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Dear Startup Candidates, These 4 Things Matter More to Me Than Your “Experience”

Dear Startup Candidates, These 4 Things Matter More to Me Than Your “Experience”


Here’s a secret you might not know about startups: Hiring is hard for us, too.

Let me explain. Back in 2014, I finally closed an angel round. This meant, when all the high-fiving and back-slapping wore off, it was time to hire—but we couldn’t bring just anybody on board. Funding or not, we didn’t have the deep coffers of a Fortune 500 company.  The right hire, of course, would be worth all the money in the world. And the wrong hire? Well, that  would devastate us.

That’s where you, the candidate, come in. The hiring manager reading your application (hi, that’s often me) is cash-strapped and cautious. They might not be able to afford someone with a decade of experience, but they definitely can’t afford to bring on dead weight. So how do you convince them you’re just the solution their startup has been looking for?

Here are four underrated ways to stand out from the slush pile, even if you don’t have startup experience:

Use your resume to show off your passions, not just your job history.

Hiring managers spend just six seconds reviewing a resume—and for good reason: With all their talk of “spearheading” this initiative and “conceptualizing” that project, most resumes sound just like all the rest. In other words, most resumes are unremarkable.

Put yourself in the shoes of a hiring manager at an early-stage startup: Hiring probablyisn’t their full-time job. They might be squeezing your application in between an investor meeting, a biz dev call, and ten other things more pressing that could make or break the company. Why should they spend time mining for gold in an otherwise unremarkable resume?

If yours isn’t getting the response rate you expected, it’s time to go off-road. Next to your tightly edited highlight reel, don’t be afraid to share something you’re passionate about—the time you traveled the world on a shoestring budget, for instance, or your habit of waking up at five a.m. to go to the gym. The cover letter is where you swear up and down you have the discipline, persistence, and self-starter mentality it takes to work at a startup. Your resume is where you prove it.

Talk about your hands-on experience with uncertainty.

Startups are, by definition, risky business. The runway never feels long enough. The industry is constantly changing. You’re featured on TechCrunch one day, and barely able to pay the electricity bill the next. The biggest question in a founder’s mind is, “Can you keep up?”

If you don’t have startup experience, personal experience with uncertainty is the next best thing. As a founder, I want to meet applicants who travel, learn new languages, try a new class, or switch careers. I want to meet (and hire) people who are comfortable with being uncomfortable. This lets me know two things: First, you’re not afraid of a challenge. Most importantly, when you set your mind on something, you do it.

That, my friends, is what we call startup hustle.  

Show me you’re a good listener.

During every interview, I look for one thing above all: Do you listen? Do you care what the person in front of you is saying, or are you only waiting for your next opportunity to speak?

This is about more than courtesy. After a decade of working in startups, I’ve found that a willing ear usually means an open mind—which is critical when technology is constantly changing, code rot is inevitable, and new social media platforms seem to launch every day.

Next time you interview at a startup, challenge yourself to listen more than you speak. It sounds counter-intuitive, but remember that hiring managers are just like everyone other human being—we like people who like talking about us. Ask (and pay attention to) two things in particular:

  1. The biggest problem your interviewer struggles with and
  2. What has he or she already tried to solve it

You’ll not only make a better impression—you’ll also know exactly what that startup is hiring for.

Better yet, find common ground with your interviewer, especially if it has nothing to do with the job at hand. It could be a book you’ve read, a place you’ve traveled—anything that lets the hiring manager know you’re their kind of person. When decision time comes around, those are the interviews they’ll remember most.

Follow up. Follow up. Follow up.

Firing off your job application and showing up for the interview is the easy part. After that, it’s a game of persistence. Instead of waiting for the hiring manager to get back to you, here are a few practical ways to take initiative:

  1. Find mutual connections. Have one of yours put in a good word.
  2. Research the company like it’s your job.
  3. Deliver value, even before you have an offer.  Brainstorm ideas you have for the company. Analyze competitors. Audit the website’s code.  
  4. Reach out again, and again. If you don’t hear from the company on one platform, try reaching out anywhere else you can find them. Don’t stop until you have a response one way or another.

Yes, following up takes time. Talking about your passions takes courage. Being a good listener takes effort. You know what requires all three? Working at a startup. Those so-called soft skills are more than a nice bonus; they’re the very qualities that set you apart. In the startup world, they’re proof you belong.

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