Getting a job at a startup is very different from getting a job at a large company. I’ve now conducted hundreds of interviews at Amazon.com and Skilljar, so I’ve seen both sides, and have a unique perspective on the differences.
Read on for actionable tips on how to get hired by an early-stage, VC funded tech startup like Skilljar.
Why startups are different
Interviewing for a job is like any sales process. Know what your customer needs, and show how your skills and experience solve their problem.
The key differences I’ve found in our interview process at a startup vs a large company:
- Every hire has an outsized impact on a startup’s success and failure. Especially when still less than 10 people. Thus, the bar is higher for functional skills, versatility, and cultural fit. One or two meetings simply isn’t enough to assess these qualities, and the opportunity cost of a poor hire is much higher than it would be in a large organization. Expect startups to ask for multiple references, to work on sample projects, and go through multiple rounds of phone screens and interviews before we’re both comfortable with mutual fit.
- A startup environment is highly self-directed and self-motivated. Everyone is expected to “get stuff done.” So we look for these qualities in how the candidate approaches the interview process. If a candidate is slow to respond, requires a lot of follow-up, and/or provides incomplete information from what was requested, it’s a warning signal of how they’ll interact with us as a potential team member.
- Time is precious. Unlike at Amazon, I don’t have a supporting team of recruiters that can do initial phone screens and work on scheduling. Time spent interviewing is time spent away from customers or from developing product, so we use it as wisely as possible.
With this context, let’s move on to specific ways you can increase your chances of getting a job at a startup.
- Use correct spelling and grammar. Mistakes raise the question of whether you need more direction than we can provide.
- Keep it to two pages max. The purpose of the resume is to get a phone screen, not to describe every project you’ve ever worked on in detail. Startups require you to synthesize a lot of information and distill it into key priorities, so do this on your resume as well.
- Have decent formatting. Again, the resume is the entry point to a conversation. If you can’t take the time to put some basic formatting around your resume, then it’s hard to imagine you’ll be self-directed enough to put together high quality deliverables at a startup. This is partly why we started requiring a LinkedIn profile on our application – at least it succinctly summarizes your experience in a standard format.
- Use it wisely. We don’t require a cover letter, just resume and LinkedIn profile, but we do have an optional field for additional information. If you’re going to add a message, then make it a positive not a detractor from your application.
- Keep it short and personalized. Most I see are long generic cover letters, filled with tech buzzwords, sometimes even contradicting what we’re looking for in the job description (e.g. a cover letter that expresses enthusiasm for a consumer product whereas we are in the enterprise software space). If it doesn’t help, leave it out.
- Address any perceived dealbreakers. If you’re not located in Seattle, tell me that you’re already moving here next month. If you’ve been out of the workforce for several months, tell me why. This is your opportunity to make your application stand out and proactively address any assumptions I’ll make based on your resume.
- Do some basic research. Less than 10 percent of candidates make it this far, and I’m talking to you because I want to be convinced you’re a fit. If you’re applying for a product role, spend time playing with our trial. If you’re applying for a sales or marketing role, look through our website and customers. Lack of preparedness shows either lack of interest and/or respect for our time, and in my experience it’s almost impossible to recover from getting off on the wrong foot.
- Don’t make disqualifying statements. Some candidates come in with very specific new ideas on markets, technology, or features. While we’re open to new ideas, it’s still in the context of our overall business goals and the experience we’ve accumulated to date. The fast-moving startup environment means we’ve made, and continue to make, difficult tradeoffs to focus on the highest ROI activities. Blanket statements about what we should or shouldn’t do are really risky for you (for us this is usually an insistence that we pursue teachers or non-profits as a vertical).
- Follow up on your next steps. For sales candidates especially, we view this as an indicator of your follow-through on sales process. But for any candidate, we need to know that people will do what they say they will (or reset our expectations accordingly).
- Accept decisions gracefully. Unfortunately, we decide to pass on most candidates, many of whom have excellent backgrounds but aren’t quite a fit for what we need right now. If you call us incessantly, drop by the office unannounced, or insist on us reconsidering your application, it shows lack of professionalism and strongly reinforces our decision to pass.
The tips above are meant to provide context for how we think about hiring at Skilljar. They’re actually applicable to any interview process, from early stage tech startups to large companies. The main difference is we have less time and resources to consider exceptions, and we’re often evaluating you on the recruiting interaction as much as on your skills and experience. Have any other tips? Let us know in the comments!