How to land your dream job in a startup.

If you’re thinking of joining a startup then chances are that you don’t want a “job” as such. For you, it’s more about wanting to be part of something inspiring, something that will change the world. And how good would it be if you could join the next Atlassian or Canva (two Australian Unicorns) and be a part of their amazing growth journey working with entrepreneurial, innovative fun people in a low hierarchy, creative environment?

Maybe you’re thinking that you could become rich when the business floats on the stock exchange or is purchased by another company like the “Paypal Mafia” or the Aconex founders if you have vested equity in the business?”

 Remember one person’s dream is another person’s nightmare!

Do you really know what you’re in for?

Working in a startup is not for the faint-hearted because:

  • Startups are inherently risky. Depending on the maturity level of the business, it may still be trying to achieve product/market fit.
  • It is rare for startups to be making a profit, so they are reliant on funding rounds and may run out of runway. Are you comfortable with that? Unlockd raised $60m over a couple of years and was all set to list on the Australian Stock Exchange last year until Google kicked them out of the app store. Everyone there lost their job. (although I should point out that all of them found new jobs too).
  • Startups generally can’t afford to pay equivalent corporate-level salaries. So depending on your seniority, you may need to take a step back in terms of salary to join a startup. In fact, most of the people I have placed out of corporate roles into startups have taken a haircut on salary although also received equity via an ESOP as part of their package (depending on seniority). On the positive side, taking a reduced salary will make you more attractive to a startup (as a proof point that you are really keen to join them). Can you afford to take a salary cut? Can you/your lifestyle/your family afford it?
  • Startups are usually under-resourced so you need to be comfortable doing more with less for everything. This includes rolling up your sleeves and pitching in as needed. This sometimes means CFO’s doing payroll; CEO’s putting together IKEA furniture and CTO’s coding.
  • Startups never sleep. When you’re a “temporary organization designed to look for a business model that is repeatable and scalable” (according to Steve Blank) and you’re burning a finite amount of cash then there is no time to rest. Startup hours can sometimes be long.

Yes, working in a startup can be risky but it is also highly rewarding.

Regardless of the risks, I would generally say that the experience you gain from working in a startup is generally “more” than that you would gain in a larger more traditional corporate in a few ways.

  • More accelerated – you will learn and experience more in much less time.
  • More diverse – you will need to become a “jack of all trades” as job descriptions are not strictly defined and you will need to step up and step in depending on what’s happening in or to the organization.
  • Higher impact on the business – what you do matters more to a smaller business, you will see the results in action.

Working for a startup builds resilience and confidence in your abilities and can, in some instances, be rewarding financially if you are able to earn vested equity in the right startup.

Startups usually have a very clear mission to disrupt an industry and to change the world in some positive way.

If their mission resonates with you then you are not just working for a paycheck. You are working for a higher cause and that is awesome.

So, if you still think that working in a startup is where you want to be, then how do you find the right one? And how do you make yourself an attractive hire to them?

There are thousands and thousands of new startups being launched around the world every year and, because of their size and newness, it’s hard to stay on top of what’s out there. It’s a dynamic and exciting landscape of opportunity. It’s important for you to stay up to date with startup news, so sign up for startup news feeds and take an interest in what’s happening.

You will find, however, that early-stage startups often fly under the radar because they are small and haven’t been around for long. You have to look for them in your local community.

 So, get involved in the Startup Community!

Use Meetup to find local meetups dedicated to startups, startup culture and tech trends that interest you. Attend your local collab hub events, they’re happening all the time. Ucities is an online community dedicated to startup people, join up there too.

Attend Startup Festivals like Pausefest, Above All Human, AWISE, Yeah-Nah. They’re terrific events with amazing speakers and everyone there is interested in startups and most of them also work for startups. I’ve mentioned Australian festivals here, there are definitely similar festivals where you live too.

Get out there and mix with the startup community. It’s a very welcoming, friendly community of people. Involve yourself as deeply as you can.

Startups tend to hire people with startup experience. So, if you don’t have any prior startup experience how do you get it? Maybe you already have it but didn’t realize.

I tend to advise people who are looking to jump into a new sector to take stock of what they have to offer in terms of networks, knowledge, skills, and experience. And to leverage each of those things to make the leap. Taking each in turn:

Networks

Startups are often looking to form relationships with people in/from the corporate community. They are looking to market or sell to corporates or get a Proof Of Concept or trial going with them.

Ask yourself “what do I have in terms of relationships/networks?” Who are the people you know from your career to date. For example, if you worked in the energy sector and the startup you are interested in is disrupting the energy sector then it would be helpful for them to have someone around who knows the players, understands the sector, has the contacts and can perhaps open the doors for them. That’s something an energy sector startup could be very interested in.

Knowledge

Startups are applying their innovation in a particular sector and, if you come from that world, then that can be very enticing for a startup because you know the lay of the land and understand the customer pain points and how and why their approach is better. That’s a good way to get involved in the startup world. Perhaps initially as an advisor or by offering your help or perspective, or perhaps helping them to sell into that space.

Skills

For instance, if you have a skillset in finance then that skill can work across different sectors and can enable you to make the leap. For example, a startup needing to pull together a financial model could use this skillset. Similarly with marketing or sales – which are other ways to jump across.

Experience

Experience is the sum of the problems you have managed to navigate and the situations in which you have been involved. It could be about level of seniority, scaling a business, dealing with investors, or even playing elite level sport for instance. Ask yourself, “what experience (wisdom) do I have that could be of benefit to that startup? What are the founders going through or what are they trying to achieve that is similar to my experience?”

Ok, so you understand the risks, you have something to offer, you’re plugged in to the Startup Community and you’re ready to join. There’s one more really important thing that startups are looking for.

Values alignment.

This is really important as shared values underpin culture and you won’t be happy working in a place that doesn’t reflect your values. Also, many startups have a big social or higher-order goal they are looking to achieve – something that is socially meaningful. If you also have a passion for that goal then you are able to bring that level of passion and drive to your work as well. Your belief in a startup’s mission is really attractive to them too. The culture piece is critical. Don’t be afraid to wear your heart on your sleeve with startups!

This article was written by Luke Henningsen and he is Co-Founder of the growing startup community at Ucities which is being developed to help provide a dedicated space for founders and startup people to network and support each other. He also leads a business called Scale & Swing, which delivers executive search to startups looking for senior talent at a startup-friendly price-point. Feel free to reach out to Luke on LinkedIn or at Scale & Swing or join the growing community at Ucities.

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