Work for a startup: What you must do to get the job

A Twitter follower from the UK sent this question about working for a startup:

@DominicTarn asks “I’m a graduate looking to get into the world of startups… my main question would be about how to get their attention? Or develop the sort of skills or experiences which would achieve that?”

It’s a great question, mainly because traditional resumes won’t cut it with entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs are quick, smart, and goal-driven. They are so busy, constantly having to keep an eye on their investments into things like fnb securities, ordering what’s needed for their business, producing marketing material, networking, etc. so you need to make sure you get their attention in a big way. To a time strapped entrepreneur, each resume looks just like the last. And face it, as a recent graduate you’ve probably got a lot of “strong communication skills” type bullet points that will only get you a job in a phone bank.

What you need to provide is a solution.

Charlie Hoehn, author Recession Proof Graduate

Yep, that’s Charlie. Get to know him. He’ll be your guide.

Problem Solved: Hoehn In On It
Shift your thinking from what you’ve done in the past to what you can do today for your targeted entrepreneur. Figure out what problem you can fix that this entrepreneur either didn’t know he had, or didn’t have time to deal with.

Charlie Hoehn is a master of this technique. And it’s served him well. You may not have heard of this 25 year old before, but consider him your new job search sensei. Since graduating from college, Hoehn has landed work helping such super star entrepreneur authors as Tim Ferris (The 4-Hour Workweek, The 4-Hour Body), Tucker Max (I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell, Assholes Finish First) and even marketing super-guru Seth Godin.

He’s also written an ebook, Recession-Proof Graduate, which has been downloaded a gazillion times. (Hint: that’s a gazillion job seekers who are already ahead of you…get reading!)

Hoehn, who “approached his job like a mentorship” went after the entrepreneurs and authors that he believed were the very best.

And then he told them what they were doing wrong. And how he could fix it.

“I just wanted to learn from the people I respected and who were doing stuff that I thought was really cool,” Hoehn said in an interview. “I went to each of them and offered them things that I thought were of value.”

And he offered those things for free.

Work for a Startup - Get off the BenchTake Yourself Off the Bench
You may be thinking, yeah, that’s just an internship. But it’s not. In Hoehn’s opinion, just offering free work isn’t enough. I think he’s right.

The ‘put me in coach, I’ll do anything’ approach won’t get you the job. In a startup environment, the entrepreneur doesn’t have time to find a job for you. You have to tell the entrepreneur what they need.

And more importantly, that you can do it.

By pointing out weak spots in the potential employer’s business, website or marketing strategy, Hoehn was showing by example that he had the chops to do the job. And that it would take very little effort for the entrepreneur to bring him on board. Many businesses still take a traditional approach to marketing and fail to realize the potential of recent marketing techniques, such as app store optimization google play, for example.

In each case, Hoehn offered actionable solutions.

“I had very specific things that I could offer to them,” he explains. “And I made it very clear. Look, I can help you in these areas. This is what I plan to do, this is the result, this is the impact that it’s going to have. AND, I’m going to do it for free.”

Hoehn got his foot in the door with this approach, and transitioned that free work into a paying job, on all but one effort. (Ironically, the one person that turned him down later sought him out for advice.)

Hear him talk about his experiences in more detail in this great interview with Lewis Howes.

Sketch it Out
The clearer you can make your suggested solutions the better. It’s not good enough to point out a problem and just say you’ve got the answer. Hoehn suggests actually fixing the problem. (Example: mockup a better product label, rewrite direct copy, recode a slow website)

High Wire Act
Keep in mind that you walk a fine line when you point out flaws to entrepreneurs. Even the most boisterous and bold entrepreneur has an ego.

Although many entrepreneurs are open to input from any and all sources, remember that you are still pointing to their baby and saying do you see that hairy mole?

Be even-handed with your compliment to weak-spot ratio. Lead your communication by explaining all the positive reasons you want to work with the entrepreneur.

Relive Your Childhood
Entrepreneur and author John Warrillow says he is more impressed with entrepreneurial examples from childhood than with traditional resume boosters like advanced degrees.

It might sound crazy to mention the paper route you had when you were 12 in a job interview, but if you were creative in your marketing or selling of this route, it might the wow factor you need. Maybe you found a simpler, more effect way to distribute the papers that could get you into an operational roll at the startup of your dreams. (Note: I disagreewith most other points Warrillow makes in the linked article).

Get to the Point
If you have to go the resume route, make sure your cover letter sings. And make sure that the tune is as simple and straight forward as the mind-numbingly annoying ‘Wheels on the Bus’ children’s song.

The entrepreneur you are trying to impress won’t have the patience to seek out the goods. Make sure your cover letter:

  • Highlights successes: less fluff, more facts
  • Uses metrics: be specific about any results, even if they were for your lemonade stand
  • Bullets out important details: even your cover letter will only be scanned

Research shows that most communication gets only 51 seconds of attention before the reader moves on. Make sure the ten words the entrepreneur reads are the most important ones.

Relive It
The good news is, once you’ve done it, you’ll do it again. Once you’ve been in a startup, once you’ve gone through the early stages, once you’ve helped launch a business or two, the opportunity to do it again will present itself.

Believe it or not it’s a small entrepreneurial world out there. If you’re doing a good job, word gets around. People will seek you out.

And if they don’t? Well, now have the metrics to prove what you can do it for the next entrepreneur that’s in your career scopes.

Want to Work for Wonka? Know this: There will never be a busier time in a person’s life than when they launch a business. Studies show that entrepreneurs lose an average of 700 hours of sleep in the first year of their business. That’s more than a new mom. So if you want to get this person’s attention, bring them something that will make their life easier. Bring them a solution. It may be the answer to your job search as well.

Any entrepreneurs out there want to chime in on what turns your head? What would make you hire a recent grad? Any and all tips are welcome!

[Photo credit – newspaper want ad – Flickr ssstevo.o]

About the author: Kathy Ver Eecke works with startups in the early stages, where the good stuff happens. Download a free copy of her ebook, The Ultimate Guide to Getting Any Startup Job, if you're trying to break into a startup or if you're hiring employees for your startup.


  • Corinne Edwards

    Reply Reply June 7, 2011

    Dear Kathy –

    This can be touchy.

    “Keep in mind that you walk a fine line when you point out flaws to entrepreneurs. Even the most boisterous and bold entrepreneur has an ego.”

    BIG EGO.

    My suggestion would start that conversation on how you can help with a huge compliment and then expressing how you have been always interested in that area of business.

    And how you are interested in learning more about it.

    You are really skating on the edge here. Good for you. Love your posts. Nobody else dares to tackle this.

    • Kathy Ver Eecke

      Reply Reply June 7, 2011

      Thanks so much Corinne:

      Your point is very important. Not just about the ego, but about expressing interest in the business that is at the center of the entrepreneur’s world.

      When you’re in startup mode almost nothing ranks higher in importance than the business. So, like asking a new parent about their baby, an entrepreneur will be over the moon when you share their interest and enthusiasm for the business.

      Thanks for chiming in. Good tip!

      • Stephanie

        Reply Reply June 8, 2011

        Ego can be deadly! But it can also be an asset. Have either of you read the book “egonomics”? I think everyone in business, start-up or corporate, should read it.

        • Kathy Ver Eecke

          Reply Reply June 8, 2011

          I had not heard of it, but just looked it up. Egonomics: What Makes Ego our Greatest Asset (Or Most Expensive Liability).

          I think it’s an interesting premise. And if the authors are writing it in such a way that the word “ego” could be interchanged with “self-confidence” then I’m in total agreement.

          Thanks for sharing! And nice meeting you.

  • Kamil Ali

    Reply Reply June 8, 2011

    That’s really a great and informative article. Hoehn is a great example to get a job after graduation.

    Now your points:

    He worked with “Tim Ferris (The 4-Hour Workweek, The 4-Hour Body), Tucker Max (I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell, Assholes Finish First) and even marketing super-guru Seth Godin.”

    How would you see this in third wold countries, especially, in Pakistan. Where we don’t have much people like gurus in the 1st world. Even if we have, they are not approachable. Is this a good idea to get their email from some source and email them what a candidate do for you for free? But that would a spamming, I think:)

    How would you see blogging as business for entrepreneurs. As graduates are usually not getting jobs out there. They can start blogging and perhaps in an year start earning handsome money.

    “You have to tell the entrepreneur what they need.”
    I think, that’s every where. My boss also wants me to do what he needs:)People always looking for a solution. I agree with this point. Moreover, candidate should SHOW an entrepreneur e.g presentation if possible or a About Me page of his/her blog.

    • Kathy Ver Eecke

      Reply Reply June 8, 2011

      Always great feedback. Nice to see you again Kamil.

      Interesting questions about how Hoehn’s tactics translate in other countries. I have worked in several 3rd world, and newly indsutrialized countries and didn’t find that aspect to be all that different. Trust me, Seth Godin doesn’t just pick up the phone for anyone.

      You have to be creative in how you reach your targets. But yes, the U.S. may be farther along with social media and some entrepreneurs are eager to engage that audience and so are open to receiving communication. I’ve been able to get some great interviews by Tweeting big name entrepreneurs. I’m always shocked when they respond. Okay, so I yes, I see what you’re saying. There may be advantages here.

      That said, it is still about being creative in your approach, and persistent in your efforts.

      Despite the fact that I am typing this answer in my BLOG, I’m really not an expert in this arena. Certainly not when it comes to making a living. There are a lot of great resources out there to help you make money on-line, but I think it’s best that you have a stack o cash to get you through the beginning. (New bloggers might want to check out Andrew Rondeau an entrepreneur & blogger who’s commented here several times, Yaro Starak and Aussie blogger who everyone follows (though he chargers a lot) , Pat Flynn who has a great story about how he went from unemployed to doing what he loves online , and John Saddinton an American who walks you through the basics of setting up a blog.

      Thanks Kamil! Kathy

  • business daily

    Reply Reply July 1, 2011

    The one thing they have in common that most do not know is at some point in their careers they all had a level of support.

    Although Charlie created a guide that has been downloaded over 100 000 times, he isnt known as your big time blogger or author yet. His RSS feed has around 1,000 subscribers and he mentions that he only blogs once every four months if hes lucky.

    I’ve been following Charlie for a couple of years however because I kept seeing him online share updates about his work with some of the authors mentioned above.After I met Charlie in person at Tims 4HB book launch party and saw how successful the launch was I convinced Charlie to do a video interview with me.

    • Kathy Ver Eecke

      Reply Reply July 1, 2011

      Yeah, Charlie is everywhere, whether he blogs regularly or not. Glad you had the opportunity to interview him!

      Thanks for checking out the blog.

  • Andrew Trac

    Reply Reply August 10, 2011

    Absolutely agree. Great opportunities, with some level of risk for new graduates to invest their ‘sweat capital’ in to.

    I”ve worked with two entrepeneurs. One of them was absolutely fantastic – he started a non-profit which had an operating income grow from 29k to 500k in 3 years. Like the article mentioned, I addressed a particular issue with his HR and Organizational Design or how it was lacking. I added value, he grew to be a mentor, and I got referenced to two highly successful positions out of university.

    The other one had subtle hints that his ‘startup’ was aiming to swindle investor money. He had no concern on building a credible business structure and poured his efforts on creating an impression to investors of being credible without a value proposition (e.g. branding logos, name cards, t-shirts, renting office space out of his own money, etc.)

    Choose your startup wisely – judge them as a case-by-case basis and by the ethics of the entrepeneur and not the image of Zuckerberg. These are high risk/high reward organizations to invest your labour in, since not all entrepeneurs live and die by good governance, policy, and ethics in parrallel to obtaining startup capital.

    Just adding a disclaimer on how to view startups as working opportunities.

    • Kathy Ver Eecke

      Reply Reply August 10, 2011

      SPECTACULAR insight Andrew. Thanks for sharing.

      I couldn’t agree with you more. Like you, I’ve worked for the good guy and the swindler. Sometimes they’re hard to tell apart. I touch on the legal issue, or ilegal as the case may be, as one of the reasons you should turn around and running screaming from the building in my eBook on working for startups. It’s listed in the sidebar of this page, and includes 4 other signs you need to boogie from your job, like not being able to get your equity contract executed in a timely fashion. Major red flag.

      I’m glad you had the good experience to balance out that bad one.

      Thanks for commenting, and for sharing your story.

  • Michael

    Reply Reply June 20, 2012

    How do you find a start-up’s weaknesses?

    I’ve heard this “I’ll fix your problems” approach to job hunting often enough that I’m ready to accept it as fact. But given that most startups have extremely low visibility, how do you get to know their business model and practices well enough to suggest opportunities for improvement?

    It seems unrealistic to perform that feat on-the-fly during a your first (and perhaps only) meeting with the entrepreneur.

    • Kathy Ver Eecke

      Reply Reply June 20, 2012

      Michael – great question. And the answer is that you shouldn’t do it on the fly in an interview.

      This is a technique you’d utilize if you knew the company or their product. Let’s say there’s a hot tech startup you’re targeting because you think their product is amazing — you’d use and interact with the product. Or a consumer goods company, same thing. Or you spend time on their website and suggest way they could pull in business through there. Or maybe there’s a problem with the site you can fix if you’re a tech guy.

      The answer to your great question will be different for each startup, and based on what skills you bring to the table. The bottom line is to figure out what you would like to do for the company (for your job) and start doing it before the interview.

      If the company is on your radar enough for you to approach, you obviously think the company/product is a winning proposition. (If you don’t, they’ll know you’re just looking for a job). Start there and think about where you can add value. Then start adding it. Before you get the job.

      Good luck with your job search! Thanks for the question.

      • Michael

        Reply Reply June 20, 2012

        Of course, that makes sense. Thanks for the prompt reply and great content!

Leave A Response

* Denotes Required Field