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.


  • Chris Kurdziel

    Great post, Q. I’ve given this advice a lot and could not agree more.

  • Frank Denbow

    Spot on, Q

  • Anonymous

    Great tips! As someone who’s hired at a big company, it’s pretty much the same. Networking, preparation & follow up are always key!

  • Quinten Farmer

    Thanks Kristal! Glad to hear these tips are universal (and not just useful at startups!)

  • Jen Marie Robustelli

    it’s true – I got my current gig through a combination of oHours, twitter and meetups. And a lot of sweat (it was July).

  • Robert Boyle

    Nailed it. The only thing I would add is, “Please don’t, under any circumstances, call yourself a guru, maven, hacker or any other ego-maniacal superlative unless you have some serious data to back up title.”

  • Quinten Farmer

    ^This.  Totally agree.  

  • John Rockefeller

    Totally. I can’t stand it when people call themselves a guru.

  • Eric Anderson

    And to startup companies: please don’t, under any circumstances, advertise seeking a “rockstar” (or similar) candidate unless you have some serious data to back up the claim that you need and deserve one.  Namely, top-shelf founders, management, and technical peers, and of course compensation.  

    Hyperbole flows freely from all sources in the recruiting world.

  • PAUL Miller

     I agree, never respond to companies through the job boards.  Just call them on the phone and try to be friends first, then beg them to work there.  Better yet, hang outside the business headquarters and try to talk to / become friends with the people who walk out of the building.  That will really get you in the door.

  • Andy

    I still can’t believe that people would value a recommendation from an anonymous person, e.g. the engineers in the case of your friend who applied for the technical recruiter position. I give absolutely zero value to any anonymous recommendation (I don’t even give that high of ones from people I know since they could be doing it as a favor to the friend). Look at the very worst performers you know on LinkedIn and notice how they all have glowing recommendations.

  • Quinten Farmer

    I would have to disagree- I think a recommendation from someone who is respected in their field (such as an accomplished engineer) has to carry considerable weight.  

    I agree that LinkedIn recommendations are overused, but to me those are very different than a targeted, personal recommendation email. 

  • Sen Xu 胥森

     “anonymous recommendation”: Why do you think the recommendations are anonymous? Or do you consider engineers that are not TV-famous “anonymous”?

  • Suraj Jain

    I think the key point is that you have to always try to add more value to the startup than you are trying to receive. Whether it is providing ideas or suggestions in the initial email or bringing some analysis or presentation materials to the interview it is helpful to show you have the ability and drive to think about the business and come up with work product on your own. 

    It definitely helps to shift the conversation away from the qualifications to the ideas/presentation and it often results in a much more interesting discussion.

  • Ryan Olds

    When sending blind emails, if a blog or open source code can’t be found by googling your name or email address you better have experience in mountain moving.

  • John Buckley

    My experiences are consistent with this article.  Over my ~30 year career I’ve worked with 8 start-up organizations, twice as a co-owner.  For the other 6 occasions, I knew someone at the start-up 4 times, and 3 of those times the other person initiated contact – I didn’t even know the start up existed.  Once I responded to an ad – I was the 15th employee of a firm that would grow to over 500 before being acquired.  Once I was contacted by a recruiter.  

    Here are some additional points I would share.  

    1. Start-ups either fail relatively quickly, or are successful, and then are frequently acquired.  Either way, you can be looking for a new opportunity in fairly short order.  Growing and keeping your network active is essential for anyone interested in a career of successive start-ups.  

    2. Senior people in the acquired firm seldom, if ever, come out on top at the acquired company.  Even if you are offered a position, keep a back up plan warm on the back burner.

    3. In response to Andy, I hear what you are saying.  I would simply ask, would you put your reputation on the line by being disingenuous in a reference to help a friend get a job in which he/she would be very unlikely to succeed, even if you knew no one at the company?  I think not, and that’s true for most people, but you (and others) might be willing to point out your friend’s positive qualities while omitting the less flattering.  This does not make the reference valueless, although it is clearly not as valuable as a frank assessment by a mutual acquaintance. It’s just a starting point. This type reference’s largest value is that it is a starting point. It takes someone seasoned in recruiting to speak with the reference to elicit the avoided subjects, and to identify names of others that worked with the candidate, but were not offered as references by the candidate.  LinkedIn can be a very useful tool in this regard.  It is valuable to identify the individuals who worked at a company with the candidate, that the candidate’s connections are connected to, but not the candidate.  If you know those people’s names before speaking with a reference, you can bring their names up.  “Talk to me about [the candidate]’s relationship with [so and so]” is a great way to discover interesting information, both positive and negative.  The reference assumes you’ve gotten the name from the candidate, so will often be more open about the relationship.   

  • Quinten Farmer

    Thanks for writing John- glad to hear my (limited) experience being backed up across industries outside web technology startups.  

    Completely agree that startups are great for shortening the success/failure feedback loop. 

  • Tom

    I’m curious; why do you consider it essential to send a thank you letter post-interview. I’ve never sent one, and have had no problems being hired over several decades (and no one’s ever commented on not getting such from me after I started somewhere). And when I’ve done interviewing/hiring, at best such letters are a waste of my time as they don’t tell me anything about the candidate other than they’d been told they should send thank you letters. But I still have to read them anyway, just in case. 

  • Binrah

    It’s a non-optional social convention, Sheldon.

  • Quinten Farmer

    I think the thank you letter post interview can be effective if it: 1. is genuine (you are truly thanking the interviewer for the time), and 2. clearly lays out a plan for next steps in the interview process. 

    Additionally, in roles such as sales or anything client facing, a prompt and well written follow up is actually a fairly good proxy for how a candidate might behave in future client interactions.  If the candidate can’t be bothered to write a thank you email for a $100,000 a year job, will they also not care about following up to close a $10,000 deal for your company?  It’s a simple proxy but one that is surprisingly effective.  

  • Steve J. Gardner

    Well said Quinten!  This is one of the best posts on interviewing I have read to date.

  • Quora

    How can I work at a startup?…

    What are the best tips on getting a startup job as a software programmer? Does this article stating to stop applying at startups unless you have the founders close into your network?:

  • Would you??????? – Unemployblog

    […] Stop Applying to Startups […]

  • Interesting stuff (during a week in Asia) – Simone Brunozzi

    […] Farmer (Startup Geekonomics) writes about how to apply for jobs at startups. Definitively an interesting read. Interesting […]

  • Thomas Johnson

    Hey Quinten  !! I think your idea is good and your blog is really very impressive. This helps a person to be perfect before applying the job and facing the interview.

  • Sean

    good tips, in today’s competitive enviroment every little detail matters, even in the thank you letter.

  • How to Land Your Dream

    […] was the title of an excellent post by Quinten Farmer on the challenges of landing a startup job through the traditional application […]

  • The Traveling Saleswoman | Straight Trippin'

    […] Here’s an interesting article on how to differentiate yourself when applying to start-ups, and here is a list of some of the funniest, most original job solicitations on Craigslist of all time.  But this is just the tip of the iceberg.  What advice do you have?  How do I make myself stand out any more than I already have?  How do I sell myself to potential employers, without lowering my value or bargaining away my morals?  How do I do it?? […]

blog comments powered by Disqus