Finding Your Next Startup Role in 2016
Through my role at Tradecraft, I meet a constant flow of smart, motivated individuals who are moving to the Bay Area in hopes of joining a fast-growing tech company. For every one person I talk to, there are ten others either coming from outside the market or looking to switch roles within tech.
Meanwhile, the VC market is cooling, leading to high profile layoffs at bigger tech companies and a slow-down in growth rounds at earlier-stage startups.
There is still plenty of opportunity here (downturns are when the best companies are built), but the confluence of competition and instability means that high-quality startup jobs are harder to come by in 2016 than they have been in the recent past. There is more competition, and companies are more cautious when making new hires.
Given this, it’s important that job-seekers enter the market with a plan.
This post is specifically for those of you who are still defining your tech careers. Whether you’re a recent college grad or transitioning from another industry, this advice should help put you on the path to a successful career in Silicon Valley.
A framework for the job search
Before looking at a job search, let’s look at the broader picture of how a product gets distributed in the market:
Credit to Graham Hunter, Director of Marketing @ Patreon
Product — This is what the product can actually do; it’s the product spec. For an iPod, it would be things like battery life, storage capacity, audio playback quality, etc.
Message — This is how the product is described to the market. Comparing the product specs for an Apple iPod and a Microsoft Zune, they were very similar products in terms of what they could actually do. It was messaging that differentiated them — “1,000 songs in your pocket” vs. who can even remember?
Channel — The channel is how a product and its message are discovered by its audiences. For the iPod, this was PR, word-of-mouth, and the Apple Stores.
Audience — The audience is who is actually buying the product. By knowing its audience, Apple knew what the product needed to be able to do, how to message it, and what channels it should be cultivating.
A job search looks very similar; think of yourself as the “product”:
Skills: This is what you can actually do. It is a combination of hard skills like knowing SQL or Sketch, plus softer skills like managing teams or working collaboratively.
Story: This is how you talk about who you are, what things you can do, and why you care about doing them. Just like messaging distinguishes similar products, story distinguishes similar job candidates in meaningful ways.
Network: This is how you reach your target companies. In Silicon Valley, people are predominantly hired via social recruiting, so your network becomes your key channel.
Target Companies / Roles: This is where you want to work and what you want to do. Simple enough.
Let’s look at each of these areas in more detail.
Companies / Roles: Make Choices
There are two key pivot points to define your job search by. The first is the functional role within the company and the second is the sector of the company within the broader tech industry.
In fields like consulting, everyone essentially has a generalist skill-set and there is a clear career progression for generalists. It’s not like that in tech.
Tech favors specialists over generalists.
There are clear career paths for people who want to specialize in sales, growth marketing, product design, engineering, etc. These functional areas all have a relatively standard progression of roles from junior positions to senior titles.
Generalists, on the other hand, have a harder time in tech. “Founder” is the only generalist job title, and there is no incrementally upward path to becoming a founder where you learn founding skills on someone else’s dime.
At early-stage startups you can play a somewhat generalist role, but again there is no clear career path here. Product management can be somewhat of a generalist role, but you need to specialize in something else first (engineering, product design, growth, etc.)
Given that you probably need to head toward a specialization (at least for a few years before abstracting yourself away from day-to-day execution and more toward strategy / management), below are some the general traits that might make you a good fit for some of the functional areas:
Sales — Great listener. Likable. Deep interest in understanding human behavior. Strong and persuasive communicator. Quite process-driven. Enjoy daily interactions with other people vs. staring at a computer screen.
Growth Marketing — Analytical, experiment driven. Very competent self-learner. Enjoy time in front of a computer working through problems, dealing with data & drawing insights from that data.
Product Design — Great listener. Deep interest in understanding human behavior. Detail oriented. Strong puzzle-solver. Adaptability because you’re solving problems without clear solutions. Ability to take feedback.
Despite warnings at the top of this piece, there are still tons of opportunities in the Silicon Valley. In fact sometimes the issue is abundance of choice, not lack of it. There are over 10,000 seed-funded companies in the Bay Area, which means that narrowing down by sector can help you build a more targeted search strategy and network.
Having a sector focus allows you to figure out what newsletters to subscribe to, events to attend, etc. This focus allows you to build a more cohesive network and a deeper knowledge base than if you just want to generically work “in startups”.
If you are a career switcher, you may be eager to shed everything you can about your former job. Think carefully about this, as you may find that seeking a role where you already have sector expertise can make a hiring manager more likely to take a chance on you when you’re trying out a new function. Changing both industry and function in one move is generally difficult.
Skills: Learn Deeply
To succeed in a specialist’s world, you have to learn deeply and quickly.
The first thing you should do if you haven’t already is abandon a fixed mindset, which is the belief that your basic abilities, intelligence, and talents are fixed traits. Adopt a growth mindset.
Once you believe that you can learn new things, realize that the path to mastery is long, but that it doesn’t all need to get done in one go. The first step is to learn enough of the skill to be able to have someone let you do it for them for free. Then you need to be able to get paid (poorly) to do it. Optimize for rate-of-learning as the primary form of compensation and you’ll be able to harvest the benefits in terms of compensation down the road.
Luckily, there are many ways to learn new things these days. If you are a really skilled self-learner, there are a ton of free resources located around the web. One level up in terms of handholding and accountability are online classes on platforms like Udemy and Udacity. Finally, there are in-person immersive programs that surround you with a group of motivated peers and expert practitioners to push you and provide feedback.
Story: Prove that you can do the job
As discussed in the iPod vs. Zune example, sometimes it is messaging that differentiates two similar products. You need to figure out how your story overlaps with your target company / role, and then figure out how to show, not tell.
Where are you coming from, where do you want to go, and why? Being able to answer these questions is the key to telling your story. For career switchers a big part of this is helping translate what success looked like in your previous industry to how it applies to your new role.
You also should have a clear vision of how the next role you are taking will help you get to where you ultimately want to go. Since most hiring managers in Silicon Valley will only expect you to stay in your role for ~2 years, it is important that they understand not only what value you can contribute in the role, but also what you are getting out of the role (which is to say, why you are really interested in the job).
If through your story they can understand why this role is a perfect fit for you because it is the next chapter in a clear, compelling long-term narrative, they are more likely to be convinced that you’ll put in 100% effort in the role and so be more likely to succeed.
If you’re an engineer, a hiring manager will want to see your code. This is because it is much easier to evaluate your work by looking at your code versus hearing a description of it.
In the same way, non-coders need a fleshed-out representation of their work. Rather than leaving this to your resume or LinkedIn profile, build something that showcases your creativity and thought process.
Portfolios are standard for product designers, but many people lean too much on visual assets and not enough on the thinking behind the decisions that you made. Expose your thinking & process because that is what hiring managers actually care about.
For growth marketers, create a portfolio that details the campaigns that you’ve run. What copy did you use and how did that change based on initial testing? How did you decide and test what copy to pair with what creative? Don’t just detail the results; also discuss process.
For a sales or business development role, analyze and write about a market that you know. Demonstrate you have relevant connections in the space by including interviews with them. Find a handful of new leads for a startup that you want to work for. Show expertise and hustle.
If you haven’t worked on projects before, take an outsider’s perspective on a company’s business or design problem and show how you’d attack it. Better yet, go find an early-stage company and volunteer to do free work for them.
“How can I afford to live in San Francisco while working for free?” you may ask. I realize this is an insanely expensive city. But where there is a will, there is a way. Whether it is picking up gigs with on-demand companies or borrowing money from folks like SkillsFund or Earnest, you have to put yourself in a position to get experience. It is just so much more effective to convince hiring managers to take a risk on you if they can see examples of your work.
Network: It’s Who You Know
As much as we’d like to believe that Silicon Valley is a meritocracy, hiring here (especially for non-engineering roles) is still very much based on who you know. That’s not for reasons of nepotism, but rather efficiency.
To illustrate this, let’s imagine what happens when there is a job opening at a high-growth tech company. For each open rec, there are over 100 applications. For a recruiter at the company, this is an overwhelming number, and so a common practice is to have employees flag any applications from people in their network. This leads to 10–20 flagged applications. The recruiter will review those first, and most likely there will be a handful of solid applicants in this bunch. The recruiter and hiring manager will go through the process with these candidates, and one will get the job. All of the non-connected applicants will never hear back on their application.
It’s because of this that more than 60% of open job recs at top Silicon Valley companies are filled via social recruiting.
Social recruiting is not the only reason to build a network. Having a strong peer group can help you learn your craft more deeply, source new opportunities, and get more enjoyment out of your professional journey. Also over time, your peer group will rise along with you, and 3–5 years from now will be in positions of power and influence.
As a final note, a great time to build relationships is during the job search process. While not every interview will result in a job offer, they may result in the opportunity to build a connection with someone awesome. By keeping connected with the best people that you meet during the job search process, you will make your next job search a lot easier.
Landing a role at a fast-growing tech company can put you in a position to learn an incredible amount in a short period of time. To land one and put yourself on a great career path, you need to be strategic and think about yourself as part of a product and distribution framework. Focus on defining your target companies / role, building a relevant skill-set, creating an online presence that demonstrates that skill-set, and building a network to connect you to the right decision-makers.
Self-serving addendum: At Tradecraft we’ve used this framework to help a couple hundred smart, motivated people transition into roles at high-growth companies including MasterClass, Uber, Square, ManagedByQ, etc. If you like this strategy and you want hands-on help with tactics & execution, drop us a line.
Thanks to Monica Chellam, Nick deWilde, and Joel Cox for editing and Jake Fleming for the in-story graphics. Thanks to the people whose work was referenced in this article, including Kevin Liu, Semil, Graham Hunter, Ivan Kirigin, Maria Popova, KYLE TIBBITTS, Francine Lee, and Mark Suster. Thanks to Russ Klusas for overall guidance.