The startup world is a strange and mysterious beast--at least it can seem that way until you get your foot in the door. Whether you’re looking for your first job fresh out of college or you’re looking to make a career jump with a few years of experience under your belt, the thought of jumping into a startup can seem daunting.
But we’ve got the inside scoop, and we can help shine a light on the startup world! At our NYC General Assembly panel on How to Get Hired at a Startup, we spoke with industry experts from Zocdoc, Plated, and Squarespace who shared their experiences and gave top-notch advice on getting that startup job that you’ve been eyeing.
On qualities hiring managers look for in a candidate:
Molly: There are two things we look for especially with non-tech roles: being adaptable and self-motivated. I know those are kind of cliche and a little cheesy, but at a startup you’re probably going to wear a lot of different hats. You have to be able to pivot and roll with the punches.
Eleanor: If you deal with customers, your biggest asset is your personality. When I’m hiring, I want to know who you are and how you create a genuine connection with people. I’ll come out of left field and throw you an oddball interview question, like, “When was the last time you were super embarrassed in public?” If you can’t answer that question, I can’t move forward with the interview. I like to have those kinds of conversations with people, because it assures me that you can continue to be who you are in a genuine way with our customers.
Evan: I don’t think there are any sets of traits that work across all startups, or across all stages of maturity. It really depends on the stage of the startup, the team that’s looking to hire, and the customer. Personalities that work for one customer base might not work for another. For my sales team, the traits we focus on include being nimble learners, being process-oriented, and having courage. That last one is a little more unique, because ultimately my sales team is speaking to doctors who are extremely educated and have very strong opinions about lots of things including the internet and marketing, and my sales team is largely entry-level employees trying to educate doctors. That does take some courage.
On making your intangible qualities shine through in an application process:
Eleanor: The resume review stage is the quickest part of our interview process. It takes me 10 seconds to look at a resume, because frankly, it doesn’t really matter as much as people might think.
Evan: Same. The real challenge for companies is: how do you screen for traits that can be a little more ambiguous? And how do you get that consistency across all of your hiring managers? I think it comes down to clear definitions of what those intangibles are, with examples of what it is when done well, and what it is when not done well; and then lots of practice interviewing. For candidates, it’s really about the experiences you’ve had, the stories you tell, the level of detail that you share that leads us to believe whether or not you have what we’re looking for.
Molly: We use competency-based interviewing, so before we even post a job, we’ve already decided on exactly what we’re looking for, and examples of what questions we would or wouldn’t use. This helps us take the bias out of interviewing. We’re big on behavioral questions, so we’re looking for examples of things you’ve done, situations you’ve been in, and whether you’re able to articulately and concisely explain how you deal with those situations.
Evan: Yeah--there’s no need to be nervous about an interview, because if you’re the right fit for us, you’ve already done all the work. You already think a certain way, and we’re just trying to uncover that in an interview.
On red flags in an interview process:
Evan: The more vague people are in their answers, the less likely I am to believe they’re telling the truth. Also, professionalism, or lack thereof, is pretty important--especially for entry level positions. You would not believe the things I’ve seen--I’ve had people tell me they stole from their previous companies! Even if we’re not wearing suits, professionalism is important. And the last red flag for me is overselling. People sometimes come in and talk for 30 minutes straight without letting me, the interviewer, get a word in edgewise.
Molly: One thing we see a lot, which is pretty unfortunate, is people who didn’t do their research before getting on a phone screen. I know these days it’s very easy and quick to apply for jobs, but as soon as someone asks you to get on a phone call, you should know what company you’re interviewing for! Read over the job description again, Google the company. It gives you guys something to talk about during the interview.
Eleanor: I only have two big red flags. One is typos--I just can’t even with typos on resumes and cover letters. The second is and an unwillingness to engage in my oddball questions. You gotta show me that you’re willing to play ball a little.
We can't even with the typos. Via Giphy
Evan: There are some baseline things that you need to do to prep for an interview, and you would be surprised how few people do them. Read the job description. Research the company. Think about questions you want to ask the hiring manager.
On making sure the hiring process is actually inclusive:
Evan: Throwing around the phrase “culture fit,” or saying that you’re “hiring people you’d want to get a beer with”, can be a euphemism for having zero idea on how to run a hiring process. A lot of times startups hire on scale without being careful about the hiring process, and you don’t have managers bringing their top-notch hiring practices.
Eleanor: I never want people to include a picture of themselves on their resume. I don’t want to know what you look like. I don’t know what weird biases are going on in my head on a given day, so don’t show me your face! Your resume, education, and work history all matter to a certain degree, but what matters the most is whether you exhibit those qualities that we look for in an ideal applicant.
I love that I can talk to people with a variety of different backgrounds. I mean, I have a PhD in Italian literature. We all have these unique things about ourselves, and the more of that, the better. I don’t look for that, but I want it. I want it all. Great company culture is created when our differences are celebrated but we’re similar in all the right ways. My coworker and I both know how to exhibit compassion when it comes to X, Y and Z, but that’s something that we have in common that helps us succeed at our jobs.
Molly: We don’t use the words “culture fit” or “culture add”. I think it’s a fading practice in a lot of these companies, and again--because we base our interview process on competencies, the fact that I met someone I want to go to yoga with on the weekends can’t be considered, and it’s not. The way the scorecard is filled out only leaves room for you to talk about their skills. Because we hire the way we do, we have a diverse and interesting set of coworkers who are all good at their jobs.
On startup life:
Eleanor: One of the benefits of working at a startup is that processes come under review all the time--which I love! At bigger companies, you don’t have the same kind of work agility as you would at a startup. If something is wrong with an interview question and we have the data to prove it, we’ll change it. If a team is small, we’re able to change things much more quickly.
Evan: I learned a lot through failure. Startups have put me in the position where I’ve failed time and time again, and I’ve learned to not be afraid of failure. In more “established” industries, the only way you can succeed there is by never failing, and you miss out on building that mental resilience that comes with working at a startup. And this isn’t just a professional thing, it’s changed interactions in my personal life
Eleanor: Startup life isn’t all about bros and beer. It’s fun, but it’s a real job. These are fun companies and there’s a lot of fun to be had, but the people I’ve observed at Plated are solving problems that are more amorphous. They work their asses off because they feel ownership and fulfillment from their work.
Molly: There isn’t anybody who can’t contribute to a startup, especially if you come to the table with some prior work experience. I have such cool coworkers; one of my coworkers did PR for the Real Housewives, and another one was a professor!
Panelist answers have been edited for length and clarity.
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