How to Get an Exciting Job at a Startup



Apr. 2 2015, Published 3:30 a.m. ET

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What do employers want?

It seems pretty simple, right? They want employees that can handle the basics – getting to work on time, meeting deadlines, working with a team, leading a group – and also some of the more job-specific requirements, like delivering on projects and coming up with killer ideas. And they want to hire someone who feels like a good fit for the company.

When I was growing up, it felt like a formula. I had to fill out my standard issue resume and cover letter, show up in a blazer, answer the interview questions without a hitch, and then cross my fingers and hope the person behind me didn’t have one extra year of experience.

These days, the process of getting hired can look a lot different. Maybe you send a cover email instead of a cover letter, maybe all your interviews happen digitally, in Google Hangout, and maybe your work samples are 10x more important than your pedigree.

If you’re applying for a job at a startup, you can probably count on all of the above.

You see, entrepreneurs, the brave souls who go out on a limb and found their own companies, are under pressure. They have a thousand and one things to accomplish (like, now), and they need someone who can get things done.

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When you set out to work for a startup, you’re usually applying to join a smaller team, a team where everyone pulls their weight (and then some), and a team that has to run like clockwork. And that means you are responsible for YOU. More than anything, founders need to delegate some of their responsibilities to employees they can TOTALLY trust, so they can focus on one thing – growing their business.

What does this mean for you? I’m glad you asked!

During the interview process show that you are:

Entrepreneurs care so much about the mission of the company their building. Explain why you are passionate about working for their company. Entrepreneurs want to find someone who loves their company almost as much as they do. Working at a startup can be like riding a roller coaster – there are often extreme highs and lows. If you’re passionate you’ll be more likely to work harder and stay the course.

Entrepreneurs are looking for intrapreneurs. They hope to find someone with an entrepreneurial spirit. They want people who are proactive problem-solvers. Take the initiative and let the founder know some ways you would improve their company and solve problems once hired.

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Explain situations where you worked well on a team. Startups are normally small and people will inevitably have to go “above their job descriptions.” Show that you have a collaborative mindset and are willing to do whatever it takes to help the team succeed.

Just like any job, it’s important to show that you have the skills and capabilities necessary for the position. Companies hire because they need someone to come in and solve a problem. You need to show why you’re the person who can solve their problem. Know what you’re best at and offer that to the team’s mission.

Don’t believe me? I asked the experts: This is what 7 startup founders have to say about what it takes to become one of their dream employees:

Lauren McGoodwin, Career Contessa:

Career Contessa is an online platform that guides career-driven women to effective changes in their occupation. They go beyond resume tips by showcasing the careers of successful women.

Lauren is looking for people with an entrepreneurial spirit. She hires people who want to build things – not maintain them. Specifically, she looks for people who want to find solutions and make improvements instead of doing things because “that’s how it’s been done before.”

She also looks for someone who can fit into the team dynamic. They must be a team player. She said, “When the team is small, it’s important to find people who work well together and will help and collaborate with one another.”

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Candidates also need to have the skills to do the job. They have to want it and be passionate about the work they’ll be doing. They don’t necessarily have to have experience – but they need to show initiative through classes or a track record like a portfolio of work.

She is also looking for people who are passionate and committed to Career Contessa’s mission. If you are diving into the job, you’re going to be way more successful if you’re personally inspired by the company’s goals.

Erin Zaikis, The Sundara Fund:

The Sundara Fund is effecting change with soap(!). Sundara was founded on the belief that preventable hygiene related deaths should not be happening anywhere in the world today. They combine local hygiene initiatives with community education, environmental preservation and female empowerment whenever possible to ensure holistic public health solutions for these communities in need.

The most important qualities Erin looks for are passion, trustworthiness, and experience – in that order.

Erin has had bad past experiences with dishonest people who don’t care about the mission of Sundara Fund. Her criteria has stemmed from past failures – like having an employee who used company money to go to a nightclub and hair salon!

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Passion is a very important component of her hiring decisions. Erin told me, “In nonprofits, let’s be honest, the salaries aren’t that attractive, so that usually weeds out people who are ‘just in it for the money.’ However, a lot of the time the passion isn’t there. They might think that they care about an issue, but are they really willing to work long hours in unglamorous conditions for that? Will they get personal satisfaction out of the work they do every day? We try to screen for issues like that and find out where their values and priorities are for doing the work they do.”

She approaches job interviews like a date – she tries to get to know people on a deep level quickly and “like(s) to learn about a candidate in their own words: ask them about their background, what they could change about the world, what issues make them sad, what they want their legacy to be.”

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Katherine Feiner:

Katherine Feiner is a fashion label born out of designer Katherine Feiner’s ongoing love affair with exquisite textiles and fabrics combined with a laid-back yet refined feminine aesthetic.

Katherine looks for a candidate who has confidence and the ability to take ownership of his or her role.

She is managing a smaller and growing business so it’s important that people see their position as more than just a job. They must be able to adopt the mindset that “their success is everyone’s success (and vice versa) and ultimately builds the business.”

She is also looking for someone who is collaborative. Katherine does not have patience for egos and entitlement so “a team player and an open communicator are essential qualities. At the end of the day – we’re all on the same team, working towards the same goals – which is building something we love, that makes us proud and excited to be a part of!”

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Ellie Somerville McNevin, Gray & Co.

Gray & Co. is a public relations consulting firm focusing on startups, small businesses, and entrepreneurs.

Ellie looks for someone that she gets along with and someone who is excited about her vision for the company. She told me that she’s interviewed a lot of people with the right skill sets but, “If they weren’t passionate about the big picture and growing a company from the ground up, it wasn’t ever going to be a fit. Working with a young business means working on something new every day, so I’m always looking for someone that is flexible, driven, and isn’t shy about bringing ideas to the table.”

Sierra Barter, The Lady Project

The Lady Project connects, inspires and showcases awesome women doing amazing things through membership, events and community engagement, with chapters in Providence, Boston, New Haven, Nashua, and New York.

Sierra is looking for passion, drive, and a willingness to build something from the ground up. She explained, “When you’re starting a company, a new hire and can make or break you. It’s important to bring someone on who complements your team and is willing to work hard.”

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Samantha Cooper, Trend Tribe

Trend Tribe is a New York-based accessories company that not only has the hottest trends at the most affordable price (everything is less than $50!), but also provides college students hands-on experience as philanthropic fashionpreneurs.

The most important quality that Samantha is looking for is the candidate’s ability to take initiative. She wants for everyone on the team to be able to not only identify opportunities for improvement but also to take the initiative to conquer the project. She told me about a time someone emailed her saying, “‘I see you’re currently listed as #8 on Google, but I can help you get to #1. Can I intern for you?’” The person got the internship even though Samantha wasn’t looking for someone to take on the role. She was hired because, “She showed that she can take initiative and has the skill set to solve problems and make improvements. That’s huge.”

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Adda Birnir, Skillcrush

Skillcrush is an interactive online community where students learn to code, create professional-caliber websites, and market their new skills in the evolving world of tech.

Hiring is one of the hardest parts of Adda’s job as CEO. She emphasized that, “It’s impossible to really know how someone is going to work out in the long term from a 30 minute interview. The best you can hope for is to determine whether they are crazy (or not!) and if they have the skills you need from them.”

She added, “ironically, in this way, I think hiring designers and developers is actually easier because they can show you their code or show you their designs and that is a very good way to assess someone’s skill level. How do you hire for a good manager? How do you hire for someone who can design good systems and processes? Much harder!”

Adda is looking for people who can adapt to the culture at a startup, “The challenge of a startup is that there is an endless list of things to do, things are always changing, and you have to be able to both go with the flow and get sh*t done in the midst of utter chaos. And like it!”

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She’s also learned to be wary of people who talk a BIG game, “Ironically, that can often indicate that they are good at high level thinking and less good at on-the-ground execution. In terms of figuring that out, it’s all about talking to someone about past projects and getting them to talk really granularly about what it took to execute the project, how they broke down a BIG problem into a smaller one, how they assessed whether it was working, etc. etc.”

But don’t let all of these expectations weigh you down. Sure, working at a startup requires a special set of skills, but the most important things separating working at a startup from dealing with drudgery on the corporate ladder are passion, drive, and commitment.

When you work at a startup, you’re not just agreeing to pay with benefits – you’re taking on a mission. Whether that means bringing clean water to the world or designing scarves funded by a Kickstarter, your primary goal isn’t “making it to lunch” or even “getting a promotion,” it’s making something big happen in the world.

Sheryl Sandberg once said that the best career advice she ever received was from former Google CEO Eric Schmidt. He said, “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, get on, don’t ask what seat.” Show that you have these skills and qualities, and you just might land a seat on a rocketship.

Elana Lyn Gross is a content strategist, freelance writer, and the author of the career advice and lifestyle blogElana Lyn. Her work has appeared in Time, Business Insider, and The Huffington Post. When she is not writing, she can be found taking long walks in Central Park.

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