How to Land a Startup Job (Before Anyone Else Knows it’s Available)

(Originally published at The Daily Muse on January 22, 2014.)

So, you’re sick of your corporate job and have the itch to join a fast-paced startup. Fantastic!

Most people trying to make this move would start by combing startup job boards and websites looking for that perfect role and then would submit their resume.

Savvier job seekers, of course, go one step further and network like a boss—once they find that perfect role, they find a way to make contact with the company and put themselves at the head of the line of applicants.

But here’s a secret: By taking this approach, you’ll completely miss out on finding the best startup jobs.

Trust me. I went to work for a startup where the job I took was never posted. I interviewed with the CEO of one of the most successful open source software startups—for a job that didn’t technically exist yet.

In short, there’s a hidden startup job market just waiting for you to tap into it. Here are some steps to follow to find—and land—a killer position.

Follow the Money

If a startup has recently raised money, it doesn’t really matter what jobs are posted on its website (or not)—the company is definitely hiring, and probably across all functional areas. And the sooner you can get in front of that company, the better.

To see which startups have recently raised money, you could comb the tech blogs on a daily basis—or, you can save yourself a bunch of time and follow the Twitter bot (@vcdeals) I’ve set up that aggregates startup financing announcements from some of the top tech and startup blogs. More of an RSS guy or gal? Subscribe to the VC Deals Pipe feed.

Network Away

Now what? Well, most of that recently raised money comes from venture capital firms. And aside from money, the partners at venture capital firms typically bring a wealth of connections that they leverage to help their companies. If VC partners introduce a talented person (that’s you!) to one of the companies they’ve invested in, it’s definitely a feather in their cap and part of their “value added.” So they already have incentive to help someone like you.

Of course, VCs are busy people and not terribly likely to respond to cold inquiries. So, you’ll need to have the relationships within the startup community that will help you get introduced to these folks. If you don’t yet have these relationships, Keen IO offers some great tips for building out your network in the startup world.

And don’t forget the company founders! After all, they are going to ultimately make the decision as to whether you’re hiring material. But you need to stand out from the crowd (like this guy who scored an awesome job at Foursquare) and really show that you’re passionate about the company to get their attention.

To help you take the next step, download my free eBook containing 15 actual email templates that I used to reach and receive responses from hard-to-reach VCs, founders, and startup executives during a recent job hunt. Modify the templates for your own background and goals, and you’ll be in a great position to write killer startup job search emails.

Show That You Can Go Deep and Wide

Startups, especially early stage startups, have a variety of needs and don’t necessarily want a person who is going to focus 100% on one thing. So, both in your initial contact with a startup and when you finally get that first meeting, you’ll want to make sure the team understands all the skills you bring to the table, not just those that relate to your core area of expertise. Maybe you’re a salesperson who recently ran some successful marketing programs. Or you’re a developer who has lots of experience evangelizing platforms. Show that off, and share how you could chip in across all different areas of the business. If a startup gets a good vibe from you and sees that you could contribute to multiple initiatives, it’s more likely to try and create a position for you.

Try and Buy

In many cases, you’ll be working with the startup during the interview process to define the job. And sometimes, the startup likes you, you like it, but there isn’t officially a role available.

In these scenarios—and assuming you’re up for it—it’s never a bad idea to suggest a short-term consulting engagement. For example, at the last startup where I worked, one of our top developers was brought on first as a contractor, and then made full time when everyone realized he was a superstar. In fact, some startups, like Automattic (the folks who brought us WordPress) require all candidates to work a trial period before coming on board full time in order to ensure they can do the job and they’re a good fit with the company’s culture. After all, when you’re working long hours, you better be spending them with people that you don’t mind being with!

Now you’re armed and dangerous—so take the leap and kick off your (hidden) startup job search. It’s hard work, but it’s worth it—especially if you’re dead set on building an awesome career in the startup world.

John Gannon
I have over 15 years of experience working in the trenches at successful startups, high growth companies, and VC firms. During that time, I've managed, interviewed, and coached hundreds of people -- and I've worked in almost every business functional role, including marketing, product management, and business development.
John Gannon
John Gannon