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How to Get a Job at a Startup: Part II

In Part I, we reviewed the steps you can take to make yourself an attractive applicant to any startup. The next step is to put all that preparation to good work, and systematically hustle to get your dream job.

Step 1: Do your research before applying

There are thousands of startups out there and just like running a startup itself, focus is everything. Start by researching the various sectors to get a feel for what you’d prefer. Some major areas of inquiry include:

  • Startup Sector: E-commerce, local, social, mobile, enterprise, etc.
  • Industry Sectors: Education, finance, healthcare, entertainment, etc.
  • Company Stage: Pre-seed, seed, Series A, Series B, Series C

Researching to discover your preferences will significantly narrow your search. Ideally, you should pick 5-10 companies that you would do anything to work with. Your process will also show through in the interview because you’ll be better able to express what you want, which helps makes it clear that you won’t quit when the going gets tough (which it will). The worst thing you can do is tell an interviewer ‘I’ve really been looking to get into the startup industry’, with no further elaboration. You might as well say ‘I’ve been looking for a job.’

If after doing this work, you still don’t actually have a preference (let’s say you want to do marketing, but don’t care who you do it for), then the next best strategy is to reach out to VC’s to ask who in their portfolio you should work for. VC’s tend to know who’s up and coming, who’s hot, and who’s not, so if you impress them, they’ll point you in the right direction.

Also note, here are some great startup job resources:

Step 2: Don’t apply to startups like they’re big companies

We get tons of emails addressed “To Whom it May Concern”, with a brief note and resume. When we post jobs in career sites, most applicants just…apply online. We look for people that break the system – that find a way to inject personality, to get ahead of the rest of the applicants, to make it clear that they’re ready to hustle and they have the creative mind to succeed at it. Some random examples of what you could do:

  • Email the founders directly (every email you ever write should be addressed to someone’s name)
  • Even better, network your way into an introduction to the founders
  • Become a super-user of the product & then reach out as a customer
  • Follow the founders on social media and (non-creepily) tweet at them, comment on their blogs, vote up their answers on Quora or Reddit etc – get them familiar with your name
  • Do NOT arbitrarily connect with them on LinkedIn – this always comes across as spam
  • Be persistent. Founders get it. Do not give up until they ask you to give up.

Note that this creative approach is only possible when you’ve done the research upfront and can commit to a few great companies that you’re sure you want to work for. It is impossible to do if you’re trying to apply to every company out there.

Step 3: Make your resume stand out

This sort of fits in with #2, but your resume is another great opportunity to stand out. Describe your experience in a way that wows us. Focus not just on ‘tasks performed’, but on results achieved. Use numbers. Then, use more numbers. Customize your resume to highlight the parts of your experience that are relevant to the company and the role.

Design your resume. Prove that you have an aesthetic eye. Even if you just Google around for a nice template and mold your resume into it, that’s a win, and we’ll notice! Include more than education, work experience and skills. Give us a piece of your personality, and make us want to talk to you.

Step 4: Go for broke in your cover letter

Even after your resume efforts, you should assume that in the end, your experience & credentials are going to put you just on par with the large number of other people applying. That means that the only thing that will help you stand out in the crowd is the most kick-ass cover letter (or intro email) that you can muster. It needs to be short. But it should pack a punch – make it clear why you’re the one – be witty, creative, and show that you’ve done your research. Show that you’re someone we want to spend 60-80 hours a week with. One paragraph can do all of this, and will get even weaker resumes in the door.

Your cover letter should artfully, succinctly convey three things:

  • Why this role is perfect for you
  • Why our company is perfect for you
  • Why you’re incredible

Step 5: Approach the interview like you’re a consultant

Do a ton of research about the company before you walk through those doors. Talk to people about it, get opinions – be audacious and do usability testing on our website! Assemble a portfolio of useful, relevant insight that you can drop in front of us as proof of your hustle, and your work product. That would blow us away.

Then, begin asking questions. Most applicants think the interview is the time for the company to learn about you, but the best applicants are actually vetting the company to decide whether they want to work there. They ask the toughest questions (tougher than VC’s and tougher than journalists) because they’re making a big decision about where to spend the next few years of their lives. Don’t fall into the trap of trying to prove yourself to the company, make them prove themselves to you.

Your questions should be focused; they should show a clear path of thinking about the company, and you must be ready with answers in case a clever interviewer says “That’s a great question, what would you guess the answer is?” Don’t just ask and move on, work through the answer with the interviewer, and try your very best to actually add value to the company in the interview itself. Then, later, think hard about what you discussed and when you send your thank you note (a must do), include further insights you’ve had since your discussion. Your interview should wear the interviewer out, in a good way, and leave them wanting to pick your brain further.

Nihal Parthasarathi (NYU Stern ’08) is co-founder of CourseHorse, an online marketplace that helps people discover, compare and enroll in trusted local classes. CourseHorse partners with established providers of personal and professional classes (ranging from Spanish to cooking to continuing education) and centralizes their programs to make it easier for consumers to find classes and for professional educators to sell their seats. Previously, Nihal was an education technology consultant for Capgemini, where he worked to implement an LMS, redesign the website, and overhaul marketing for a major test-prep provider.