This July, General Assembly’s Atlanta campus hosted a panel discussion called How to land a job at a startup. Three in-house recruiter panelists were there from three Atlanta high-tech startups: Ionic Security, InfusionSoft, and Pindrop Security. All the companies have raised several rounds of VC financing, and all are actively hiring tech and marketing talent.
They discussed providing an outlet for the Atlanta tech startup community about how to land a job at a fast-growing, VC-funded tech startup. The lessons we learned from this panel discussion can be broken up into three categories.
1. Set your expectations correctly.
When you set out to work for a tech startup, there are certain perceptions that are not always true. You should research the startups you’re targeting and talk to people who work or have worked there.
Many startups will pay less than market rate for many positions, but make up for it in great culture, benefits, or huge (potential) gains through stock options.
Any startup is a wild ride, and high-tech startups are no different. A good barometer of the highs and lows is the leadership team and investors. Have they been there and done that before, or is this their first rodeo?
You may not be called on to do everything, but in a fast-paced, all-or-nothing startup you should be ready and willing to do just about anything (moral & ethical) to get the job done. You never know what skills you have until you are called upon to improvise.
High risk, high reward
Every new business has an element of risk, and the internet technology space can turn on a dime; however, like the three firms represented at this panel discussion, VC-backed firms have a far better chance to succeed because of the nature and networks of the VC. It’s their money, and they tend to take big risks to get big rewards.
It’s not what you think. Not every startup is full of 23-year-old founders and executives. The average age in all three of these great Atlanta startups is well over 30. And, did you know that the average age of a successful tech entrepreneur is 40?
Part of the culture benefits of working for a startup is the flexibility of working hours. Yes, most business will get done between 9am-6pm, but unless you’re in a customer-facing role, it’s not necessary to clock in at 9 and clock out at 5.
Most employees that are new to a startup are shocked at the speed of the game. It’s fast. It’s unpredictable. That’s what makes it fun (for many). When the time is right, the business has to seize the opportunity that it’s been aiming for since inception. And when change sweeps in, it sweeps in fast.
2. Take a good look at yourself.
Some people are naturally cut out for the startup world. It suits them, and they thrive on change and a little (or a lot of) chaos. Others, not so much. Before you set your sights on a hot VC-backed startup, do a little internal inventory, and see if you really fit.
Do you have it? If you have to ask… maybe you don’t. Grit is one of those undefinable qualities that shows up when the going gets rough. Who takes the lead? Who dives in and gets the job done? Ask your current or former boss and coworkers if you have grit.
If you enjoy being the smartest person in the room, then startups may not be the best place for you. The most constant thing about tech startups is that everyone is constantly learning and always willing to learn. No matter what you know, you don’t know it all.
What can you do? This question is different than “what do you want to do?” What are you capable of doing and willing to do? Make coffee? Make more coffee? Fix the beer keg? Fly to India? Spend 3 weeks on site training the biggest customer? Whatever it is, are you willing to get it done?
There simply is no substitute for a great sense of humor at any startup. Things are tough even after you raise $78 million, like Ionic, because then the pressure only increases. The ability to laugh at yourself and bring levity to the team is priceless.
Attitude, not aptitude
The saying goes like this, “Hire for passion, not skills. You can teach skills, but you cannot teach passion.” You don’t have to be the very best, but if you have the very best attitude, you’ll go far in the startup world.
Solutions, not problems
Talking about a problem without bringing a solution to the table has a name: complaining. Just like there’s no crying in baseball, there’s no complaining in startups. That’s where properly setting your expectations comes in very handy.
The best quote from the discussion panel was “When someone shows up in a suit, our founder asks ‘Are we being audited or sued?’ ” Yes, you should do a little homework in this area before your interview.
3. Stand out from the crowd (in a good way).
There are many ways to set yourself apart from the crowd, some better than others. The methods below apply to tech talent as well as marketing talent. Make sure you are doing something to stand out in a very positive way.
If you are a software developer, you must have a Github account, and you must be very active in Github. All three of the panelists cited examples of very poor resumes and interview skills, but fantastic projects and interaction on Github that won those candidates a job.
Make a plan
You know what job you’re applying for, and therefore, you should know how to do that job. Create your own plan for how you will do the job, and send it to the recruiter prior to your interview. Doing so will not only demonstrate initiative, but also show the hiring manager how you think. Even if your plan is not THE plan that will end up being implemented or working, treat it like 9th-grade math: show your work!
Know your value
At some point late in the interview process, you’re going to discuss monetary compensation. Before you get to that point, you should know your own value, according to the market and according to whether or not your potential employer pays at or below market levels for your type of position.
Take initiative by doing your homework
You play like you practice, so show some initiative prior to any interview by digging into the company and finding out as much information as possible about what you’ll be doing and how they go about doing it. Demonstrate that you’ve done the research to understand the most important aspects of the job you want.
Ask really great questions
From the research you’ve done, ask the genuine questions that you have and want to know the answers to. Write these questions down and make it a priority to ask them of every interviewer.
Do I really want to work with this person?
This is the question that everyone who interviews you will ultimately be asking themselves. Eight to ten hours a day (at least!) is a long time to work every day with someone you don’t really like. You should also ask yourself this same question about the people you meet in your interviews.
This discussion panel’s purpose was to inform and educate the local talent about the best way to apply for and make the most of your opportunities to land a job at a fast-growing tech startup. If you’ve never worked at a startup before, making sure you have accurate perceptions, a great attitude, and the right approach can make all the difference in your tech startup future.
Get a job at a startup and begin your career in tech.