How to Get a Job at an Early Stage Startup - Non-Technical Version

Startups are all the rage these days and it seems like more and more non-technical people want to get in on the action.

So lets assume you want to get hired at an early stage startup. Which for the sake of this post will be a startup will less than 10 employees or so.

Without having any previous knowledge about working in tech startups, this is how I’d go about it.

Getting Leads

Step one is actually finding startups that are interesting to you and that you might be interested in. This means staying up to date on startups which is tough. Most early stage startups aren’t great at marketing themselves.

So that means you need to go to them.

Leads can come from your personal network or online networks and communities.

Since for the purpose of this post we are assuming you are just now getting into startups we’ll assume you don’t have much of a personal network with startup founders so we’ll focus on how to leverage online networks and communities.

That means reading sites like Hacker News, TechCrunch and AngelList.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of content on those sites so you might try using this Zap for getting email alerts when Startups raise a Series A or Seed Round. (Hint: startups that raise money have money to hire people).

Also this Zap for AngelList job alerts is handy too.

Another good source of leads can be VCs or Angels. One of their primary objectives is to recruit for their startups. So if you are able to make friends with a VC or Angel then it could be a good source of leads.

Initial Contact

Next up it’s time to make initial contact. The best way to get into most early stage companies is to contact the founders directly.

In early stage companies the founders are doing most everything including recruiting and hiring. So don’t be scared to find their email and fire off an intro email.

If you can get an intro through your network, do it. If not, find a common interest with the founders and send them a cold email.

Can’t find their email address? Use a tool like Rapportive to find someone’s email address.

Spend a bit of time crafting the email and make sure to you write your email in such a way that you are more likely to get a response.

Have a call to action. Depending on the recipient, a good one could be a a quick Skype call, a coffee, or maybe just continuing the email thread.

Finding a Fit

Next up is seeing if the startup is a good fit for you and if you are a good fit for the startup. You can do part of this before you reach out to the founder simply by looking at the startup’s website and the personal sites of the founders.

Realize that early stage startups have relatively little budget for non-technical personnel. And the needs of non-technical personal can change rapidly. In the tech world, engineers are always going to be needed. But the way that the tech gets sold can shift quickly as the startup is finding product/market fit.

One day the most important thing could be a PPC expert. The next day it could be biz dev. The next it could be traditional sales. So slotting into the non-technical role in a startup can be pretty tricky.

It’s pretty important that the founders understand you can handle ambiguity. The last thing a founder wants is to have to let you go if circumstances change.

The startup doesn’t want you to be unhappy and you don’t want to be unhappy with the startup. So everyone will have to take some time to get used to each other.

Proving a Skill Set

A big part of finding a fit is proving there is a skill set match. Remember that at most startups engineering resources are the most scarce so startups have little to spend on non-engineers. That means the non-engineer has to cover lots of different skill sets.

If you’ve worked as a non-technical employee at an early stage startup before this will be easier. You’ll likely have some experiences to fall back on. If you haven’t worked at an early stage startup before this can be tough.

The best way to get some experience as quickly as possible is to setup a side project. This could be as simple as setting up a storefront to sell something on Etsy or Shopify. Maybe it’s writing an ebook and selling on Amazon. It doesn’t matter what; just start trying to sell something.

If you don’t have something to sell, team up with a friend who does. Then start experimenting with as many ways as possible to get sales however limited they may be.

Then setup a personal blog (use Tumblr or WordPress) and write about your side project. Document your failures and successes. Write about the process.

You could likely get this started in a weekend. And then spend a few hours every week on it and learn a ton and have tons of stuff to talk about with founders.

Getting a Test Drive

Alright. You’ve got some leads. You’ve got some introductions. You think there’s a fit. You’ve demonstrated you have a skill set the startup can utilize.

At this stage you’re likely to get a test drive. Maybe a one or two week trial. Maybe an internship. Maybe a contract project. The test drive can take many forms.

Likely the startup will give you an ambiguous task of improving marketing or sales through a few channels they might think work.

Your job is to take this task and grab it by the horns. The founders will have some time to bring you up to speed on certain areas of the business. A few dos and don’ts. But past that everyone is pretty busy and will expect you to make it happen. The worst possible outcome is that you are more work than the founders doing it themselves.

As you are working through the project or task make sure to track your results. Be able to show the progressions (i.e. X used to suck. I did Y. Now X is this much better.).

If you do that you’ll be in a good position for landing a gig.

Getting Hired

Now you are in the door. The startup likes you. You like the startup. But we still might not be done.

You have a salary requirement. You have an equity requirement. You have certain benefit needs. And the startup has a certain amount of money they can spend. Unfortunately those two might not match.

Get creative. It’s possible you might get lucky and have a match right away. If not don’t worry. Maybe getting hired full time will have to wait. Offer to freelance or long term contract. Keep honing your skills. Keep measuring your results with the company. Keep offering ways to improve.

When the time is right. Close the deal.


Posted on February 4th, 2013

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