Alex Berg is the Chief Product Officer of Bonanza and Bags Bonanza. Bonanza is a marketplace focused on creating a browse-friendly experience that helps you discover unique items. Prior to Bonanza, Alex served in leadership positions with Wetpaint, Expedia and Blue Nile.
While unemployment remains high, some sectors are hiring at a breakneck pace. New startups are cropping up in cities across the U.S., with hotspots emerging in New York, Chicago, Austin, Seattle and, of course, San Francisco and Silicon Valley. If you’ve been limiting your job search to more established companies, you might just be missing out. For every Twitter, Groupon and Zynga, there are dozens of smaller-stage companies emerging and hiring everyone from programmers to interns.
However, when it comes to hiring decisions, startups are a breed of their own. With their unique value systems, knowing a startup’s particular “fit” criteria can mean the difference between a second round of interviews and being shown the door. Equally important, of course, is understanding how well the startup fits you.
1. Why “Fit” Matters
Startups are for believers. This isn’t to say that Pollyannas abound at your average startup, but most folks are there to make a significant impact. This is true with regard to their own day-to-day roles as well as the impact that their company makes on the world at large. Startups like to disrupt markets and challenge Goliath-like competitors. Getting everyone on board is crucial to their success, and the wrong fit stands out like a red-shirted crew member in a Star Trek landing party.
Fit goes beyond merely finding believers, though. In larger companies, you can often avoid interactions with the office jerk, but the small size and fox hole mentality of a startup can turn a jerk into a real morale killer. Not surprisingly, startups are laser-focused on making sure the fit is right. When there are less than a dozen employees in a company, every one really matters. The challenge is that what constitutes fit varies from startup to startup. Some startups celebrate collaboration and autonomy, while others are manically focused on productivity or technical innovation.
And, of course, fit is a two-way street. It has to be right for you, as well. Find out as much as you can about the culture before you go in. Check out LinkedIn and sniff out info from people in your own network. Read reviews on sites like Glassdoor, but take these with a grain of salt. Company review sites can be a haven for the disgruntled and startups likely don’t have lots of ex-employees anyway. Ask pointed questions of managers and individual contributors and see how their answers line up. Don’t compromise any strongly held beliefs and don’t expect the startup to adapt to you either. If the fit is not right, be ready to walk away — buyer’s remorse of the career variety is the worst kind.
2. Getting Noticed
Once you have your sights set, the first thing to do is get on the radar. Startups’ focus on fit makes them a fairly incestuous lot. They tend to hire friends and former colleagues, so relationships really count. The best way to get noticed is not through the front door. Hop on LinkedIn and comb through your contacts. There’s a good chance that someone in your extended network knows someone who knows someone who can get you in touch directly. Take the burden off of your contact by making it clear you aren’t asking for a recommendation, only that they pass you along.
3. Spring Cleaning
While you’re mining your network, make sure your LinkedIn profile is current and nicely polished. A pretty resume template looks very “1997,” and many startups have a bias against those not taking advantage of what they consider superior tools. Besides, at some point, the decision maker is going to pour over your profile looking for someone who can provide an unsolicited reference. So make sure your skills and job history are current and your endorsements are strong.
Lastly, do yourself a favor and Google your own name before they do (and they certainly will). Make sure your online presence is the very best version of you. You don’t need to eliminate your personality, but that late night tweet or old spring break photo might be perceived unflattering.
4. Do Your Homework
Before your interview, find out who you will be meeting with. Get the names of your interviewers and research their backgrounds. You might even get lucky and know someone who has worked with them and can give you the inside scoop. When asking for feedback on a company or prospective manager, resist the temptation to send the easy email. Offer to buy a coffee instead. In a world where emails get forwarded fast, you’ll find people understandably reluctant to dish online. When candor matters, cappuccinos are currency. Even if you don’t have a direct connection, understanding your interviewers’ unique backgrounds can give you insights into how they think and what they are looking for.
When candor matters, cappuccinos are currency.
Preparation goes beyond the interviewers, though. Get to know the company’s products and get to know them well. Have pointed questions and suggestions written down and ready for discussion. Candidates who don’t bother to try a company’s products demonstrate an appalling lack of interest and are often shown the door.
5. Showing You Have What it Takes
Startups don’t want people who do what’s asked of them and little more. They want people who genuinely love what they do. Be ready to tell multiple stories about how you went above and beyond the call of duty. If you don’t have any examples in your work experience, create one as a side project. Taking on an extracurricular project shows passion, curiosity, and enthusiasm — characteristics that are incredibly attractive to startups. When interviewing engineers, my teams always look for “tinkerers” — engineers dabbling in Ruby on the side, or designers escaping their day-to-day template work with more exciting outside projects. Demonstrate that you’re more than a solid contributor and have all-star potential, and remember that showing is always more powerful than telling.
A close second to having initiative is being adaptable. In a world where terms like “fast failure” and “pivot” are celebrated, you have to be ready to flex. Startups change direction. Sometimes it’s simply a collection of tactics, but on occasion it’s the entire company strategy. Prove you’re not just tolerant of change, but actively embrace it. If you were a part of a new initiative at your previous employer, be ready to tell the story.
Startups also value candidates who are focused on what can be done, rather than on what cannot. This might sound obvious, but early stage startup teams in particular are focused on validating the appeal and market for their products. This requires rapid and repeated trial and error. What makes this possible is a culture that champions what can be done, and done quickly. Startup productivity comes to a grinding halt when the focus shifts from the possibilities to edge cases. Demonstrate your openness to new ideas and creative thinking, taking care to build on the ideas of others rather than tearing them down.
6. Tilt Your Scale Toward “Work”
Every company talks about valuing a work/life balance, but the fact of the matter is that most startups’ scales are weighted more heavily toward work. If your situation requires a predictable 9-to-5 schedule and 40 hours a week, a startup probably isn’t the right place for you. If you are accustomed to longer hours and the occasional night or weekend, that’s the kind of thing they want to know.
7. Beware of the Oncoming Bus
Take care when referring to your previous employers and managers. While your last manager might have indeed been incompetent, you’re not going to earn any points by throwing them under the bus. If you do, you’ll come across as jaded and start raising big, red “fit flags.” Find the positive in your previous gigs and, when pressed about why you are looking, retain a positive outlook. If the situation warrants it, by all means be candid, but don’t be petty. No one hires that guy.
8. Follow Up
Don’t disappear once you’ve left the interview. It’s important that you not only stay top-of-mind but also that you build your own personal momentum as a candidate. Get business cards or email addresses from your interviewers. For extra points, go beyond the mere thank-you note that expresses excitement about the opportunity and add something to the conversation. Flub an answer? This is your chance to fix it. Have an epiphany in the car afterward? Share it. Continue to demonstrate passion and interest and you’ll rise to the top.
Above all, the most important thing you can do is find out what the startup uniquely values, ensure it aligns with your own interests, and then demonstrate that you’re the perfect fit. Startup teams labor over hiring decisions heavily. The skills conversation takes about five minutes. The fit conversation? That one can take hours.