Don Hoang

How to Find a Job at a Startup that You Want

Quick update: this was posted on the Stanford blog…

When I graduated from business school, I didn’t have a job.  Rather than go the “traditional” route that most bschool students go I wanted to be in the Valley and work in tech.

Everything I knew about recruiting from my i-banking and PE days went out the door.

I spent about 5-months and speaking to over 80 companies to finally find one that was the right fit.

There are tons of blog posts about this and I found that Christina Cacioppo’s blog was really helpful.  However, I think there’s also a tactical approach to the search.  This is what I found that helped me:

  1. 30,000 foot view: verifying your authenticity
  2. Pick 5
  3. Work the angles
  4. Demonstrate hustle & competence
  5. Fitting in – day 1 impact

1.  30,000 foot view: verifying your authenticity

The first thing you need to do is take a big picture perspective of what you want to do.  If you’re not passionate about the space or the company – it will show.  The 2 key questions you need to ask yourself is:

  • Do I love this space / company / people enough that I would be proud to tell people I work here (proud parent test)
  • Am I willing to be an “expert” in this field or known for this as my career progresses

You have to be authentic to who you are.  Startups are small organizations that really drive on passion and culture – if there’s not a fit, don’t do it.  There are tons of startups that will meet your criteria – just make sure you find the right one for you.  LIfe is too short to do something you’re not passionate about.

If you’re passionate about social media, join a company that does that….if you’re passionate about food, join a startup that focuses in that space.  Everyone at the company has to be rowing in the same direction otherwise it’s a recipe for short-lived stay.

2.  Pick 5

Don’t be paralyzed with choice – pick 5 companies you would be willing to work for and go for it!   Talk to friends, former colleagues, read blogs, read TechCrunch everyday, check out Quora, go through Crunchbase

Triangulating all the sources you’ll probably end op with a list of about 50 companies – from these pick 5 (see authenticity point) to attack.

The number one thing is to get it going.  You can totally be stopped in your tracks by trying to find the “perfect” company.  I think it’s a momentum game and you gotta get things going.  This is almost like how it is at a startup when there is no clear choice or right answer and you just have to execute.

Also be diligent.  Start a spreadsheet with all the companies you’ve contacted or want to contact and give yourself deadlines.  There were days I was sitting on my big list of companies to attack and just felt overwhelmed to even start.  Make sure you have clear actionable next steps for each and give yourself a deadline.  I started a Google doc for this so I could access wherever I was – no excuses.

3.  Work the angles

Realize that most folks are busy and you’re going to have to bring something to the table to get people to meet with you.  The job that you want will most likely not be published on the company’s website.  You’re going to have to work the angles – work your network – to see what the best entry point would be.

The other thing is that you have to take your experience and convince people why you are the best person to do [X] job.  Why should they hire you over your classmate / friend?  What makes you unique?  Make sure you sell these points hard.  Any successful startup will have 20 resumes for every position open – make sure you know why you’re better than those 20.

Three suggestions on getting a meeting with the company you want:

  1. Warm intro:  Go through LinkedIn and see who you’re connected with at the company – ask for an intro through your friend.  People are more likely to meet with you from a warm intro rather than a cold email
  2. Go through an investor:  Email the lead investors in the deal with a few ideas that you might have for the company.  VCs are usually happy to make intros into companies as long as you send a smart email and are relatively qualified
  3. Cold email:  do your research.  Read the company blog, the CEO’s blog, engage with the company on Twitter, etc.  Before sending an email – make sure you know where the company is in it’s life-cycle.  Are they a 4 person scrappy team looking only for engineers?  Are they a series-C firm and looking for their first business hire?  It’s important to have context.  Lastly, make sure you email something that is in it for the firm.  An idea, an introduction, a product suggestion, etc. make sure you demonstrate that you can bring something to the table

Quick advice on style:  don’t email your resume unless asked.  I know friends (and have experienced this myself) who have gotten tech jobs without showing their resumes.  This is a great opportunity to send the startup your blog, LinkedIn profile,, etc.  If you’re working in tech, you should demonstrate that you use it!

4.  Demonstrate hustle & competence

It’s easy to send 100 vanilla bcc emails to startups…this is a sure way to get 1-2 responses (probably not ideal).  You have to demonstrate hustle (doing research, finding people the know the firm, putting some thoughts together) before a meeting is likely to take place.

For example, for companies I was really passionate about, I sent a 3-4 page PowerPoint presentation (I’m happy to send this to you if you send me a message (demonstrating hustle :-)) highlighting my thoughts on the company and where I think I would fit in.  I basically created the position and wrote the spec fr the role at the company I wanted to work at.  I think what’s important is that you need to convince the company that they need you and why you can uniquely fill the role.  Pulling these thoughts together demonstrates that you want a job there and helps you to organize your thoughts rather than have a meeting that goes nowhere.

5.  Fitting in – day 1 impact

The #1 thing about a startup is culture.  Every person has such a big impact on the company – imagine joining a 10 person startup….you just increased their headcount by 10% and they are sharing their equity with you.  Why should they do that?

It’s important to demonstrate why you’re a good fit.  More importantly, it’s important to demonstrate that you can pull your weight from day one.  When I first started interviewing, people would ask me what would you do here in a year?  It was really hard for me to answer that question and so I went back to the drawing board and thought about this before even contacting any other firms.

30-60-90….you need to build a 30, 60, 90 day plan for your role in the company.  Startups move so fast that they want to feel comfortable that you know what you are doing and that you are self-directed.  Coming up with a plan will demonstrate this.  It also tests you to see if you’re ready to join a startup.  It gives you a sense of what your expectations should be.


Overall this framework worked for me and a few of my friends.  Make sure you’re authentic to who you are and really demonstrate hustle.  Feel free to send me any comments or have any questions – always here to help.

Hope this helps!

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4 comments on “How to Find a Job at a Startup that You Want

  1. Pingback: Quora

  2. yessica
    November 20, 2011

    Great advice! It worked really well for me.

  3. Pingback: Getting a non-technical startup job | imabusinessman

  4. tle9
    August 7, 2012

    Thanks! I’m going to look into doing this. Maybe take a look at a sample powerpoint?

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This entry was posted on November 16, 2011 by in Happiness, Job Search, Silicon Valley, Startups, Technology, VC and tagged , , , , .

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