Non-technical? How to Join a Startup in 7 Steps

So, you want to join a startup?

I know how you feel. After a year in a corporate marketing role at an established international firm, I was really happy – but I also felt like something was missing. I just knew (actually, I’d known it for a while) that startup world is where I belong. In May, I decided to begin looking for my next opportunity, thinking that it would take me at least four months, or even six, to find the type of startup gig I was looking for. To my utter astonishment, my job search ended in less than three weeks when I received a great offer from Pinpoint Social. (I also had a few other opportunities in the pipeline, just in case.) I’ve thought a lot about my job search experience since then, and I think I’ve figured out the seven steps that should be followed for anyone who wants to go from corporate to startup life in less than three weeks. Here they are:

1. Start early

It’s true – the only reason my job search was so quick and painless was because of months of preparation (though, it didn’t feel like “preparation” – it was so much fun!). Although I was in a corporate marketing role, I found ways to integrate myself into Toronto’s startup community every time I had the chance, especially through attending events, reaching out to founders and startup employees, and generally being open about my interest in startups. Own your online brand – make it reflective (and respectful) of who you are now, but also feel free to be clear about your interest in startups, tech, entrepreneurship, etc.

2. Live lean

For over a year, I’ve been sleeping in a living room. I don’t have a closet, and I don’t have a door. (I do have a doorframe, though, which I’m really thankful for – I use it to hold up a curtain.) My rent has been ridiculously inexpensive (especially considering that I live in gorgeous Little Italy), and even though I could have afforded something much nicer on my corporate salary, I resisted the urge. If you’re interested in joining a startup, be sure to avoid “lifestyle creep” because you have no way of knowing what your compensation package is going to be like once you say good bye to your corporate salary. The last thing you want is to come across the perfect opportunity and not be able to take it because you’re living a little too large. Your best bet is to keep your fixed costs (like rent) very low, abide by a budget, and bank as much as you can.

(By the way, now that I’ve found an awesome startup gig, I’m moving into my own place. #excited)

3. Know what you want

If you want to join a startup, you aren’t going to be submitting resumes (especially if you’re non-technical). Don’t even bother. The best way to find a startup job is through people. But people can only help you if you know what you’re looking for. “I want to join a startup” isn’t enough – everyone wants to join a startup. (Well, not everyone, but you get what I’m saying.) Your best bet is to be as specific as possible, because it will help people you meet to recall founders and companies who are hiring for those types of roles. When I was job searching, I had three criteria – I wanted to be in a commission-based sales role at a startup with 6-10 people, and I wanted to be part of something that would scale. I had a preference for tech, but it wasn’t a requirement. Almost every time I mentioned to someone what I was looking for, I got a fairly positive reaction. Partially because “commission-based salesperson” sounds good to startup founders, partially because it sounded like I had put some thought into my job search, and partially because my description was specific enough that the people I was talking to could send me in the right direction. I was referred to a lot of great people and companies as a result.

(Sometimes people think that being specific will limit their choices. It won’t. I wanted to join a six- to 10-person startup, but Pinpoint Social only has three, including me. You’re better off being too specific than too broad.)

 4. Follow your startup community on Twitter

This is a great way to start to get to know the people and companies in your city’s startup community (or even startup communities in other cities). Over time, you’ll inevitably start to like certain people and companies more than others, and then you can follow them more closely. By following these people on Twitter, you’ll be exposed to the things they read, the people they know, causes they’re passionate about, and the events they attend (plus, undoubtedly, a sprinkling of personal information which may or may not be relevant). Following your startup community on Twitter can also be “aspirational” – it can almost make you feel like a part of the community, so that when you decide to finally take the leap, you’ll feel right at home.

 5. Attend startup events

Once you’ve started stalking – I mean, following – your startup community on Twitter, you need to begin showing your face at startup events. I get the sense that startup communities are thriving in many of Canada’s major cities, and that’s great to see. Getting to know the Toronto startup community has been a ton of fun. Everyone is very welcoming, and there are a large number of really high-quality events happening every month. If you live in Toronto, some events I recommend checking out are Startup Drinks, Startup Weekend and Democamp. To stay up-to-date on events happening in your city, check out the Techvibes events section and subscribe to Startup Digest. At these events, talk to people. And care about the conversations you’re having.

6. Buy people coffee

Once you’re ready to get serious about your job search, you’re going to have to start meeting with people. You need advice, you need to start building relationships and, ultimately, you need referrals. Generally, I’ve found that people respond positively to reasonable requests, but you should keep a few things in mind. First, startup founders and employees are super busy. Your best bet is to send an email to your target asking if you can treat them to a quick coffee at their local coffee shop. Throw in some flattery – as long as it’s true. Give them a reason to want to meet with you. And expect them to give you about 15 minutes. When you meet, ask lots of questions, especially if you set up the meeting “to learn more about what it’s like to work at a startup.” And ABC – always be closing. In this case, you should end the conversation by asking if they can suggest someone else you should meet. Choose something specific that you want to learn more about. If you’re feeling bold, you can even ask if they know anyone hiring for [insert the specific job you’re looking for here]. More often than not, you’ll get a name. Then, repeat. If you’re drinking a few extra coffees a week, you’re doing well. (Don’t forget to send thank you emails – hand-written thank you notes still get extra points.)

7. Really, really want it

I recently tweeted about the email that helped a college student to land an awesome gig at Foursquare. It actually wasn’t the email at all – the email was mediocre at best. What landed Tristan the job was the fact that he didn’t give up. He knew that he wanted to work at foursquare, and he pestered Dennis and Naveen until they paid attention to him. Tristan sent eight emails to the foursquare founders before they finally replied. And then they hired him. I’m sure Tristan is a genius, but there’s also no denying that he really, really wanted the job. And when you’re a startup with very limited resources, passion like that is worth a lot. If you really want a startup founder to pay attention to you, it’s worth going beyond to show him or her why they should.

So, there you have it. The recipe for landing a startup job. What did I miss? Do you know anyone who’s made the leap from a corporate job to a startup gig? How did they do it?