how to get a job at a startup

Working at a startup can be invigorating, challenging and rewarding. Here at SpareFoot, we’re invigorated, challenged and rewarded every day. Maybe that’s why hundreds of folks knock on our virtual door each month in pursuit of a career opportunity at our successful startup. (Of course, the fully stocked bar helps our cause.)

By no means is this phenomenon limited to SpareFoot. All around our hometown of Austin, startups like Bigcommerce, Mass Relevance and Spredfast field loads of job inquiries. It’s a pretty safe bet that these companies—and tons of other startups—pass over a sizable number of those inquiries because the would-be employees failed to make a good first impression.

In fact, in-house recruiter Rachel Morse said SpareFoot sacks about 130 job candidates each week. “Those that apply for every position possible are usually rejected,” she warned.

Morse emphasized that if you fail to submit a cover letter that’s tailored to the job you’re seeking, it’s a sure sign that you’re blanketing the market with applications.

“Your application at every startup is stored for years, so don’t just litter the town with your résumé,” she said. “Be thoughtful and careful and sincere.”

Here are seven tips on how to up your game when it comes to scoring a job at a startup.

girl doing homework

1. Do Your Homework.
Ginny Hunter, the “happiness trailblazer” at San Francisco tech startup Groopt, said you should get to know startups that you think would be a good fit for your career.

This doesn’t just mean that they have a ping-pong table. This
 means you dig their mission and their product,” Hunter said.

Small business loan specialist Denise Beeson suggested checking out local startup incubators for job prospects, seeking out local professors who may want to commercialize their ideas, and visiting the website of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to find local inventors.

“You may find an inventor who is great at what he does but needs a person of your skills to commercialize technology,” Beeson said.

online profile

2. Beef Up Your Online Presence.
Erin Wasson, vice president of marketing at Chicago tech startup UrbanBound, said it’s not enough to just maintain an online presence. That presence must be superior, she said. This includes your online portfolio, personal website and social media profiles.

Wasson said she wants to learn about a job candidate before asking that person to come in for an interview.

I cannot stress enough
 how important culture is at a startup. I need to make sure that any new hire 
is not only going to mesh well with my team, but is hungry to learn, grow and build a business with us,” Wasson said. “Put frankly, if I can’t get a sense of who 
you are, you won’t get a job.”

Rajesh Setty, co-founder and president of Silicon Valley tech startup WittyParrot, offered these additional tips for boosting your online persona:

  • Start a blog.
  • Answer questions on Quora or similar community sites.
  • Create compelling YouTube videos based on your expertise.
  • Put together presentations and post them on SlideShare.

bars of gold

3. Show Your Value.
Nate Mirizio, a writer at Pittsburgh startup
 The Resumator, which produces recruiting software, said that if you want to work at a startup, you’ve got to demonstrate your value.

Show them what
 you’ve done, built, designed, programmed, edited, marketed or whatever
 else,” Mirizio said. “If that means tweeting the CEO, do it. If it means finding the
 director of engineering on LinkedIn, do it. Just back up your claims with
 proof right from the start. Startups don’t have time to wade through
 paragraphs of embellishment or irrelevant résumé filler.”


4. Offer to Work for Free.
Yes, that’s right—free. While you don’t want to go without a paycheck for too long, doing some pro bono labor for a cash-strapped startup can pay off.

“Bring them deals, help them refine their product or introduce them to a strategic partner,” Setty said. “Give first, and reciprocation will bring you the necessary goodness.”


5. Do Some Networking.
Get out and meet people at alumni events, industry conferences, business happy hours and other gatherings.

Setty suggested volunteering at startup-focused events to build relationships with organizers, speakers and others in attendance. “If you serve well, doors will open,” he said.

Jeanine Swatton, a consultant and recruiter for startups, said many startups sponsor meet-ups solely to find qualified job candidates.

“Startups do not have to go through a long process when hiring. Their 
process is fast and simple. If people attend these events, they are
 more likely to land a startup job instantly,” Swatton said.

standing out

6. Do Something to Stand Out.
It goes without saying that you don’t want to stand out for the wrong reasons—tons of typos on your résumé, for instance. But you do want to set yourself apart from the competition in a positive way.

Sam Rosen, CEO of New York storage startup MakeSpace, said the company’s first customer-facing employee, named Zev, landed an interview after delivering a mock MakeSpace storage bin “filled with goodies and a note outlining why he thought he would be a good fit for the position. In a crowded applicant pool, this got our attention.”

Nonetheless, MakeSpace rejected Zev after a not-so-impressive interview. Rather than giving up, though, Zev shot a follow-up email to the company right after that interview to stress why he was right for the job. MakeSpace wound up hiring Zev after this demonstration of his passion for the position—and after another interview.

“Passion is something that’s hard to fake. In my experience, passionate employees make the best type of employees,” Rosen said. “Their positive energy makes them valuable assets and can be molded into their roles.”


7. Be Persistent.
Hunter said she first emailed her current employer a year before securing a job there to introduce herself and let Groopt know that she admired the company. While a startup may not have any appropriate openings at that stage, “that doesn’t mean you can’t at least 
get a toe in the door,” she said.

“It’s about getting on their radar,” Hunter said.

Jeff Kear, co-owner of Denver software startup Planning Pod, agreed with Hunter’s take.

“Startup owners often have the attention span of a lab rat
 because we are doing so many things at once, and so those people who 
intentionally stay on our radar are the ones who get hired,” Kear said. “Use Facebook, LinkedIn and occasional phone calls and messages to politely but regularly stay 
in front of us, because we want people who are as driven and passionate as 
we are.”

You also should keep up with the company through its social media channels and website, “and show you really care,” Hunter said.

“When a position does open 
up, you won’t be a stranger to them,” she said.