Be interesting (and other ways to land a job at a startup)

Now that I’m back in my second year at business school, I’m getting a few questions from classmates on how to go about getting an internship at a startup.  In a selfish attempt to not repeat myself too many times, I figured it might actually be a good idea to blog about this so I have things documented for eternity on the internets.

Though my internship this summer was really obtained via a pretty organic process, I think there are a few common threads between my experience and the experiences of a number of other startup interns (both MBA and otherwise).  I’m no expert, but some of this stuff should help if you’re not sure where to start with applying for startup jobs (or your money back!).

  1. Be authentic & have an opinion. I’ve touched on this before in a previous post, but just be yourself.  Cultural fit matters a TON if you’re going to land a startup internship or job, so that overly formal cover letter or “to whom it may concern" email is really going to alienate you in the eyes of most companies.  
  2. Instead of spending a ton of time on your resume, be active on social media.  As Brad Burnham says, “You can work really hard on crafting a well written, organized, resume with bullet points of accomplishments – but you can’t fake 500 blog posts." Not much more that needs to be said about this one.
  3. Know the product.  I can’t stress this one enough.  Most early stage startups are almost exclusively product companies.  Chances are no matter what you’re doing, you’ll be interacting with the product, so make sure you know it from top to bottom.  Know what you like and what you don’t like as well.  Both are equally valuable and will help you relate to the customers and users of  business.
  4. Know the market & business model (or potential business model). This is important whether you’re in a technical role or a business role - if you are going to be a successful company, you’re going to have to figure out a way to generate revenue and get paid! If you’re a business guy (or gal) at a pre-revenue company, have ideas about this and an action plan of how to make some of them happen. If you want to work for a post-revenue company, make sure you understand the different ways revenue comes in the door and how you can help increase that revenue.
  5. Know the technology.  As a business guy at a startup, it’s easy to just focus on the dollars and deals that need to get done, but if you don’t understand the basic technical challenges, you’re at a disadvantage.  Asking about technical aspects of the business ("what stack are you running on?") up front can be a great way to set yourself apart from other “MBA" style candidates and demonstrate the kind of holistic view that startups are looking for.  If founders can teach themselves how to code and build an MVP while surviving on ramen, you can take 30 minutes to understand what Node.js and Ruby on Rails are and how they’re important to a startup’s product.
  6. Don’t suck at email. This one is pretty underrated.  My experience at Shelby taught me to be much better about how I approach people via email (I’m still far from perfect).  Keep emails short and to the point (no more than a few sentences) and include something that’s personal in each one.  If you’re trying to get on someone’s calendar, propose a number of times that work and let them pick - they’ll suggest something if a time doesn’t work. Remember, the more you can illicit a response from the person you email, the better chance you’ll end up in their priority inbox when you email them down the road.
  7. Sell yourself. Startup internships (and jobs, by extension) are a totally different experience than a formal internship program at a large company.  You’ll be expected to hit the ground on day one and make things happen for your company.  As part of landing the job, you’ll probably have to sell how your skills can be useful to advance the state of the company during the time that you’ll be there.
  8. Get intros from VCs. VCs know their portfolio really well - if you know investors, you get intros to portfolio companies.  Guess what? If they are taking VC money, they’re probably thinking about hiring. Oh, you’re looking for a job?
  9. Expect nothing, earn everything. This is one of the mottos we really embrace at Shelby, and I’d say that going into an internship with this kind of attitude is a great way to get the most out of it.  Sure, you can worry about a paycheck, whether the internship “looks good on a resume" or what your title is, but at the end of the day, your internship should be about growing personally and professionally and helping the company grow too.  Worry about that, and the rest will take care of itself.

Alright, now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, go off and get some jobs! If you work hard and have a little luck on your side, hopefully other people will be saying this about you.