If you’re a college student or recent graduate with an eye on working at a startup straight out of college, you have your work cut out for you.
Startups, youthful and irreverent as they typically are, generally consist of incredibly busy people for whom the most valuable resource in the world is time. When startups hire, they try to minimize the gap between onboarding and contribution to growth by looking for experienced talent who will hit the ground running. None of this is to say that startups have an aversion to fresh grads, just that the most important factor they’re looking for is one’s readiness to do the job in question.
For recent graduates who are entirely inexperienced, the way in is harder, but not impossible. Here are seven tips for putting yourself in the best position to demonstrate value off the bat to a startup company.
Understand what employment is. This is sometimes the most jarring reality to grasp for someone moving from the top of the “youth” ladder to the bottom of the “adult” ladder. In school, you are surrounded by an apparatus designed to help you. In an office, you’re there to help the business. When I see a cover letter that focuses on how a job can help the candidate grow, I know they’re probably not ready to contribute value immediately. Of course enthusiasm is important — at a startup, sometimes it’s all the business runs on — and nothing is more important to us than the happiness of our employees. But in order to become an employee, you need to show how you’re going to help the organization. Training is the single route you have to achieving that. You need to skill up.
Figure out what you want to do. As an inexperienced candidate, you’ll need to put in a lot of work to qualify yourself for any role you pursue, no matter what industry or type of job it is. Cast a wide net if you’re unsure of where your interests and talents lie, but eventually, try to winnow your options down to a certain role that you feel good about spending a lot of unpaid time learning. If you don’t identify what you’ll have the perseverance to grow into, you’re going to spin your wheels and have little to show for it.
Use your resume to display your ‘portfolio.’ The strongest evidence that you’re sufficiently skilled to take on a role is a robust body of work. Job descriptions on a resume are great, but specific highlights — projects or pieces you’ve completed — will better demonstrate your grasp of the role. How you show this will vary by position; a graphic designer’s portfolio is going to look a lot different than an aspiring accountant’s. But in all cases, try to relate these discrete, successful projects to your readiness on Day 1.
Intern well. Nothing proves your capacity to help a company like having excelled in their office already. If you land an internship that you hope leads to a job, offer to contribute as substantially as they’ll allow in whatever fields they need. Especially at a startup, the roles will likely be fluid and you’ll get a good survey of the business’s operations. It’s the kind of place that could hire you for a job you created from scratch. If you find an area you particularly like, delve into it.
Understand the space. One of the chief intangibles an experienced hire brings to the table is their knowledge of the company’s space. If you’re inexperienced, it’s that much more imperative to demonstrate a knowledge of both the company and the industry. You should be able to dissect why their brand positioning is the way it is, and understand how they stack up against their competition. Ideally, this knowledge will arrive attendant to your broader effort to acquire the skills needed to even be considered for your chosen role. Make sure your skills training isn’t done in a vacuum.
Make sure the culture fits. Culture is incredibly important to startups: they’re small teams of people going through thick and thin with one another, trying to impact their small slice of the market better than anyone else. Culture is the unifying theory of the company. Before you join, make sure that you’re a good fit in the office, and vice versa. Our team, for example, is boisterous and playful. We love big celebrations and stress ball battles. Other offices are more subdued, others more corporate, others less results-driven. It takes all kinds. If you’re trying to impress particular companies into hiring you, help yourself out by knowing the culture when you walk in the door.
Be proactive. The chief way in which you’re preparing yourself to work at a startup is, of course, skills training in whatever your chosen role requires. Past that, make sure that you’re proactive in getting yourself in front of companies. Buff up your LinkedIn; that should go without saying. It’s a huge resource to companies looking to staff particular skills. You might also want to arrange an informational interview with companies you particularly like. This will give you insight into what they do, what they need, and what their culture is like. Cold-call hirers; send pitches to CEOs. Do what you can to make yourself look as eager and ready as possible to step in and help.
The single most important determinant of your readiness to work at a startup is whether you can add value right away. Don’t think of a job at a startup as something you need to get; think of it as what happens when you become skilled enough to contribute.
Luckily, skills are available to anyone. That’s one of the great things about a good training program: they give you what you’ll need just as quickly as they can get a 30-year veteran up to speed on a new development in the industry. There’s also the lasting benefits of skills empowerment. Whether you get a job at the specific company your heart is set on, your know-how is an asset that goes with you wherever your career takes you.
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