So You Want to Work at a Startup?
Whether you’re only beginning your career or you’re a seasoned professional looking for a change, working at a startup is a great opportunity to expand your skill set and broaden your network.
While being employed at a startup is not for everyone, those who thrive in the startup environment can fast-track their professional growth. If you’re familiar with the startup world, you’ll know it moves at an accelerated pace. But, if you can adapt quickly, think creatively, and solve problems, working at a startup is ideal for you.
Applying for a position at a startup can differ from your typical corporate application process, and it can also be highly competitive. According to Ashley Stirrup, Vice President of Product Marketing at Taleo – a SaaS company that helps business sort through job applications – businesses typically receive about six times as many applications as the amount of employees they have.
So if you’re lucky enough to get a call for an interview, here’s what you can do to increase your odds of being hired.
Do Your Homework
This is arguably the most important thing you can do to prepare for an interview with a startup. Knowing about the company – including their products, competitors, staff, and markets – will show you’re actually interested in working with the company.
Don’t just look at the “about us” page on their website, read media articles they’re featured in, check out their annual report or blog, and learn about the company’s culture. The more you know about the company, the more likely you are to impress the person interviewing you.
Sometimes sending your resume to a startup and hoping you’ll hear back only results in radio silence. Often it takes knowing someone who knows someone to get your foot in the door. In fact, most jobs are not promoted publicly.
You’ve heard it before, and you’ll probably hear it again – but, let me say this one more time for the people in the back: relationships matter.
Building relationships in the community or industry you want to work in is one of the best ways to secure an interview. Almost every city has some sort of startup community so make an effort to connect with people who are active in the community, whether that’s at an event, over coffee or online. If you’re looking to connect with the startup community in Nova Scotia, check out the Nova Scotia Startup Community Facebook Group founded by Halifax-based entrepreneur, Mike Cyr.
Have an Entrepreneurial Mindset
When working at a startup, it’s important to think like an entrepreneur. Startups have to make the most out of their resources, including their staff’s skills and ideas. They want to know that the person they hire is committed to seeing the company grow as if it was their own company. Being a part of a small team means you will have lots of opportunities to share your ideas, make decisions, and provide meaningful contributions towards achieving company goals and milestones.
Candidates who demonstrate they have an entrepreneurial mindset are often more likely to be hired by startups. Even if the interview questions don’t seem to relate directly to thinking entrepreneurially, the interviewer may still be trying to gauge whether you’re an entrepreneur at heart. Suzanna Ma, Co-founder of Routific explains how entrepreneurs make the best startup employees. She says her company looks for entrepreneurial qualities in candidates by asking questions that help determine whether the interviewee is:
- a doer (or if they would rather someone else do things for them);
- mentally prepared to wear many different hats;
- open-minded and flexible in the face of change;
- and, able to deal with failure well.
Show Your Passion
Startups want to hire passionate people. Whether you have a side hustle, or you’re an expert in a random, yet fascinating subject, don’t be afraid to share what you’re passionate about in an interview.
According to Ross Simmonds, passion and hustle matter more than perfect university transcripts. On a recent episode of the Lost & Founders podcast, Ross spoke about why passion trumps grades when it comes to potential candidates.
“I’ll hire someone who showed hustle on the side, and got nothing but C’s and B’s before I hire someone who just happened to be good at memorization and got a bunch of A’s in university,” Ross explained. “I think it’s all about showing that you’re passionate about something and you can put in the work to do things and figure it out.”
A quick Google search defines initiative as “the ability to assess and initiate things independently” and by that definition, taking initiative is key to survival in the startup world. Even though startups are typically collaborative in nature, the ability to identify tasks that need to be done and independently take the steps to complete them can go a long way.
A great way to show initiative in an interview is to take initiative before you’re even offered the job. During the interview, ask how you can start adding value to the company today. Maybe they have an event coming up that you can volunteer at, or perhaps they’ll give you an opportunity to write a blog post for them. Even if they don’t have something for you to do at the moment, the fact that you asked how you can help will make them remember you when they’re evaluating candidates.
Taking the initiative to show how you can contribute to the company proves that you’re interested in what you can give to the company, and not what the company can give you.
Ask the Right Questions
In most interviews, there’s usually a point near the end when the roles reverse and you have the chance to ask the questions. This is your time to shine. It’s also your opportunity to determine whether the startup is the right fit for you.
Be sure to plan ahead – write down the questions you want to ask, and don’t be afraid to pull them out when it’s your turn to do the asking. This shows you spent time thinking about the company, prepared for the interview and thought about how you’ll fit in with their culture.
Remember to strike a balance between asking questions about the company and asking questions about what the company can provide you. Here are a few examples of questions you can ask during your next interview with a startup:
- What do I need to accomplish in my first three to four months to be successful and make an impact?
- What is your onboarding process like?
- What is your focus for the next three months?
- What does success look like for this company?
Follow Up After an Interview
After an interview, the next time you speak to the interviewer shouldn’t be when they offer you the job (and, if that’s your expectation, you may never hear from them again). It’s important to leave a lasting impression by following up with a “thank you” email after the interview. A short note is all it takes to stand out in the mind of an interviewer.
Taking the time to say thank you for an interview shows you appreciate the opportunity and respect the interviewer’s time. There are a number of things to keep in mind when saying thank you for an interview. According to The Balance, tips for writing thank you notes include:
- sending your thank you note as soon as possible;
- mentioning anything you forgot;
- keeping it brief;
- and, editing as much as possible.
Working at a startup is both challenging and rewarding. Interviewing for a position at a startup is not only about the interviewer finding the right candidate, it’s also about the candidate determining if the company is right for them. These tips will help you make the most out of your next interview.
Interested in working at a startup? Sign up for our Network Membership to access job postings from Volta’s Resident and Alumni companies.