How to Get Hired by Startups

A guide for students in pre-final and final year in India

In case you stumbled here because nobody else is hiring you, and you might be good enough for startups at least, you are wrong. If you think startups are desperate to just get people, you will usually be wrong. Hiring people right out of college, freshers as you call them, is like taking ‘Call of Duty’ players to war. There are a few ways though, by which you can convince startups to place their bet on you.

Attitude

Just like doing a startup, taking a startup job is a risk by itself. These days startups are able to match market offers, but that comes with short runways. One cannot always count on a steady salary to be the motivation factor. Hence startups look for an attitude of jumping before looking, they do not like questions such as ‘Do you provide health care benefits’, ‘What is the salary increment y-o-y’, ‘Designation structure’ etc. Good startups like people to grow, sometimes even outgrow the startup itself. Take up risky assignments when in college. Pick something hard enough that you have to enter new territory to even start attempting the problem and consumes your time, sounds risky? It must appear that you genuinely tried hard before you failed at something. Calculated risks are even better, so you know when to get out. ‘Lone-warrior’, ‘never say never’ examples are a great way to establish yourself.

Another attitude which might turn out to go either way is to be really passionate about what you do. You need to be careful about this. I have rejected people in interviews who were too passionate about a particular technology which was not in plans of the startup. Remember startups are flexible in hiring people, but have operational constraints. Being passionate about what you have built in the past is a really rare quality. It is hard to come across and it almost certainly takes you from ‘I want to get hired’ to ‘We want to hire you’.

Background Check

You must be thinking, well what can I do about that. Most of good hires in startups happen by recommendations. Startups don’t prefer interviews, it’s like you don’t make investments just by a call. Start building a reputation for yourself. You know what you do, that’s great, but do 10 people know what you do? Do 10 right people know what you do? Start sharing your work on social media, enter discussions related to your field. If anyone asks anyone if they know someone who does something, you should be that someone. Share things that you learn, if you are really good at it, even go take a few workshops. Do not be a person who cannot be reached out to. Negative impressions are a great deterrent during background checks. You do not want that on your sleeve. Even your enemies should respect you.

Work Experience

I understand you have not had significant work experience due to your college demands. Startups are usually not into hiring people with zero work experience, they don’t have six month/year long training programmes. They want you to add value as fast as you can. I do remember reading this in an HR Interview Q&A cheat sheet — “I will work hard to start adding value to the organisation as soon as possible”. In startups this is a given. Work sincerely in your internships, gain as much real world experience as you can. Do freelancing, work part time at a startup as a free/low-paid intern. Participate in college level hackathons. Collaborate with people better than you on their projects. Make small prototypes and upload them on Github. Try if you can contribute to open source projects. Personally, I like coders who have shipped before. For non-tech people it is equally important to have handled big enough responsibilities before.

A diverse work experience also helps your case a lot more than you would imagine. Startups don’t just hire people to get shit done, they hire them as contributors to the product and the vision. Having a diverse work experience helps you get more perspectives on the table.

As much as the people who are interviewing you want to hire you for your attitude, the work that you have done in the past will be a significant deciding factor in them judging how good you are. And startups want nothing but the best.

Pitch

One of the reasons I recommend freelancing is that you get an experience of sales. It can be one of the best teachings you will ever get. You need to do a proper background research, find connections in the startup you want to be hired in. Meet people who are working there, learn about their culture. Most importantly if possible try out their product. You are out there to sell yourself. You are not there because you weren’t worthy enough for anything else, you are there because you felt you deserved better than what you got. You need to sell this gap. You need to convince the other person why you think you are better, why you think this startup will get you there. You also need to research what the startup lacks and how you can fill that gap. If you do it right, you don’t have to do it again, so put a wholesome effort.

D-Day

Your hiring might happen in many ways, you might start with a phone call, get invited to the office, or at a coffee shop. In a Seed or Series A round backed startup, you can expect the team size to be fairly small. You can fairly assume the person hiring you wants to collaborate with you rather than make you work directly for/under him. You should give a confident impression that you can do things on your own, can take tough calls. Be friendly to the interviewers rather than being intimidated. Beware of a few snobs though, usually in small teams, programmers think very highly of themselves compared to others, if you appear to challenge their knowledge, it can go two ways, either you crush them by having absolutely unquestionable knowledge about something or switch to interactively solving a problem. If you challenge the authority of a snob, he will lay out as many arguments as he can, no matter how good yours were, he will tell the boss, you couldn’t answer him correctly.

Hiring people in startups is a lot of subconscious HR, and a lot less technical, prepare your state of mind and case well, and you should nail it. But more importantly work gradually over the next one or two years to get there.

Good luck!