Recently, I returned to his alma mater, Marquette University, to participate in a panel discussion at the Kohler Center for Entrepreneurship where he discussed his path in the startup world and shared some insight with students looking to get involved. Years ago, inspired by this post from Christine Tsai of 500 Startups, Brett jotted down some tips for people early in their careers looking to find a job at an early stage company.
We put our heads together on this post and would love to have you share it with young (or old!) people in your network who may be interested in what a career in the startup world has to offer.
1. Look Locally…or Not (Nate)
Most of the time, the best and most immediate way to build your network and learn more about how startups are built is by becoming a member of the community. How can you make that leap?
Learn about area accelerators and incubators
For many startups, the first step in their growth is to attend an accelerator. Here is a quick primer on accelerators.
When companies are at this stage, it is unlikely that they are in hiring mode since they are still so early in the development of their product and business model. If you are committed to taking a long term approach to building a career in the technology space, these can be great companies to get to know. Some will be successful. Most won’t. But if you start following their progress early and make a point to connect with the founders, you can learn a ton.
Check out startup meetups and events
We get into some more in depth tips on attending conferences and events a bit later but for now, know that rule #1 is to listen more than you speak. Soak everything in at first, ask questions and always remember to follow up with interesting people after the event (email is better than LinkedIn).
Treat it like a sales process
Most startup ecosystems are close knit, especially as you move outside of major markets like the Bay Area and New York. When working your way into your local ecosystem, treat it like a sales process.
Try to connect with as many interesting companies as you can. Some of that outreach will turn into an email exchange, some will turn into a phone call. Most will net you no response. When you don’t hear back (or when you hear ‘no’), don’t be discouraged. Work to nurture relationships over time by checking in, complimenting the company on their growth, or sharing some quick insight that you think might help them.
All that said, one of the most immediate ways you can make yourself valuable to an early-stage company is by offering to do the type of work that they are having trouble filling. For my first startup job, I joined Groupon’s launch team in Australia. Brett’s took him all the way to India.
2. Build the Right Network (Brett)
It may seem like this is overly broad, throwaway advice. Everyone knows building a network is important for any personal or professional pursuit! So if you are a driven person, it is inevitable that you will invest in building your network.
Making sure you are building the right network, the right way is where it can get tricky. Here are three actionable ways you can go about building your startup network.
Seek out those who have taken your path
When I began my first search years ago, I spent a lot of time digging through the websites and LinkedIn profiles of local startups to see if there was anyone on their management teams that I would be able to connect with (same initial profession, same college, etc.). I eventually found an individual working with a very cool Chicago-based company, called FeeFighters, that had started out his career in banking in a similar role. After a cold email, he agreed to meet up for coffee and offered me some extremely useful advice about making decisions based on what is essentially a regret minimization framework.
It can be daunting to try to gain entrance into a community that seems so exclusive and it may be difficult to find someone that has taken the exact same path as you, but with a little digging, you should be able to find someone whose lead you can follow.
Backchannel your way to the front of the line
There is a common quote about fundraising that goes something like:
“If you want money, ask for advice. If you want advice, ask for money.”
Something similar rings true when looking for a way into the startup world. Since the success or failure of a young company lies in the hands of so few, trust is critical. Focus first on finding people to connect with and learn from, then ask who else they would be willing to connect you with. As you build a reputation as a thoughtful individual who asks good questions, the odds of having one of those intros turn into an interview begins to increase.
We will dive into how you can do this in a later section but for now, just know that relationships are never a one-way street. While you are out there looking to break into the right company, always ask yourself what you may be able to do to help the person on the other end of the discussion.
3. Time Your Outreach (Nate)
When talking to companies, understanding the market they are in and being able to articulate how you envision yourself contributing are table stakes. Showing that you understand when companies hire can set you apart. That often means being proactive and reaching out to interesting companies before they have posted a job you think you might be a fit for. Here are a couple good times to reach out.
When they are in hyper growth mode
Articles about the company and its founders can help form an initial filter for you as you search for companies in your area. Of course, press validation and fawning from industry insiders on Twitter doesn’t mean the company is a sure thing. In some cases, the PR push is done to distract people from real problems with the business. You have to determine a company’s trajectory for yourself by asking the right questions.
Usually though, press indicates that the business has found some initial traction and can signal a need to bring on more great people. Even if there aren’t positions listed that you are a perfect fit for, don’t be shy about getting in touch. As this New York Times piece recently pointed out, getting in with the right company is often more important than finding the right role.
When they just raised a round of funding
One thing to understand about VC-backed companies is that they often spend the first few years of their existence losing money as they push to find validation in the market and/or reach a critical mass of customers or users. As a result of that dynamic, fundraising becomes an important part of growing the business. Fundraising gives the company money to try different acquisition channels, expand to new markets, and most importantly, hire new people.
To know when a company has raised money, subscribe to StrictlyVC or one of the other great industry-focused newsletters that can help you save a ton of time in your search.
Whenever you feel like it 🙂
As with anything, the timing is never going to be perfect. So if you have a target company in mind, reach out! Tell them how you found out about their company, why you are excited about what they are working on, and where you see them fitting into the market as they grow.
4. Become an Expert (Brett)
Years ago, during one of those classic “corporate life is so boring, man” discussions that fresh graduates are so good at having, I told all of my friends that I wanted to work for a startup. One of my buddies stayed above the fray in the conversation and asked me what skills I actually had that could help a startup. Turns out I didn’t really have any.
When I met with the former banker that I discussed before, I was wondering what special skill set he had that allowed him to make the switch. Turns out he didn’t really have one either so he decided to learn the ins and outs of online marketing and SEO. He did this by taking unpaid jobs on Craigslist and learning on his own time. The progression certainly wasn’t glamorous but the work got him to where he wanted to be.
Another approach is to learn everything you can about a specific market or vertical. At an early stage company, no matter how experienced you are or what your job description is, you are going to be asked to do things outside of your immediate skillset. Having a clear understanding of your company’s vision and the market they are operating in can help you build a framework for attacking new projects that fall outside of what you have done before.
Once you’ve started getting your bearings in your chosen area, start writing about it, conversing about it on Twitter, or seeking out people to discuss your thoughts with. Your writing won’t be good at first, your Tweets may miss the mark, and you might not be able to connect with everyone you are hoping to. Don’t be discouraged.
5. Understand the Startup Mindset (Brett)
At a small company, everyone is responsible for offering insight into which direction the company should be taking. That is not usually the case in more traditional industries with more structured hierarchies.