Want to work at a startup? Here’s how to pick the right one

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Most startups eventually fail. This means there will always be lot of people, particularly in Silicon Valley, who claim that failure is a badge of honor. While it is true that you shouldn't be afraid of failure, don't go out to seek it. You learn from failure, but you learn even more from success. As Marc Andreessen said in 2014, “My goal is not to fail fast. My goal is to succeed over the long run. They are not the same thing.”

You, however, want to work for a startup with the potential to be incredibly successful. Incredible success can mean any number of things: going public; being a leader in its domain; becoming a household name; getting acquired for several hundred million dollars. To borrow from Larry Page, the startups and products that succeed are generally “moon shots” working on crazy impossible goals. But even if that moon shot startup ends up in failure, you will have learned from that failure.Remember that achieving 65% of the impossible is better than 100% of the ordinary. In short, choose a startup where there is a high degree of spectacular success—even if it fails you should still be able to call it a successful failure.

Identifying “Moon Shot” Startups

Startups by definition are not publicly traded companies, meaning none of their key metrics are publicly accessible. This can make it extremely difficult to identify startups that will be successful in the long run, even for savvy investors. However, these important factors should help you in your research:

  • Founders: More often than not, the founders' ambition is directly proportional to the company's success. You should check out the founders' credentials: previous work experience, success in creating other companies, noteworthy educational background, if they have founded startups in the past, etc. Most people tend to attract and recruit like-minded individuals.
  • Product: Great founders/teams will produce great products. Therefore the quality of a product is a proxy test to talent at any startup. If it's a consumer-oriented startup, then you should test it. Enquire amongst your peers to see if they have any experience with the brand and find out what their opinions are. If the company is building an app, evaluate its popularity on app stores. If it's an enterprise company, ask to demo their product. Question former colleagues and contacts to determine if the service/product would solve problems for them at work.
  • Investors: If the product is awesome and the team is exceptional, then the company will attract top investors. Top investors are either extremely successful with their previous investments or were part of companies (at an early stage) that reached a noteworthy event (IPO, profitable acquisition, etc.). The latter are now transitioning from an operator to investor role. (You can check on a startup's investors through Crunchbase and/or AngelList.)

Hiring, from the startup's perspective

Generally speaking, early stage startups are always hiring. At a high growth startup, the primary goal is to get more customers/users and serve them well—everything else is just a distraction

The core intellectual property for a startup (particularly software/internet companies) is its people. But that doesn't mean they're going to be hasty. There is an oft-repeated Silicon Valley cliché, “hire slow and fire fast.” Most startups are extremely careful when bringing new people on board because of the time investment needed for every hire.

The application process

It's important to find a company where the work required involves something you love doing. Your passion could be the game changer that inspires you through the tough days or sets you apart from your competition in the future.

The easiest way to apply to startup positions is if you know someone already working there. However, if you aren't associated with an employee, tools like LinkedIn (and their inMails) can be helpful as a way to connect with some of the folks in your network. You can also try a few of these less conventional routes to get yourself noticed:

  • Send an email to at the startup. Practically every startup utilizes this email id and all of the emails sent to this email id are forwarded to founders' inboxes. In case you don't get an immediate response, keep trying. There is an excellent story how someone landed a job at foursquare by sending it's founders' a whooping eight emails in a row.
  • Make sure to highlight your unique talents when communicating with a prospective startup. It could be your noteworthy contributions to an open source community or competing in a physics olympiad during high school or even your stint as a college football player that end up making you memorable.

Lastly, try to be as objective as possible. I recently received an email from a candidate at my startup who told me: “I'm a creative problem solver who could work on any challenge.” Unfortunately, this type of statement does not give any information at all. Make sure to quantify your accomplishments. I'd urge candidates to take a much more direct approach, like this: “I led product development project, where we released four key features in a given quarter, which led to a revenue jump of 40% or approximately $2,000,000.”

I believe working at an early stage startup can be truly rewarding. Finding that startup should be the first step on your journey, not the last. Choose wisely.

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