applications and hacks for scoring one of the hot jobs below.

Before even applying, you want to make sure that you actually understand what the company does. This seems really obvious, but it would surprise you, how many times I got an answer like “I think you guys are creating a new mobile app, is that right?” Always do your homework before jumping on a call or showing up for an interview.

When you show up for an interview, make sure to also actively interview the company. Here is a small list of things you definitely want to know.

  • What exactly would I be working on?
  • How many hours do people usually stay in the office, when do they start?
  • What is the culture like, are there company offsites, games, movie nights, …?
  • Who would you be reporting to? CEO? VP of Culture? Intern with more experience?
  • Do you have an opportunity to grow within the company? (If you start as an office manager, is there potential to become X of HR?
  • What are the benefits? Are there any?
  • Is the product live? Are there any customers already?
  • What would a typical day in your position look like?

It is important to accept that not every startup would be a good fit for you. Now let’s consider what early stage startups are looking for.
Startups move quickly and the responsibilities of most positions can change within days, if you are not an engineer, it is important to be a generalist who can pick up things quickly and who is always willing to learn new things (proactively).

BTW: If it comes to an interview, make sure to check out the companies website and team photos. You probably don’t want to show up in your best suit at a co-working space where the CEO wears jeans and t-shirt.

Here are some hacks you can try to set yourself apart from the competition:

  • Consider offering to work for free for 2 weeks and show them that you can kick ass.
  • If you jump on the phone or have an interview with one of the founders, stalk them online. Do they have interviews on Youtube? Watch them! Are they blogging? Read their blog. Twitter king or queen? Follow them (and read everything)
  • First thing I do when I receive an application or resume that I like is to google the person. There is no need to hide any relevant information from LinkedIn… Show that you know the tools of the trade and create yourself a website or blog.
  • Learn some programming concepts. You’ll receive many bonus points if you can say “I’ve played around with Python in the past. I could probably write a very simple script that makes X faster”
  • There is nothing more powerful then telling the company, why you would be a good fit. What is something the company could improve on that you have experience with? Maybe you have experience running a blog, maybe you have amazing people skills, you name it.
  • Impress whoever interviews you. Know who the competitors are maybe even have some understanding of the industry.

I wish you the best of luck with your search and definitely let me know if you found a position or if you have any questions.

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