I’m an MBA student, how do I get a startup job?

You: Second-year MBA, smart, driven, hard-working, confident that the hard work will pay off quickly in a meritocratic startup. Desires to work in one with the goal of starting your own sometime.

This feels like a daunting challenge, especially when you see all those fancy employers doing on-campus interviews and moreover, your classmates getting jobs and signing bonuses. Here’s how I suggest you break this down, based largely on good advice I was given and the path I followed myself.

Key question to ask before you even begin:
Do you really want this? It’s definitely a much greater risk/reward, lower salaries (typically), potentially long hours at times, no cachet at cocktail parties typically. While everyone is getting jobs from on-campus interviews, you’ll need to wait it out, since startups won’t consider hiring you for 8 months into the future. Once you’re in the job, you’ll also need to sometimes roll up the sleeves, do seemingly random things from day to day and be a utility player for mundane things (Costco run, anyone?)

Things you need to acknowledge/do before you begin:
  1. Check your ego and your degree at the door. Sell yourself, what you’ve done, why you’ve done it.
  2. Forget a “strategy” job. Actually, take this word out of your vocabulary and anything else that’s an acronym or MBA/consulting jargon, unless highly industry-specific in the field you’re looking at.
  3. Think about what useful skills you can showcase that are all about “doing” and execution.
  4. Be ready to be someone’s b&%$#. You should be confident in yourself and more than capable of moving up fast through hard work. You want to find a company with a leader who recognizes this and would allow you to quickly level up and learn.

If you’ve made it this far, follow this process:
  1. About 3 months before you could potentially first show up at work, go to top dozen VC websites and look for portfolio companies that interest you. Do not look for positions, just look for companies. Don’t worry about positions until much later, because you want to get in more than anything else. Go fairly broad with this search.
  2. Supplant this list with searches on CrunchBase, PEHub, etc. of interesting startups. Make sure you’re also reading or following the industry rags on Twitter for the verticals you care about. Consumer internet examples are TechCrunch, TechMeme, VentureBeat and GigaOM. This should already be part of your daily habit. Note down any companies you come across there as well. Also go pretty broad with this search.
  3. Start to cut the list down by asking, “is the company on the right trajectory?” Also pick a min/max size startup you’re comfortable with and reduce list with that further. I mainly mean headcount, which is easiest to swag via publicly available sources. Other metrics are harder to find for startups and likely bad indicators anyway. Also cut out any companies where the geography just won’t work. Always work in the headquarters, nowhere else.
  4. For each company, ask yourself, “do I have one marketable ‘doing’ skill which the company might find attractive?” Examples are domain expertise (e.g. financial modeling only counts if it’s a finance startup), dabbled in it in my free time (e.g. recently built a Facebook app and so I know the platform), did a project in school on this market and excelled at it, etc. Sometimes a unique connection like “I played X, Y, Z video games and still play every day” would be attractive to a gaming company for example. Cut list down further based on this.
  5. Look for “repeater CEO” – a CEO who’s had a venture-backed exit before, preferably one that’s also the founder. You want to align yourself with that person. Split list in two by this. You now have “highly desirable (HD)” and “desirable (D)” companies in two lists.
  6. Tap into your network. Be ready to share these two lists very openly with your friends and ask them “Do you know anyone at these companies?” Focus on the HD list first, then go to the D list if you’re not making progress. Search for connections to the companies on LinkedIn, Facebook, Xing, etc. Your goal is to get a connection so that you can then talk about potential roles. Just aim to get the connection first before gunning for roles. I can’t emphasize that enough. If you’re smart, they’ll want to talk to you and bring you in. At that point, be ready to describe the role you really want – and please don’t use the word strategy in any of it.
That’s the way to get a foot in the door. Then it’s on to the interview, but that’s a topic for another time.
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