Searching for a job with a startup can be frustrating and confusing for MBAs, especially when compared with the “tried-and-true” process of recruiting with big companies who visit campus. In turn, MBAs who seek employment with startups aggravate entrepreneurs by making an alarming array of mistakes. The good news: it isn’t difficult to avoid these errors.
Below, I report findings from focus groups with 26 HBS MBA alumni running venture capital-backed startups in San Francisco and New York City. My colleagues from the HBS Rock Center for Entrepreneurship and I asked the founders what current students could do to better position themselves to get jobs in their startups. It’s fair to ask whether the interview findings apply in other geographies and entrepreneurial settings. I believe that they do.
Problem: Poor First Impressions. Startups usually rely on employees’ personal networks to source candidates, rather than online job sites or campus career services offices. To improve the odds that they’ll be referred when a startup is hiring, MBAs cast a wide net, reaching out to as many people as possible who can influence recruiting decisions.
Aggressive networking is crucial with a startup job search, but you can spread yourself too thinly. Overextended, you’ll lack the time to prepare properly for initial meetings, and as a result, you may make a poor first impression. Startup CEOs complain about MBAs who ask them for information that is readily available from a Google search, such as “Can you tell me about your business model?” or “How are you funded?” Founders of consumer-facing startups will be disappointed if you’ve never used their products. They’ll be annoyed if you haven’t checked their website to determine whether positions are open in the function you’ve targeted. Finally, entrepreneurs will lose interest quickly if you aren’t up to speed on sector trends—say, if you profess interest in social networking platforms but lack an informed response to a question like, “What do you think of Facebook’s changes to Instagram’s terms of service?”
Solution: Screen Targets, Focus Your “Ask,” and Do Your Homework! You’ll have more time to prepare for initial meetings if you waste less time pursuing jobs with the wrong startups. I won’t describe approaches for screening startups here, but venture capitalists David Beisel and Jeff Bussgang and serial entrepreneur Simeon Simeonov have written great posts on that topic.
Having narrowed your target set, make sure you approach people in ways that capture their attention and demonstrate networking savvy, for example, crafting requests for introductions that are readily forwarded, as VC Charlie O’Donnell recommends. If you ask for a meeting via email, make sure that your message is short and presents a specific objective, as suggested by James Clear. Busy founders may deflect a vague request, such as “Can we have coffee to chat about careers in your space?” They are more likely to agree to meet if you say, “I understand that you are building a BD team. I’d love to be part of it.” Asking for a short meeting—say, 10 minutes—is also more likely to succeed, and short meetings can stretch into long ones if you engage your audience.
Problem: Not Understanding Startups. In positioning themselves for startup jobs, MBAs often fail to convey that they understand what’s required of startup employees. This raises doubts about whether candidates have been thoughtful about their motivations for seeking a startup job. Perhaps they are simply following the MBA herd chasing fashionable startup careers? Every hire on a small team is a high stakes event, so founders need to ensure that new employees bring:
- Tolerance for ambiguity and for lack of structure, in particular, around roles and career paths. The founder of an early-stage startup may need to tell a candidate, “You could be in this role for two weeks or two years. We just can’t say.” Employees must be flexible and be willing to pitch in to do whatever needs to be done.
- Independence and a “can do/will do” attitude. Early-stage startups often lack processes and routines. In contrast to business-as-usual in big corporations, nothing happens in startups unless someone makes it happen. A founder needs to surround herself with team members who can identify problems and take charge of fixing them, without requiring lots of direction.
- Resilience and passion. Startups encounter inevitable bumps as they try to build something new in the face of severe resource constraints. Rolling with the punches is easier for employees who are passionate about a startup’s mission or about the space in which it operates.
Solution: Know Thyself and Show You “Get It.” Reflecting on your motivations and aspirations is a crucial first step for any job search, but it is especially important with startups because founders focus so much on candidates’ attitudes. Your MBA program’s career services office can coach you through a self-assessment process that helps gauge your fit with a startup career.
If you lack prior startup experience, you can still communicate that you understand startup priorities in many ways. A creative approach when initiating contact with a startup can project passion. My former student Jeanne Hwang did this by launching a clever social media campaign to get the attention of managers at Pinterest. Likewise, a candidate seeking a community manager position at Ridejoy created a boisterous video that captured her enthusiasm and qualifications.
Problem: Not Showing How You’ll Add Value. MBAs routinely fail to demonstrate how they can immediately add value in a startup. They emphasize the same generic strengths that they’d cite in an interview with a consulting firm, for example, “I’m smart, analytical, hard working, and a superb team player. Point me at any problem and I’ll deliver great results.” From a founder, this is likely to engender the response: “That’s cool, but what can you actually DO?” As one entrepreneur said, “I do value an MBAs’ analytical skills and their ability to troubleshoot strategy problems. But focusing too much of the recruiting conversation on strategy or asking for a strategy/biz dev job in a 5-10 person startup shows a lack of understanding of our most urgent priorities.”
Founders also complained that MBAs show little interest in or ability for sales roles. One entrepreneur said, “In a startup, you are selling ALL of the time: to customers, partners, prospective employees, and investors. A startup does better if more of its employees are able and willing to sell. MBAs’ classroom training encourages a dispassionate, analytical perspective. That’s not what sales is about, so MBAs need to unlearn certain attitudes to succeed in startups.”
Solution: Bring a Solution! Charlie O’Donnell suggests that you reverse engineer the requirements for the startup job you are pursuing, and then systematically address any gaps in your skills inventory. For example, business development managers are expected to have a deep understanding of ecosystem trends and participants. Blogging is one way to show that you have such knowledge. Similarly, as I’ve argued elsewhere, MBAs seeking product management jobs can significantly enhance their marketability by learning to code. Doing such work for academic credit is a perfect way to kill two birds with one stone: building job-relevant skills and perspective while completing your MBA.
Founders are in strong agreement about the best way for candidates to make a strong impression: they should propose a bold idea for improving performance —one that is germane to the position they are seeking. For a biz dev role, for example, this might entail making a case for a specific partnership, along with an assessment of pros and cons for each side and potential deal terms. A PM candidate might offer a proposal for how the startup could reorganize its site navigation, based on analysis of competitors’ products.
You may be thinking, “Isn’t my proposal likely to be off target?” Indeed, founders said that 90% of the time, such proposals had already been considered and rejected, or were fatally flawed in some way. But they maintained that receiving the pitch demonstrated that the candidate was a self-starter; showed that she could sell; gave a sense for what the candidate knew and could do; and crucially, showed how she reacted on the fly when told that her idea wouldn’t work. Did the candidate listen well, and adapt the plan in intelligent ways? Did he become too argumentative and defensive? Was he too quick to abandon his idea? Balancing bold and creative ideas with a willingness to listen demonstrates a killer combination of passion, confidence, and humility.
Problem: Unreasonable Expectations. MBAs make a couple of other mistakes when seeking startup jobs, which can attributed to flawed expectations about entrepreneurial careers and startup recruiting.
First, they worry too much about not having a full-time job by April or May as they are completing their degree. Startups can’t plan their manpower needs with precision, so they tend to commit to hiring someone at most a couple of months before that individual begins work. If a startup wants you, they typically want you NOW. That means you’ll probably spend the final weeks of your MBA program hunting for a job, while your peers who accepted corporate or consulting gigs months ago are planning summer vacations. It can be depressing to tell them, “I’m still looking for a job.” But these are the natural rhythms of the long startup recruiting season, which starts early in the school year with lots of networking to build relationships and credibility and may not end until after graduation. If you understand and accept this, you’ll feel less pressure.
Second, MBAs often expect too much seniority and have unrealistic expectations about becoming a general manager quickly—especially in later stage startups. For example, a founder in a startup with 300 employees complained about a candidate who wanted to know, “How much exposure will I get to the board?” Founders acknowledged that some degree of ego and impatience are valuable traits in employees—after all, pursuing risky opportunity when resources are scarce does require self-confidence. But the best candidates are self aware, able to modulate their egos, and always focused on how they can contribute, rather than what they can extract from a new job.