So you want to work at my startup

For the past few weeks, I’ve focussed on recruiting more team members for our offices in Sydney and Manila.  We’re hiring senior and junior engineers in both places, and Communications and Sales managers in Sydney.  It seems as if everyone wants to work at a startup: I’ve been flooded with applications from qualified people for all roles.  More than eighty applied for our Communications position.

Despite this, I find it hard to recruit good people.  Landing a job at a startup offers a career breakout opportunity.  You’re on the frontline, creating an impact, making a name for yourself, working with a small, ambitious team.  You’re help build a product you love and will share in its ownership.

The ability to sell yourself seems obvious, yet I’m astounded by the inability of most applicants to achieve this.  Most people approach the application and interview process with the same lacklustre indifference usually reserved for a job working for the government.

If you’re one of those who applied for a role at Posse in the past month, and especially if you’re one of the twenty or so who made it to the interview stage but didn’t get a call back, then you may see some of yourself in the stories I’m about to tell.  Please don’t be offended — this is just my experience and I hope my feedback will help you in the future and lift the quality of applicants for other startups.  I also hope it will save founders (including me) from trawling through time-wasting applications and interviews with people who just aren’t right.

When I think of the applicants who impressed me — particularly the ones I’ve hired, it’s clear to see a few simple things they did right.  I can imagine most young job hunters would be intimidated to know that more than 80 people applied for the same position.  Yet from the employer’s perspective, at least 75 of the 80 applications will be hopeless: misspelled, badly punctuated and so on, often to the edge of illegibility, so you’re really only competing with a handful of people.

Before you apply to work at Posse or any other startup, read these tips.  They’ll help:

1. If you don’t want to work at a startup, don’t apply.

Landing a job at a startup is a special opportunity but it’s only right for a few people.  Startup teams consist of ambitious, creative people who’ll do whatever it takes to succeed.  You’ll be thrown in at the deep end and expected to swim without much training or support.  You’ll need to hustle for an organisation that no one has heard of and motivate yourself when things get tough.  The upside is that there’s very little process – everything is agile, you get to make-up what you do every day and there’s often a big payoff both financially and in terms of skipping several rungs on the career ladder if you’re successful. This lifestyle isn’t for everyone, so before you apply for a job, think long and hard about whether it’s for you.

I look for people who are seeking this kind of opportunity and they’re easy to spot.  They’ve usually created some kind of project early in their career.  Perhaps they started a business themselves, built a blog following, or created something in the not for profit sector.  If you’ve done something like this, make sure you lead with it in your cover letter.  I look for people who are obviously ambitious and have accomplished something difficult where they’ve had to overcome barriers – preferably something they’ve created themselves.  I look for evidence that they’re hard working, so lots of extra circular activity is a good sign.  When you get to an interview, don’t ask about the office hours (startups don’t have any, and if you ask then you’re the wrong kind of person).  And don’t, as someone admitted in an interview with me last week when I asked what his biggest weakness was, reply, ‘I’m a bit lazy.’ Although I gave him credit for being honest, I deduct credit for being stupid by admitting it in an interview.  Startups aren’t the place for lazy people!

2. Make your application stand-out

The job market is competitive and even though I’ve said 75 of the 80 applications I received for my recent role were rubbish, someone still has to trawl through all of the applications and notice your one.  There’s a good chance that a great application could be missed, so it’s worthwhile doing something to make yours stand out.

The best way to apply for a role at Posse is to find a contact that I know and get them to tell me about you.  We have more than 60 investors, lots of partners, tens of thousands of merchants, and I even have some friends.  Just find one person who knows someone at the company and get them to put in a good word for you.  This time, three applicants came with referrals from people I knew and I made sure I paid special attention to them.  They all got an interview.  If you can’t find anyone then do something special.  We often get weird and wonderful packages delivered to our office with someone’s CV inside.  It won’t win you the job but it will make sure someone looks at your stuff.  At the very least, make sure you write a punchy cover letter to accompany your application.  It needs to grab me within the first paragraph because I won’t have time to read the whole thing.  This must be personal to the company and sell why you are the right person for the role.  I always delete any application that comes through without a cover letter – if you can’t be bothered writing something that outlines why I should consider you then it’s a good sign you’re not the person I want to hire.

3. Take care in responding to questionnaires

I always send out a questionnaire to everyone who applies with a cover letter.  The type of questions vary depending on the role – for example, our engineering team has a problem-solving exercise to assess logic and coding abilities. We set a deadline for the questionnaire to be returned and any that come in after the deadline are not read.  The first aim in the recruitment process is to test the applicant’s integrity.

I am astonished at how little effort many people apply to these questionnaires.  They are our first tool in assessing you for the position.  Many come back with one-line answers when the questionnaire specified 200 words.  Others are littered with spelling mistakes and grammatical errors.  If you’re applying for a Communications role where writing is a key part of the job description then you’d better show that you know the difference between ‘their’ and ‘there’ in your application!

4. Present well

So you’ve made it to the interview.  Again, it’s shocking how many people with strong resumes and who’ve done a good job on the questionnaire, mess up their interview.  Startups are looking for people with a lot of energy and enthusiasm.  Show that passion during the interview: don’t talk to the ground as if you’d rather be somewhere else.  If you’re nervous then learn how to fake confidence.  Speak clearly, smile and engage your interviewer.  Try to form a personal connection.  If you’re a woman don’t wear too much make-up, and do wear an appropriate quantity of clothes.  If you’re a guy don’t wear a suit (even if your Mum insists), but don’t wear a tracksuit either.  Just be normal and well groomed!  I should also note that most interviews take place one on one in a small room, so think about how you smell.  It’s not a good idea to smoke right before an interview and it is a good idea to wear deodorant!

5. Think about the company and the questions you might be asked.

I only want to hire people who sincerely want to work at Posse.  It’s going to be a tough gig and I don’t want someone who’s likely to give up.  I test how much people want the role by finding out how much they know about the company.  If they’ve read every press article on us, all of my blog posts, have spent time using the product, discussed it with their friends, and have spoken to someone involved in the company then I know they’re serious.  But when I ask them if they have any questions and they come out with something like, ‘So how did you get started?’ then it’s obvious they haven’t done any homework.  Make sure you have questions prepared that show that you’ve thought about the role and how you would succeed in it.  It’s ideal if you can subtly make the employer sell you the role; it shows you value your ability and want to be sure that this is the right company for you to invest your efforts.

There are some questions you’re going to be asked in every interview.  For example, what are your strengths and weaknesses and where do you see yourself in five years time?  Think about good answers before you come to an interview and test them on people you know.  I’ve seen candidates who I thought were exceptional completely stuff up these basic questions and reveal things about themselves that would rule them out of contention for the role.  Be honest: make sure you describe a real weakness because you need to show that you’re self-reflective and are aware of what you need to work on.  Just, don’t say anything stupid.

6. Follow-up

Startups are for hustlers and so we appreciate when people hustle us.  I’m busy and I admit I often don’t reply to emails from people I don’t know.  But if you email me several times, find my phone number, contact me on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook and seek out someone I know to make an introduction then there’s a good chance I’m going to notice you.  This is not an open invitation to hustle me for a job.  I’m simply stating that this is what I do when I want to get a meeting with a potential client or investor.  It’s what I’d like members of my team to do and so if you do that during the recruitment process then that’s a good sign.  So long as you can back it up with talent, otherwise you’ll just be annoying.

Of the 80 people that applied for our recent Communications Manager role, approximately 20 were ruled out instantly for not including a cover letter.  Half of the remainder we struck off for not returning their questionnaire on time.  That leaves 30, and half of these I didn’t read because they had too many spelling and grammatical errors.  Half the well-written ones didn’t put much effort into coming up with well-considered answers, leaving seven whom I interviewed last week.  One of the seven is coming back for a second interview along with another two candidates who came through contacts.

I decided to write this post out of frustration with time wasted sifting through terrible job applications.  For startups to succeed we need great teams.  For ambitious team members, one year in a startup will teach twenty times what you’d have learned in the corporate world.  But it’s hard work and requires a special combination of passion, determination and talent.  If you have that, then I hope these pointers help you in landing the job of your dreams, which may even lead to you starting your own thing one day.

Applications for our Communications Manager role have closed, but if you want to work at Posse in another capacity and are the right person, you’ll work out how to find me.