How to Land Your First Startup Job and Leave Corporate Life Behind

If you’re happy with your safe, cushy job at Microsoft, Google or Facebook, don’t bother reading the rest of this article. But if you’ve been thinking about making the jump to a startup and you haven’t known how to go about it, this might help you get started. Or maybe it’ll help you realize that you’re well-suited to the cushy big-company dev job you’re in.

Despite (or even as a result of) the difficult economy these days, this is actually a great time to join a venture-funded or angel-funded tech startup. For the last three years, investors have been pickier than ever before in making early-stage bets on startup companies. So, when you see a startup that has raised at least some money, you can be more certain than in the past (say, in 1999) that there’s something solid there: team, business model and/or key technology.

Startups Are Different than Big Companies. Duh.

We’ve been growing and recruiting aggressively at EnergySavvy. We have a profile in our mind about what we’re looking for in our dev hires and we asked around to make sure we weren’t alone. The technical hiring managers we talked with at other startups are looking for many of the same things:

  • Jack-of-all-trades, not specialists. Vivek Vaidya, Founder and CTO of Krux Digital: “When you apply to a startup, you need to be prepared to talk about your ability to wear multiple hats and get sh*t done. This, at least in my experience is not that much of a deciding factor at big companies.”
  • Flexibility. Andy Thomas, CTO of Marketfish: “Are they process snobs? Are they convinced that there is one right way to do development? Will they be unwilling to adapt to different ways of doing things? Ideas and opinions are welcome, but flexibility is also required.”
  • Doers, not managers. It’s not to say that startups don’t need good managers, but in our experience at EnergySavvy everyone needs to be willing to get their hands dirty. There are no pure management positions. Matt Lerner, CTO of Walk Score, agreed: “For developers, we want to make sure that they love writing code. Someone who’s switched back and forth between management and development might not be a great fit.”
  • Passion for the mission. This was echoed by all the hiring managers we talked with. You can succeed at a big company without really caring about what the company is doing overall because there are lots of other rewards (big salaries, promotions, etc). But at a startup, you’ll typically be asked to trade those certain rewards away for an uncertain one, often in the form of stock options or equity. If you don’t believe in the company’s mission, you won’t value the likely outcome of that equity enough to make the trade. Lerner (Walk Score): “We think we have a unique mission proposition at Walk Score, our mission comes before everything else we do.  We subscribe to the ‘everybody sweeps the floors’ methodology – you have to be willing to do whatever it takes to advance the goals of the startup.”

The Search

If you think you might fit the bill after hearing from the people who’ll be making the hiring decisions, the next step is to find the startup companies you’re excited about. This is harder than applying to the big name companies because, well, everyone has heard of the big names and can find their HR websites. But how do you find out about the companies that are going to be big, and contact them in a way that’ll get you noticed?

Pay Attention to Who Is Raising Money. There are several approaches to keeping tabs on which companies are raising money and therefore are likely to be looking for engineering talent.

  • The Lazy Man’s Approach: The monthly “Who’s Hiring?” threads on Hacker News are an easy, already-digested source of possibilities. And keep tabs on TechCrunch – they write about just about every tech company that raises a venture capital round. (If you’re in Seattle, TechFlash is probably a more comprehensive source of Seattle VC activity.)
  • The VC Firm Websites: Keep an eye on the News and Portfolio pages of venture capital firms like Accel, Greylock, Sequoia, Kleiner Perkins, Mohr Davidow Ventures, Battery Ventures and Benchmark Capital.
  • The Raw Data: To get an unfair advantage over everyone consuming the same pre-packaged information at the same time, and also see the smaller angel investment rounds that are typical of earlier stage startups that won’t make the TechCrunch homepage, hit the SEC website. Every company in the United States that raises private investment capital has to file a Form D with the SEC to disclose the investment. Here’s a handy sample search query of SEC data that’ll show you all Form D’s within a date range and with any key terms (in this example, I’ve preloaded the term “Seattle” into the text search and shown the nine Form D’s filed between Jan. 15 to Feb. 1 for companies that are in Seattle (or at least have a director in Seattle).

Networking and Personal Referrals. Every hiring manager we talked with agreed that personal referrals are the best sources of dev hires. Think of professional networking as “white-hat hacking” the job search game. Need proof? Again, the hiring managers weigh in:

  • Thomas (Marketfish): “While the majority of candidates are sourced via recruiters, job boards and/or Craigslist, most of our successful new hires have come from personal referrals.  Why?  Personal referrals have been pre-screened by friends of the company: matchmakers, if you will, who have the best interests of both parties at heart and who make a connection only when it is likely to prove fruitful.”
  • Vaidya (Krux Digital): “I’d estimate the conversion rate (application to offer ration) of each of the channels like this: Personal Referrals: 95 percent, Craigslist: 50 percent, Unsolicited applications: 0 percent, Job boards and headhunters: 60 percent.”
  • Ted Bardusch, Senior Director of Engineering, Marchex, spoke specifically about the value of LinkedIn as a tool for networking and hiring: “What an awesome source. I had about 500 people on my LinkedIn when I left Amazon, it’s now a bit over 1000 total. This is the richest source of some of the best people, since it allows you to stay in touch with people long after you’ve stopped actively interacting. Using my LinkedIn assets, I think my referrals into Marchex have converted at well over 75 percent consistently for a year now. Many of those were former colleagues reaching out to me through that channel, some were me contacting folks from long ago. LinkedIn is, in my estimation, the single most important tool I have available for recruiting.”

The Resume

There are lots of resume guides out there, and this isn’t meant to be comprehensive. But there are some differences in how hiring managers at start-ups read resumes from how it works at larger companies.

The Rule of Thumb About Education: The Education section should come before the Experience section if one of the following conditions are true.

  1. You’re less than five years out of school. You just haven’t done a lot of interesting work in your career yet, and you’re probably going to be listing summer internships and cashiering jobs from high school in your Experience section. So kick off the resume with your education.
  2. You went to a fancy-pants college that cost at least $150K over the course of four years. Our opinion? Somebody paid a lot of money for the degree of yours, so you get to brag about it for a while on your resume.

Bardusch (Marchex) adds: “Don’t bother telling me about coursework if you are many years out of school. I know how much I remember of my college degree, so telling me about courses you took fifteen years ago is not useful for either of us.”

The Rule of Thumb about Experience: Your resume shouldn’t be much more than one page long, almost no matter how much experience you have. It also shouldn’t be less than one full page, no matter how little experience you have. (Never mind that resumes don’t get printed out on actual pages anymore – it’s a good guideline for length.)

So… when you’re starting out just after college, you’ll need to expand on every detail of your first couple of jobs and internships to make sure your one-page resume isn’t too short. But the key to remember later – which a lot of people seem to overlook – is to remove details from earlier jobs as you get more experience later in your career, so that you can still convey your career story in one page. Vaidya (Krux Digital): “If the candidate is not able to provide a succinct description of what they’ve done and why it was cool and/or hard, then that is a red flag for me.”

Why the one-page rule for startups? The people screening resumes at large companies are recruiters – all they have to do is read resumes. The people screening resumes at startups are very likely the hiring managers (or founders) themselves. They’re busy.

The Rule of Thumb About Listing Programming Languages: When applying to a startup company, don’t do the “laundry list” of programming languages. While it may make sense for big company recruiters who are usually doing keyword searches for specific programming languages and skills, remember that startup hiring managers are actually reading and screening resumes by hand.

Aaron Goldfeder, CEO and Co-Founder, EnergySavvy: “If you don’t have the exact skills we’re after (e.g. you’re a Rails dev and we use Django), that’s fine. Just explain that you’re willing to learn, AND provide examples of where you’ve rapidly picked up new skills in the past.”

The Application

  • Go through your network. If you can, you’re much better off getting personally introduced to someone at your target company through a previous colleague or friend – as opposed to just sending your application in to the “jobs” alias.
  • Keep it short and professional. As we’ve said, the resume screener and hiring manager is probably the same person, and they’ve got a ship deadline tomorrow while trying to read incoming applications.
  • Keep it clean. Bardusch (Marchex): “Spelling perfectly isn’t mandatory, but it does show a level of professionalism. Spell checkers are pretty good these days; if your resume doesn’t get that level of attention, why should I bother reading it?”
  • Give examples. Especially if you’re a front-end web developer and/or designer. Include a prominent link to your sample work – that’s what will get the first look. If it shows quality, then the hiring manager will move on to the resume.
  • Tackle the code problems: Many startups use coding problems as a pre-screening check before the phone interview. It’s a convenient “speedbump” tool to test for ability and commitment before the hiring manager has to sink too much time into an unproven candidate. How to tackle them? Goldfeder (EnergySavvy): “Within reason, there are no points for speed. So don’t just scrape together your first answer. Feel free to sleep on it and think it through.”

The Interview

Out of scope for this article. If you’ve made it this far, you’re on your own. On the bright side, the odds are now in your favor – most of the hiring managers we talked with at startup companies have pretty high interview to offer ratios. In-person time for interview loops is precious given limited development time, so hiring managers tend to try to weed out most people before they meet in person.


If you’re interested, all the startups mentioned in this article are hiring for dev roles:

If you liked this post, or want to add your comments to the discussion, go to its Hacker News thread: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2218348

Re-posting this article on other sites besides EnergySavvy.com is OK, as long as you link back to this page (http://www.energysavvy.com/blog/2011/02/14/how-to-land-your-first-startup-job-and-leave-corporate-life-behind/), retain all original links in the post and notify us.


About Scott

Scott Case has expertise in online marketing technologies and software product management from five years at aQuantive, where he led product management and marketing for Microsoft/aQuantive's ad serving tools. Scott has a BA in Economics and Political Science from Williams College and an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management.
  • Anonymous

    Another great perk of working at a startup is that when you identify a problem or opportunity, you are empowered (required) to fix it. For example, I just noticed that we didn’t use Disqus for comments on our blog…10 minutes later, we’re using Disqus.

  • http://www.nosnivelling.com daveschappell

    Did you also notice that you don’t have a tweet-this button atop your blog page? Now, go fix that too, Rob :-)

  • Anonymous

    There is a tweet this at the bottom of the blog post.

  • AG

    Wait, dude… we need to have a meeting or something about this. I’m not sure if this fits in our Q1 Strategic Roadmap approved by the higher council of blather.

  • http://www.nosnivelling.com daveschappell

    uh, yeah — that’s why I used the word ‘atop’ — that’s where the money is, young man…

  • http://twitter.com/derekjhopper Derek Hopper

    I love the article. Thank you. This provides some insight into the startup community.

  • Anonymous

    done and done. now about those tennis classes?

  • http://www.seowebjunction.com SEO Philippines

    Couldn’t agree more. Did the move to a start-up 8 months ago.

  • http://erickennedy.org Eric Kennedy

    Great post. Seeking out people with something in common on blogs, LinkedIn, or your school’s alumni network is a great way to learn about new opportunities and create the basis for a personal referral. In the darkest days of the 2002 recession, when no recruiter would consider a newly-minted CS major, the only reason I got a job was because I mined my school’s alumni network and sent personal notes to local graduates who worked at tech companies. I couldn’t even get phone interviews when I submitted unsolicited applications. So much for the value of the $150k Yale education!

    Another tip is to avoid getting comfortable with a big-company salary. I bought a condo and a car when I joined Expedia in 2003 because all of my cowokers did too. But those fixed expenses made me feel like I needed the security of a salary so I could only work for startups with funding. If I had kept the $50k I used for a down payment as startup capital I would have been a lot happier.

  • Brooke

    Great article! Though having connections is the best way to get an interview, don’t feel discouraged if you don’t. I got my first start-up job off of craigslist and the last person I hired was from a response to a craigslist posting.

    I am not responsible for hiring devs so can’t offer up code problems, but I always require the applicant answer a series of questions and I request a specific resume format. This is a great way of weeding out people who didn’t bother to read the entire job posting before applying or who can’t follow basic directions.

    Finally, if you get a phone interview – familiarize yourself with the company, create an account and invest a few dollars if necessary, and have ideas ready for how you think it can be improved. This should go without saying, but you’d be surprised…