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Rise Above the Resume Pile and Land a Startup Job

by Claire Suellentrop

Over two hundred resumes.

That’s what awaits my attention in our applicant tracking system as I write this. Over two hundred people, applying for just two recently-opened positions.

And this is not a rare situation. Between how painfully competitive it is to join a startup and how many hats the person reading your application is wearing (usually at least 2.5), your resume is going to have a hard time standing out.

Unless you know how to position yourself. And unless you’re willing to put in more time and sweat than the wave of other applicants who merely dumped their resumes in my inbox.

Whether you’re making a career leap from a different field or hunting for your first job out of school, joining a startup requires more strategy and thoughtful positioning of your skills than landing a job at a company that’s grown slowly over time. If you make it, you’ll likely be holding multiple roles at once, too, so you have to show early on that you’ve got what it takes.

Three Ways to Rise Above the Resume Slush Pile

1. Understand why you want to work for a startup

Joining a startup can be a big risk and will be a lot of work. Free beer, puppies and hover boards in the office might sound cool, but remember: those exist because people are probably working a lot more than 40 hours–in high pressure environments–so they need to be able to relax and work at the same time (and usually stay later than 4:59pm).

Before beginning your hunt, think about the ways you do (and don’t) want to spend your day, and the workstyles you do (and don’t) enjoy. This will give you a clearer picture of which startup phase you’ll be best able to contribute to, and where you’ll feel most fulfilled.

For example, an early-stage, 5-person team will likely be looking for a generalist–someone who’s comfortable doing more than one job at once, making decisions without having every answer, and getting things done without a clear process to follow.

On the other hand, a more established team of 100+ will have some concrete procedures in place. At this phase, you’ll likely see openings for “producer” positions, where the ideal candidate can “follow established processes and repeatedly execute at a high level of quality” (more on startup phases in this article).

Action items:

  • Write down your career must-haves and don’t-wants. Are you comfortable with high levels of risk and uncertainty if they come with tons of freedom and growth opportunity? Or would you prefer consistent coaching and management, a more established career path and a concrete to-do list?
  • Assess what phase a startup might be in before applying. Use LinkedIn and Crunchbase to get an idea of the company’s age, size and current funding.

2. Watch the job boards, but don’t stop there

Hypepotamus, the Atlanta Tech Village job board, Atlanta Startup Jobs and AngelList are great places to start your search. But if you’re not building your network simultaneously, you’re missing a huge opportunity. You’ll learn more from your professional relationships than every online article could ever teach you–and, of course, personal connections increase the chance of your name being passed along when a position opens.

Networking opportunities are as frequent in Atlanta as Outkast references. But before filling up your calendar, a few best practices:

  • Realize that many events held solely for “networking” will be filled with people just like you: fellow job seekers itching to connect with industry insiders. You may meet future colleagues, but establishing relationships with anyone who has hiring power could be a challenge.
  • Instead, consider rallying around a cause you care about, and attending events related to that cause. For example, ATLeaders brings young professionals together to improve urban transit and eliminate food insecurity in Atlanta. “How can we improve together” conversations will yield more genuine, lasting connections than “how can you help me” conversations.
  • When you meet someone, avoid launching into who you are and what you want (biggest networking turn-off). Aim to learn what the other person does, what they care about, and what their biggest successes/challenges are lately. At the very least, you’ll make a great impression. If things go really well, you might find that your skills align with a challenge they’re facing–and creating real value for other people is the most surefire, non-sleazy way to move up.

3. Don’t just submit your resume. Sell yourself.

Some common problems with the majority of resumes I read:

  • They look identical to every other resume in the pile, and focus on tasks vs. results
  • They come with no context (e.g., personal message, cover letter, link to an online portfolio)

Let’s say your skills and experience are an exact match for the position. Even if this is the case, you take three steps backward when you submit a plain, black-text-on-white-paper resume. It’s nearly impossible to set yourself apart when your materials are identical to everyone else’s, no matter how perfect you are for the role.

For your skills to really shine, you’ve got to go bigger. The best method may vary based on your personality and the position, but some options to start with:

  • Use a colorful resume template. Preferably one with your photo on it, which will help me match your face to the skills and experience you’ve listed.
  • Ensure your experience is results-oriented, rather than task-oriented.
  • Create a one-page personal website, where I can get a more holistic view of who you are and what you do. I use Strikingly for this, and it’s dead-simple to update and republish whenever I want to add new projects I’ve spearheaded or make layout tweaks.
  • Write a damn cover letter. It doesn’t have to be stiff and formal, and shouldn’t be addressed vaguely with “Dear hiring manager” or “To whom it may concern.” All that’s needed is a thoughtful note–written in your own voice–that shows how you can bring value to the company and why you’re a great fit.

Let me repeat that any vague salutation like “To whom it may concern” is a direct route to the trash. Startups are small, so it’s not hard to find the people who are making decisions. Find the company on LinkedIn, skim through their employees, and address your letter to whomever’s title is most closely related to the role you’re applying for.

I see so many great candidates miss the mark in the application process. They’re hungry, ambitious and perfectly qualified, but their resume content and application materials fail to make an impression–so they’re out of the running before they can even get a phone screen.

To help startup job seekers overcome this barrier, I’m hosting a free workshop with General Assembly on July 20. Attendees will walk away with action items, resources + tools they can use to get past the application stage land interviews with amazing companies.

Bringing it all Together

claire-sullenthrop-on-startupsBe strategic about which startups you apply to. Be aware of the growth phases startups go through, and of the workloads + workstyles that come with each. Try to understand a company’s age and size before submitting your resume to every opening you find.

Monitor job boards, but get active in the community, as well. “Networking” events will be filled with fellow job seekers, so attend events related to a cause you care about (where industry professionals will also be hanging out) instead. Don’t immediately pitch yourself. Aim to learn what others do, what they care about, and what their biggest successes/challenges are lately.

Plain, black-and-white resumes are a dime a dozen. Use an interesting template and frame your experience around the results you achieved, not the tasks you were responsible for. Consider creating a simple, personal website to better illustrate who you are and how you move through the world. Write a cover letter in natural language that expresses the value you’ll bring to the company.

If you’re struggling to express on paper (or the internet) how your skills and experience can bring value to a startup, sign up for the “How to Land a Job at a Startup” workshop on July 20 at General Assembly.

Claire Suellentrop is General Manager of Calendly, an Atlanta-based startup that delivers simple, beautiful scheduling software that helps to eliminates email and phone tag. 

[header image source: The Atlanta Tech Village]

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