6 Ways to Get a Job at a Start-up

With so much of the job market dried up, new organizations that are hungry to grow—and hire—may be your best bet.

Big firms are laying off people by the thousands. Meanwhile, a multitude of young firms in 2020 have raised billions of dollars with initial public offerings, enriching their early employees. It’s no wonder life at a start-up might look pretty tempting right now.

But getting a job at a start-up poses a different set of challenges than looking for a job at a large-sized firm. Start-ups have a low margin for error in hiring; since there are so few employees, there’s no room for people who aren’t willing to work long hours or take on multiple tasks. “There is a lot of variety and intensity,” says Val Olson, a career coach for Korn Ferry Advance who has worked at three start-ups in her career. They may be skeptical whether someone who’s used to a job at a larger outfit has what it takes. It’s going to take a really good interview to win them over.

But experts say that’s only one part of the process of getting hired. Typically far less formal in processes but often far more demanding in what they ask of candidates in advance, start-ups have their own rule books for hiring. Some suggestions:

Be passionate…

Odds are that the founders of a start-up went out on their own because they were particularly motivated to, as the cliché goes, build a better mousetrap. Unsatisfied with the limitations put upon them at big firms, they were willing to set out on their own where they could work on their pet projects full-time.

Anyone wanting to work at a start-up has to display that same type of passion in an interview, says Esther Colwill, leader of Korn Ferry’s Global Technology Industries practice. Being passionate about the particular start-up’s industry helps, but candidates can also showcase how they are passionate about the work they do now or even about how they act within their communities.

Being around passionate, driven people can be incredibly energizing … or particularly frustrating when you are the one who isn’t.

…and a little fearless.

Passion only goes so far, however. About half of new businesses fail within five years, and 20% of them go under in the first year, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. There are plenty of things that could go wrong, including running low on capital, losing key people, and the product or service not being viable. These problems might not kill a big company, but they’re often fatal to start-ups. “You’re taking a risk for one to two years that still might not work even if it’s a good product,” Colwill says.

Showcase your agility.

There are so many things that have to come together for a new product or service to launch, and along the way, things inevitably go wrong. There will never be enough time to get things done and there will never be perfect information on which to base decisions. Start-up founders want their employees to be able to adapt to rapidly changing situations and find ways around obstacles. Experts say candidates should highlight how they brought up new ideas to their organization (or community), won over skeptics, overcame challenges, and saw the idea to fruition.

It’s also important to showcase your agility on social media. Start-up hiring mangers will surf LinkedIn and other outlets and see what candidates post. Candidates who post stories about new products, new ways to solve business challenges, or other unique ideas can get an added edge over those who don’t. “Being silent doesn’t really cut it, particularly in the Silicon Valley start-up community,” Colwill says.

Be a detective.

Much like any job interview, it always helps to know something about the company you want to work for before you interview with them. Start-ups are no different. Olson recommends researching the company’s product offering, competitors, and early-stage investors. Knowing that information can help candidates answer challenging questions during an interview while also helping them ask pointed questions of the hiring manager and founders.

That intelligence can also help a candidate decide whether they can trust the boss. What’s the background of the founders? Where did they work previously? Have they launched successful start-ups before? The start-up’s product might be a great idea, but if the bosses don’t have the skills or experiences to make it work, candidates might want to look elsewhere.

Roll up your sleeves.

Small start-ups, by definition, don’t have a lot of people working for them. “If there is not much structure at startups, especially in the beginning where everything is nebulous, and changing all the time,” Olson says. Job roles blur, and everyone often pitches in on many duties, whether it’s writing software code, creating sales presentations, or if the start-up is a restaurant, cleaning up after closing time. Senior leaders, even CEOs, are not going to have entourages to do the occasional grunt work. Make sure that comes across.

Don’t make tech mistakes.

Start-up culture often prides itself on mastering new things quickly, so being unable to present yourself well on a remote video call could look particularly bad. Indeed, some start-up employees consider the inability to adapt to video calls as a sign that someone is too used to a static 9-to-5 office environment. “There’s no excuse for bad lighting, bad sound, and bad backgrounds,” says Colwill.