How to land a job in the right startup

Oct 22, 2017

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1 in 3 UK jobs are created by rapidly growing startups, and more than half of those jobs are based outside London. It’s a great time to be a graduate hunting for a working environment that’s equal parts unique and motivating.

Whatever the stats, those first post-degree months can be daunting. It can seem like a steep hill to climb to get any kind of decent graduate job, so aiming for an in-demand position at a hot startup is particularly nerve-wracking. There’s no foolproof blueprint or magic phrase to trot out, but the more clued up you are, the better your chances of landing the right startup job for you.

Research the big, the just-starting-out, and everything in-between

Got your eye on a coveted position at YouTube? By all means, apply for anything that takes your fancy, but don’t blinker yourself to the smaller startups that are on the rise. There was once a time when no one had heard of Uber.

Earlier this year, City AM published a list of ‘the hottest UK startups about to become household names’. Some of them (Bloom & Wild, ClearScore, Gousto) will already be familiar if you’re regularly targeted by photogenic ads on Instagram. If you join a smaller startup when it’s on the up, you could have more opportunities to make big changes, and you might even be entitled to share options in the company.

Don’t approach it like any other job application

A startup that disrupts industries might use traditional job advertising methods, but they’re more likely to rail against them.

Philadelphia-based search engine DuckDuckGo uses a process they call ‘inbound hiring’, meaning they don’t put their feelers out and see who responds, they only consider people who come straight to them. Just approaching the CEO in a coffee shop could be enough — “inbound hires might not even be looking for a job. They’re often just a user who reaches out because they want to get involved in some way”. Facebook finds new programmers by posing problems and seeing who can solve them, because they don’t think a CV tells them what a potential hire can actually do in a real context.

Approaching a startup you really want to work with directly might get you ignored (or possibly a polite “no thanks”), but it never hurts to make that initial contact in a proactive way. Even if you do apply for a role the old-fashioned way, approach them with suggestions and ideas relevant to your area, demonstrating what kind of impact you’d have if they brought you onboard.

Show them what you can do in a way they can’t ignore

Every graduate knows what it’s like to be competing with thousands of other really talented people, despite the number of graduate vacancies reaching an all-time high in 2016.

Focusing on all that competition is distracting and unhelpful, but having a realistic view of how difficult it can be to stand out isn’t. Producing a podcast, developing your own app, or heading up a relevant event at your uni shows you’re a self-starting creative, and it goes a lot further than just saying you’re a self-starting creative in a predictable cover letter.

Every company wants new hires who ‘add value’, but startups want that more than anyone. They rely on investors who want to see rapid growth, so everyone who comes on board needs to make a significant difference that no one else could offer. They’re unlikely to hire someone who hasn’t already got the right stuff, so have a glance over your CV as it currently stands and find ways to demonstrate who you are and what you can do better than anyone else.

Let your personality do the talking

Google wants “curious people” rather than ‘I-know-what-I’m-doing’ experts, Facebook wants people who are already “deeply invested” in the company, and Uber’s recruitment process is so lengthy that they must be after the most patient of people. It’s no secret that hirers are looking for the right personality just as much as they’re looking for the right skills.

There’s a lot of wisdom in our mums’ ‘just be yourself’ sentiment. Going to an interview and fitting whatever mould you think they want isn’t a great plan, though very tempting when you’re really keen to get the job. Every startup has its own personality and culture, which is impossible to know after a cursory glance around the office, so (on this one occasion) go with the cliché — be yourself. If you fit into the office culture, they’ll let you know, but you can’t manufacture it.

Like any job hunt, trying to land that startup job you really want involves a shed-load of trial and error. Unlike traditional industries though, startups basically have their expectations laid out on the table before you even make contact. If they’re disrupting an industry and trying to put their own stamp on it, they want someone who shares that vision. If that’s you, it’s time to prove it.

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