Stop Applying to Startups

Discuss this post on Hacker News.


You’ve decided that you want to work at a startup.  Maybe you’re leaving an existing career, or just getting out of college and looking for a first job. You found a startup you liked. Checked the job postings. Cleaned up your resume, wrote a killer cover letter, filled out the form on the careers page, and hit send.  You did everything by the book, just like your college career counselor told you.

Now, let me tell you what’s happening on the other side of that application form.  A founder or early employee is getting stacks and stacks of resumes by email every day, adding to a laundry list of more pressing tasks in their inbox. The role you applied for? Hundreds of potential candidates for it are being sorted along lines like these:

1. Top of mind for the hiring manager are their “target” candidates for the role. This is probably an existing friend or contact that the startup is trying to pry away from their current job. A huge bulk of the company’s recruiting bandwidth will be devoted to enticing these candidates.

2. Next comes a flood of recommendations and introductions from friends and colleagues. Some of these are highly qualified. Others are being referred as favors to the candidates, and the warm intro means that at the very least they will be given a phone screening or in-person interview.

3. A distant third on the priority list are the stacks of resumes coming in every day via blind emails. To be perfectly frank, 90%+ of those resumes are entirely unqualified for the position. All will be scanned quickly and given a quick yes/no based on a set of exceedingly simple heuristics (“not enough relevant experience” is the easiest heuristic of all).

Looking at this hierarchy, it’s clear that being at the bottom rung isn’t going to lead to much success in getting hired. Fortunately, one of the things that makes startups so compelling is the relative accessibility of key decision makers. From the original story of Tristan Walker at Foursquare, to the way my friend Luke Hristou tweeted and blogged his way into a gig at Techstars NYC, the startup community is full of stories of cold contact hustle.  Whether it is through reaching out via Twitter, attending Ohours, or even finding the founders email (Scott Britton has an excellent, in-depth explanation of how to do this) and writing a strong introduction email, almost anything is preferable to letting yourself end up in  the resume stack.

If you manage to get a meeting, you will need to impress the interviewer in as short a time as possible. This means planning obsessively. I’ve had designers come to these meetings with mockups of a product feature, and marketing candidates who put together an execution strategy based on their research of the company. In addition to impressing the interviewer, this approach gives the candidate a tremendous advantage: by shifting the conversation from “convince me that you’re qualified to work here” to “let’s talk about the execution of this proposal” you get the classic advantage of “Show, Don’t Tell”. Show the type of work you can do for the company, rather than attempting to Tell them that you can do it.

After you’ve impressed the interviewer in your first meeting, It’s still critical to nail the “next steps”. I’m always surprised by how many really impressive candidates will walk away from a great meeting without gaining a good understanding of what comes next. As the candidate, your post-interview concerns should be:

1. Clearly defining next steps: Where is the company in the hiring process for this role? What is the next stage of the process for you? When should you follow up with the interviewer (in addition to your post interview “thank you” email)? These should all be asked and defined before you leave the initial meeting.

2. Nailing the follow-up: It’s incredible to me that so many people still fail the most basic skill of “interviewing 101”. As soon as possible after the interview, send a concise thank you email. Refer back to a part of the conversation where you and the interview connected well, and also mention the next steps you clearly defined as the meeting was ending.

3. Blowing them away with social proof: I have a close friend right now who is interviewing for a technical recruiter role at a hot NY startup. In the aftermath of his first interview, he has been getting in touch with all his close engineer friends and asking them to write to the company founder recommending him. I think this is brilliant- if you were hiring a technical recruiter, wouldn’t you be inclined to hire the one with enormous social proof from exactly the demographic you care about?

The takeaway is straightforward: If you really want to earn a role at a startup, then “applying” in the traditional sense isn’t going to get you anywhere. The key is to move yourself from the stack of resumes to the “target” list. The ways to do this are surprisingly simple: getting in touch directly, obsessive interview preparation, and nailing basic aspects of a follow up. Get these three elements right, and chances of successfully making the startup career jump are exponentially higher.

If you enjoyed reading this, you can follow me on Twitter.