How to get a startup job, even if you have an MBA

Matheus Riolfi
Mar 2, 2016 · 9 min read

Every month I receive emails from people looking for advice on how to get a startup job. It normally goes something like this:

“Hi Matheus, I’m {name}, an MBA student at {top school} and would like to work for a startup. I was a {banker/consultant} at {big firm} before school and I’m willing to transition to {function} in a startup. Would you have some time for a {coffee/Skype call}? Thanks, {name}”.

I certainly empathize and normally take the call. It occurred to me, given the interest and after repeating my advice countless times, that these thoughts are worth writing down.

Before I start, a disclaimer: I have an MBA and am a former consultant converted to tech enthusiast, so my views will certainly be biased. I hope the lessons I’ve learned throughout the start-up recruiting process, both as a candidate and now on the hiring side, will be useful for others with similar profiles.

The bad news…

Alright, let me cut to the chase: getting a startup job is hard. Getting it with an MBA and a non-tech banking/consulting background is even harder. I’m sorry to break it to you that an MBA is not a golden ticket to any job out there. This happens for many reasons:

  • Startups are looking for specialized skills. After its first few employees, startups need specific skills and moreover, they can’t afford to pay high salaries for generalists. Big companies can hire individuals with potential and train them for 6 months before they start to deliver. Startups can’t. To make things worse, in most startups, the skills required to reach product/market fit are technical.

I’ve compiled my learnings in a 5-step process that I’ll describe below.

5 Steps to land a job in a Startup

Step 1: Ask yourself why

Why do you want to work for a startup? The answer to this simple question will influence your strategy in the next steps. The answer may also end your process here if you realize you are doing this for the wrong reasons. For example, some wrong reasons:

  • Wrong reason #1 — startups are cool. It is surprising to see how many people answer the question of “why work for startups” with vague statements such as “… because startups are cool”. They don’t really understand what is to work for a startup and just want to follow the trend.

On the flip side, there are numerous why startups might be right for you, so find them. In my case, I really enjoy working at a startup because I can work in small teams with few guidelines and have meaningful impact on customer lives. Also, the challenge of writing the playbook for something that has never been done before is an amazing thrill.

This self-reflection exercise must be backed up by concrete examples. For example, if you tell yourself that you want to join a start-up because you love working in unstructured environments, but you have only ever worked in big companies with lots of hierarchy, it’s a red flag. Either you are not being honest with yourself or you failed to guide your career towards your passions, both of which are bad. If you can’t convincingly sell yourself, you definitely won’t be able to sell the startup you want to join.

Step 2: Figure out what you want

There are no generic startups out there. Each of them is working to solve a specific problem, and in search of product/market fit. Their culture and modus operandi may be radically different even if they are in the similar industries, as Uber vs. Lyft or Amazon vs. eBay would show.

They also have different hiring needs, so look for places where you would be more valuable. Normally you can maximize your relevance by evaluating the following tripod:

  • Function

When changing jobs, try not to alter more than one axis at a time. Assuming you are a banker or consultant looking for a startup job, you are most likely changing Function, therefore you should try to find startups in the same Geography and Industry.

Within a start-up, consultants/bankers with MBAs naturally gravitate toward the roles of Product Managers, Business Development, and Operations. Of the three, Product Manager is likely the hardest to get without any technical expertise. There are a lot of great articles on how to be a good PM and I recommend this compilation written by Noah Weiss. Operations and business development are an easier fit for generalist MBAs, and also generally an area where technically-skilled people lack experience, and I would probably start there.

If you would like to switch the Industry, look for jobs at startups that are operations-heavy, such as e-commerce, marketplaces, and transportation. These are great places to start as these companies have a strong business component. As a rule, I suggest avoiding tech-intensive businesses, as your skills likely are not super relevant for these organizations.

If you’re looking to change Geography, it’s much easier to move domestically, rather than internationally. The reason is that visa-related difficulties may scare away some start-ups from your profile, and generally, people operate less efficiently while adapting to a new country. That said, it’s not impossible, as you can still find great companies that hire employees from different countries and are supportive on the visa process, such as Turo.

Ultimately, you should not compromise and should work hard to get your ideal job, even if it means changing all axes described. But remember: the more axes you change, the lower your chances will be.

Step 3: Acquire relevant skills

After figuring out what you want, you need to acquire the skills you need to get the job. This is, by far, the most important step. As mentioned before, your value comes from bringing the skills the startup needs to succeed. Moreover, it is a sign of commitment; your investment in those skills shows you are not just following the herd, rather you have genuine interest and are committed to solving big problems for the long-term.

There is a chicken-and-egg problem here: you don’t get the job if you don’t have the right skills, but you don’t build these skills unless someone gives you the opportunity. So be creative and find ways to overcome this issue. Some suggestions are:

  • Intern at a startup. It’s often easier to join a start-up for an internship, rather than for a full-time role. For start-ups, internships are much lower risk because the position is temporary and relatively low cost (possibly free). For the applicant, the real experience of slogging through the day-to-day work in a startup is better than any other method of learning the necessary skills.

I cannot emphasize this step enough, as this step enables you to differentiate your resume from others the startup will receive. It shows genuine interest in startups and in your particular function and industry, and thus, will allow you to shine.

Step 4: Reach out and find your startup

Unlike large companies, most startups don’t recruit on campus as they don’t have structured recruiting cycles. In many cases the jobs will not become available before graduation, and you may have to take a risk here. Some of my peers refused offers and graduated before they found a startup job.

The best way to access startups is to reach out to your network. Because teams are small, referrals have a strong weight in the recruiting process. Also, you may find out about openings before they become publicly available. Alumni networks are a great extension of your personal network. Most of the top business schools have alumni all over the world, and they are generally responsive and open to help.

Step 5: Prepare (a lot) for the interview

In addition to all the interview tips you were taught at business school, do extensive research about the company. It’s not enough to read a couple of articles and show up for the interview.

Remember how hard it was to get to this point, and that there are not many seats available. I spent 20+ hours researching the company and the sector prior to my interview at Turo. I read car rental company annual reports, compiled market data, and even built a model to understand the key value drivers of the company. Obviously a lot of my assumptions were wrong, but I was able to demonstrate I was serious about the job.

Be ready to show why you are different from other MBA candidates. Tammy Han wrote a very useful article about the job hunt, in which she describes the typical archetypes to be avoided by startups. Unfortunately, MBA students fit into three out of the four categories she recommends companies avoid. Be prepared to show why you don’t fit in any of these profiles.

Go get it

And that’s it! I hope this post was helpful and will get you closer to finding your ideal startup job. There is no silver-bullet, the process is going to be long and hard. Be prepared to be rejected a lot, often for reasons you cannot discern. However, if you spend the time and energy to acquire the relevant skills and demonstrate genuine interest through internships, entrepreneurial projects and past jobs, I’m confident you’ll end up in a good place.

If nothing else, I hope after reading this you will not write generic emails to people saying you want to work for a startup because it’s cool…

Thanks to Jessica Chen for the insightful feedback and for adding her own personal experiences to the lessons in this piece.

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Matheus Riolfi

Written by

Co-founder & CEO@Tint, HBS MBA’13, #insurtech advocate, entrepreneurship & travel fanatic

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