Applying to Startup Jobs

A friend of mine is learning to code. The other day he asked me…

“How should I apply for a job at a startup? What do you look for in resumes?”

and as we discussed, I realized the answer wasn’t what he expected.

In fact I think there are pretty significant differences between successfully applying to a startup and applying to a larger tech company — and most people applying to startups do it wrong.

What’s different about applying to startups?

The audience for your startup job application is very different than that of a larger tech company. Large companies have recruiting teams and scalable hiring processes in place. At a startup, all hiring decisions are made by the founders, meaning it’s likely your application will be read by them first.

This is definitely true at Sendwithus; all job applications go directly to me and my cofounder. We discuss internally and decide between us who to interview.

The other key difference is in what startups are looking for in early employees. It’s often the case that culture fit and passion hold more weight than say, education or past work experience.

I don’t mean “culture fit” in the typical sense of “we all drink craft beer and go hiking”. I mean real culture fit, where the team is passionate about what the company is doing and excited to work together. Founders will scan job applications searching for hints that you’ll be a great addition to the team.

This can manifest itself in many ways. Does the applicant know what the company does? Do they understand the problems we’re trying to solve? Can they ship code and/or “get shit done”? These are some of the things we ask ourselves when reviewing applications.

Applicants who haven’t made the effort to understand the company or demonstrate their passion are easy to identify and discard.

Tips for Applying Successfully

With that in mind, here are some things I look for in great applications.

The goal of a job application is a conversation. Many people get this wrong and use the application to convince founders why they should get the job. Nobody is going to hire you from the application alone; your goal is to get to the next stage, the interview. You should focus completely on convincing the founders that you’re worth interviewing.

Know who the decision maker is. Unless stated otherwise, it will be the founders. You should know their names and address them directly. Learn what they think and write about from blogs, twitter, etc. Honestly, a little effort here goes a long way.

Provide examples of work you are proud of. I can’t stress this enough — show them something you’ve built and are excited to talk about. Maybe an open source project, work for a past employer, or even a blog. Your excitement about the project will show in both how you present it and the quality of the work. Huge bonus points if your project is public and has a non-trivial number of users.

Have a specific ask. In most cases, you should ask directly for an interview. It’s incredible how effective this can be. My favorite applicants are those that ask for a phone call or quick coffee to learn more about the position. If you’re going to do this, provide specific dates and times that you’re available and suggest a convenient location.

Be concise and get to the point. Founders are busy and hate reviewing long, generic applications. Know what you want and say it quickly. Job applications that take more than a minute to read are easy to ignore.

Apply for the position you want. Startup roles are very fluid and job postings can be very generic (early on, everyone’s a generalist). If you don’t see an open position for the role you want, apply anyway and explain what you’re looking for. If you’re a great fit, the company will make room for you. This is particularly true for co-op and intern positions.

Be persistent. Finally, if you really want the job, don’t accept silence as an answer. If you let a potential employer ignore you, they will. Insist on receiving a reply; good employers will always reply within a few days. Your persistence demonstrates your ambition to work with the team.

An Ideal Job Application?

Getting back to the original question, here’s the answer I gave my friend:

Send a short email addressed to one or all founders by name. Explain why you want to work for them and be honest. Know what the company does and be excited about joining the team.

Provide links to projects you’ve worked on and are proud of. They’re going to google you, make sure they see the great stuff first. If you don’t have anything to show, start working on something and show them your progress.

Examples:

  • Public work for previous employers
  • Personal coding project or website
  • Open Source contributions
  • Github or Stack Overflow account

Ask directly for a meeting or interview. You’re not going to get the job without meeting the team, so you need to suggest that as a next step.

Provide some times in the next few days you’re available. Offer to meet them at their office, or on neutral grounds (coffee shop) close to their office.


Ultimately, it’s about making it easy for the founders to make a decision. The easier it is for them to interview you and the harder it is for them to ignore how great you are, the more likely you are to get the job.

Thanks Wesley Yu for starting the conversation that inspired this post.

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