How to Sell Yourself to a Startup



Working at a startup is very appealing to many people, and it’s not hard to see why. Startups generally offer more responsibility, more opportunity to give input in a variety of areas, and an utter lack of the endless bureaucracy and red tape required to get things done at larger companies – not to mention the close-knit culture and casual dress code.

However, it takes a particular type of person to thrive in this environment, and if you’re transitioning from corporate, it’s time to reset your expectations. You need to know that the job is going to look and feel completely different. You can’t walk in and expect to be in your comfort zone. Before you make the move, it’s important to step back and make a very clear comparison between your current role and the new role.

Sure, startups can seem like a fun idea and look very attractive equity-wise, but it’s critical that you’re passionate about the product or the company. These positions require a ton of hard work, and people can burn out quickly, if they’re not prepared. This and the potential culture shock is why hiring managers at startups specifically look for people with previous startup experience.

Still want to pursue a role at the hot new company? Then you’ll need to know what qualities startups look for and be prepared to sell them.

First: scrappiness. Startups want people who don’t rely on a lot of set systems, processes and resources to get stuff done. You’re not going to have access to big budgets or lots of different resources across departments like you would at a large company, so you need to be able to work with whatever is available, which is often not that much.

The best startup candidates also must possess a level of comfort with ambiguity. Oftentimes you’ll need to wear a lot of different hats. While it’s not necessarily good to position yourself as a jack of all trades, you could end up in a role that you weren’t expecting. Roles are nebulous, and there’s a level of responsibility added to that. You need to be able to operate outside of a specific set of guidelines, and be comfortable with the fact that your job description may not be set in stone

Finally, startups look for people who are speedy and efficient. Things are expected to be done much more quickly in this environment. Especially at the executive level, decision-making happens much more quickly, and product gets developed much more rapidly. You must have a 24/7 mentality and be comfortable running at 150 mph. This is the bare minimum to keep up with all the people around you.

When it comes to crafting a resume that speaks to these qualities, figure out what, if any, intrapreneurial experiences you’ve had and be sure to include them. Also, any projects that you started from scratch, or if you became interested in a project and got people to get behind you on it, especially in cases where you had really limited resources. Did you launch a new product from scratch, or take over sales for a new product and grow revenue? Make sure that goes in there. And then be ready to talk about all of it in detail.

Plenty of people with high GPAs and good internships can get an interview, so once you get in the door, you’re not even halfway done. You need to be able to differentiate yourself, and a big part of that is being able to answer how you accomplished the items you have listed on your resume. Be ready to tell a great story, get into the layers and be able to pitch yourself. Think about it as creating a nonfiction about yourself. If you can clearly articulate what you’ve done and how it’s relevant, you’ll have a much better shot at acquiring your ideal startup position.

Image credit: CC by photosteve101

About the author: Kevin Bijas

Kevin joined Riviera Partnersretained search team in 2013 and is the leader of the company’s New York practice. His main focus is CTO, CPO and CEO searches for venture-backed technology companies in Consumer, Enterprise, Healthcare and Education. Kevin splits his time between NY and SF and, when he isn’t recruiting, can usually be found honing his palate in one of the two cities’ many dining establishments.

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