5 Things to Avoid When Applying to a Startup

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Working at a startup, especially an early stage startup, can be a life changing experience that allows you to hone a variety of skills in an insanely short amount of time – not to mention the financial payout that sometimes accompanies working at successful startups. So it’s no wonder that startup jobs are hot on people’s radars right now.

I’ve scored gigs at various startup jobs over the years, and I’ve hired people for startups too. As someone who’s been on both sides of the startup hiring fence, I know what makes an applicant shine and what makes an applicant look like a dud. Below I share some tips for what to avoid if you want to land a job at a startup.

By no means do I intend this list as exhaustive of everything you should and shouldn’t do when trying to work at a startup. Every day entrepreneurs and investors around the world share tips on how to apply for a startup job, and the internet is full of advice for you. You should seek their wisdom as well. I mean these tips as a helpful place where startup job seekers can start understanding what it takes to shine as an applicant.

1. Think Startups Are Homogenous

Don’t fall into the startup hype surrounding The Social Network, the Snapchat soap opera and the like. Before you apply to a startup, think about why you’re interested. Are you trying to impress your friends? Are you trying to avoid working for “the man” because you heard that’s no longer cool? If so, you’re looking into startup jobs for the wrong reasons.

One of the biggest red flags I’ve found in applications for jobs at DashBurst is when someone says they “want to work at a startup.” What does that mean, wanting to work for a “startup?”

Remember, the word “startup” refers to any recently formed company that’s still in a development or market search phase; startups come in all shapes in sizes. Occasionally that means the company you’re applying to might consist of a group of 20-somethings trying to build the next Facebook, but many times working for a startup means anything but that, from working for a biomedical device developer led by professionals with 30 years of experience to joining your local mom-and-pop shop that aims to someday spread throughout the world through franchises.

To prove to a startup that you’re genuinely interested in coming onboard, don’t tell them you’re merely looking to work at a startup. Instead, show them you’re passionate about the startup’s industry or niche by citing previous related work.

2. State the Obvious

“I wear many hats.” “I am proficient in Microsoft Word.” More than make me want to hurl, seeing phrases like these on resumes and cover letters makes me instantly delete an application from my inbox. Resumes and cover letters provide so little space for explaining skills and experience that I have to assume the applicant highly values every word placed on them. If the most interesting thing an applicant has deemed worthy of space on a resume is that he has “strong communication skills,” I infer that his all his skills, then, the most interesting are common and vague.

Rather than fill your resume and cover letter with tried buzz words, cite specific skills and list quantitative results wherever possible. I’m much more likely to pay attention to an applicant who points out that she’s used SEO techniques to grow her blog from 100 monthly readers to 500,000 than to an applicant who claims she has “SEO skills.”

3. Be Normal

Anyone who starts their own company is not normal. You, as someone who is trying to work at said company, shouldn’t be normal either.

When you apply to a startup, go above and beyond the normal expectations of an applicant (i.e. emailing the standard cover letter and resume). Instead, make yourself stand out and prove your interest by building something you believe the startup would find useful. As Matthew Ackerson, founder of design company Petovera, writes:

Don’t ask for their permission to start, just begin by creating something (e.g. a competitive research report, a SWOT analysis, or by finding bugs on their website). Showing initiative gets results.

4. Be a Follower

“If you want or need a boss, work for a big company,” writes Dharmesh Shah, founder and chief technology officer at HubSpot. Startups are fast-paced businesses that have a lot of needs but often not enough hands on deck. This means there will always be plenty for you to do, but there won’t always be someone there to tell you what exactly which tasks you should undertake.

This is why startups look for self-starters who constantly find ways to add value to a company without explicitly being told how. A good example is one our of previous interns here at DashBurst. Though she originally joined to contribute articles to our blog, this intern eventually started pitching infographic ideas, going above and beyond the ways we’d instructed her to help grow our blog. As you can imagine, we were impressed by her work ethic and grateful for her input.

5. Punch In, Punch Out

Are you ready to do everything it takes to bring your startup to success? Startups can involve a lot of fun nights, celebrations and enjoyable networking experiences, but they also require some off-hours work. I’m not saying you should work 20-hour days all the time, but when you work at a startup you should be prepared to go the extra mile when it will really count. If you’re ready to put in the time, make this visible on your resume.

Take it from David Litwak, chief executive and founder at ground transportation engine Mozio:

In a salesperson I look for hustle. Will they send out 200 LinkedIn requests on a Sunday night to get the right contacts? Will they prowl the conference floor, meeting every last person on the off chance it could result in a partnership?

If you enjoyed this list, please let me know in the comments, and feel free to help job seekers by commenting with tips of your own!

Lauren Mobertz

By Lauren Mobertz

Lauren is the former managing editor for DashBurst. One part geek, one part urban nomad, she is constantly scouting for the latest tech and world news. In the evenings you'll find Lauren running in strange places or attempting to dance salsa.