How to Find a Role at a Dope Startup
So you want to work at a startup, but don’t know how to find a dope one?
I’m a big believer in picking the right startup, not just any startup. If you want to find a dope (depending on your definition, this can mean: legit, meaningful, high-growth, cool, not going to go under any time soon, smart people, the Google of 1999, etc.) startup, I hope the following tips can be helpful.
Types of Startups
When looking for startups, you can filter by size, location, problem space, and more. Before we dive into how to find the startups, let’s start with types of startups (feel free to skip to the next section, but you’ll miss out on a ton of comic relief). Here’s a refresher on some of the terminologies I use below.
Founding Team/Initial Employees
This is the stage where you’re paid in equity, not $$, and you get email addresses with email@example.com. Sink or swim mentality. It’s what you think about when you wake up at 3 am to get a glass of water and you keep a notebook for random bursts of inspiration by your bedside table. Your group chat is a place to share updated pitch decks and pictures from Friday night’s shenanigans. This company becomes your new family.
Angel to Series A
Small, stealth, pre-product market fit. If you’ve chosen the right one, you’ll get to work with Senior Engineers and it’ll be like drinking from a firehose. Lots of experiential learning. Great place for strong engineers who aren’t looking to be spoon-fed. Being a PM is a hit or miss (depending on if you have a product yet) and most of these companies want to see some PM experience before hiring you. Mentorship is hit or miss, depending on company culture, resources, and time. You wear all hats.
High-growth, good funding, free snacks. Stronger engineering guidelines and more mentorship. In my opinion, it’s the most exciting period to be a PM because you’re constantly launching features and iterating. You might spend more time than you’d like interviewing new candidates. But, your work matters! (Your code soars past the PR and into master… your features are currently in beta testing… and after finishing this matcha latte, you have a meeting with the UX designer to turn your Balsamiq mock-ups into reality).
Series D — Pre IPO
Cross between startup pace and big tech privileges. Notice our cool office decor and relaxed vibe. We offer nap pods and ping pong tables too! This company is well-funded and won’t tank anytime soon. When you notice that they are cutting back on the $X,XXX,XXX they used to stock berries in the company’s fridge, you know an IPO is around the corner. This counts as a resume stamp to anyone in tech and it is probably more exclusive to land a job here than in big tech (only anecdotal evidence to back this up). Seems like an over-valuation to your finance friends. It’s a great place to learn rigorous PM and SWE practices (as one would learn at a big tech company) and engage in structured mentorship and rotational programs, while still getting a sizeable amount of responsibility and opportunity to make an impact. Plus, some job security and free ride-sharing codes are always good perks.
How to find startups
Let’s take a breadth-first approach in finding relevant startups. What to look for (criteria mentioned above) is for you to decide, but here are a few tips for putting an initial list together
Someone did a lot of research on the “best” startups to work for. Obviously, one should check the criteria of analysis and any biases the researcher may have had, but here are my recommendations:
- LinkedIn Top 50 Startups (2019)
- Wealthfront Career Launching Companies (2019)
- Breakout List (needs updating, but has some gems!)
Venture Capital Firms
Finding a startup through a Venture Capital Firm offers yet another layer of vetting. There are two ways in which you can connect with startups via their investors.
The most notable in this category is the Kleiner Perkins Fellows Program. It’s a prestigious program, the companies are vetted, and you still have a resume booster if the company goes under. The program offers three tracks (Engineering, Design, Product). However, the timeline is a bit delayed, so be mindful if you have an exploding deadline.
However, there are other notable programs pair students and new grads with portfolio companies:
Accel Scholars (UC Berkeley Students)
Human Capital, formerly Nav Talent
*Disclaimer, I was a former associate at Nav Talent.
Though it’s time-consuming, I recommend going through the portfolio companies of the leading VC firms to start.
- Andreesen Horowitz
- First Round
- Founders Fund
- General Catalyst
- GGV Capital
If you’re looking to work for Student Founders, check out:
If you’re looking for Biotech, check out:
- Arch Venture Partners
- Third Rock Ventures
- Venrock Ventures
If you’re looking to work at female-owned and backed companies:
- Female Founders Fund
If you’re looking to work at companies aligned with big-tech, check out corporate VCs such as:
- Google Ventures
- Intel Capital
- Salesforce Ventures
If you’re looking to work abroad:
- Baidu Ventures
- TenCent Ventures
If you’re looking:
- For a mature company, check out their “Top Companies List” (2019)
- For looking for a smaller startup, reach out to companies in recent batches (running list).
- To get in early at a top YC-backed company, apply through the official Work at a Startup portal. Think of this as the common app for connecting with YC startups. Fill out one application and interested founders will reach out to you. Plus, you can scroll through companies + see what position they are hiring for. Search by company size, industry, and job availability. These companies might be pretty early stage, but most will have some funding.
I’m not trying to be partial to YC, I am just more familiar with searching for startups through YC. However, here are a few top accelerators. If you’re looking for a smaller startup, reach out to companies in recent batches. If you’re looking for a more mature startup, look them up on Crunchbase to see how much they have raised and from who (No, venture capitalists aren’t all-knowing Gods and they too pass up on gems so don’t be disheartened if you’re dream company isn’t backed by a top VC).
If I hear the word “network” one more time, I might puke. BUT I do think leveraging your network (if you took a shot for every buzz word I used in this article, you wouldn’t make it past page 2) can be super helpful in finding a solid startup. I would suggest:
- Take a moment to think. Seriously! Who do you know who is at a startup right now? Do they like what they are doing? Do they vibe with company culture? Do they see the company succeeding?
- Use the handy Linkedin or Facebook search bar and type “My Friends who work at X”
- Scroll through social media (LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook). Who just posted or updated their bio to be “We’re hiring”? Who just joined a startup that they are stoked about?
Be a Bookworm
Read the top sources for tech news and keep an eye out for high-growth companies:
- Tech Crunch
- Hacker News
Other Helpful Resources
- Accelerated Newsletter
- Angel Groups
- Attend startup events on Meetup and Eventbrite
- Handshake (for general recruiting)
- Jumpstart (for recruiting at mission-driven companies)
- Venture For America
So you’ve found a cool company… now what?
- If you know someone at the company, talk to them about their work first (you want to make sure it’s a good fit before starting the interviewing process otherwise you’re wasting your time and the company’s time). If all goes well, feel free to ask for a (luke) warm introductions or referral.
- Find their company on rocket reach (that can’t be legal, right, yet is still used by everyone and their mother?) and email their recruiter with a brief introduction, why you want to work there, and your resume.
- If you have a specific question about the product or team, email a lead engineer or PM (or if you’re feeling especially ballsy, the CTO/CPO).
- Find an alum who works at the company and find their email using your college’s alumni database. I have found alumni to be super responsive when fundraising for TigerLaunch, and my friends have had really positive experiences emailing alumni about career advice and connections.
- Reach out to Angels and VCs for an introduction or for inspiration. There’s typically a go-to person at the firm who connects talent with portfolio companies. Alternatively, it’s worth a cold-email to the VC who led that deal. Note that Associates might be more likely to respond than Partners.
- Use mail merge programs (Mix Max is my favorite!) and set up automatic follow up emails.
- Be methodical for how you find and reach out to startups. I recommend AirTable or a Sheets/Excel document.
PM vs. Engineering at a startup
- Engineering is the typical way into a startup. A founder recently told me that the need for good software engineers is so big that it’s almost impossible not to find an opening at a startup in a SWE role. Plus, this is a role that startups are guaranteed to need today, tomorrow, and in a year. Therefore, you’re more likely to find a role for a SWE position months in advance.
- However, Product Management has become a very trendy career choice lately, especially for those who one day want to start their own venture. This is because you get to think about strategy/business/product/design and work cross-functionally with a lot of really cool people (e.g. engineers, designers, execs, etc.). However, finding PM roles at startups can be a hit or miss. This is because most startups have very specific needs and the best way to learn PM skills is by being a PM. This means that they have to risk having to train you for a role that is literally about managing chaos — what would you do if you were in their shoes?
- Most startups don’t have PMs until they have 70 people or more, and they are often looking for experienced PMs. This means that it’s hard to find a good learning experience as a new grad PM.
- Many startups are pre-product market fit. The tricky thing about being a PM for a product that hasn’t achieved product-market fit is that it’s hard to iterate if you don’t have quick feedback loops from the market.
Don’t shy away from Engineering roles if you want to do PM! Engineering at startups is usually a jack-of-all-trades role that includes making important strategic and product decisions that will absolutely prepare you for your startup and moving into a product role later on. Furthermore, it’ll be very easy to transfer into a product role later on, as the startup grows. Who will the team trust more, someone who has been making product and engineering-related decision with a lot of credibility within the company, or a new employee?
Make sure you clarify your intentions about being involved with product-related work early on. It helps set the course for when you join with regard to the projects you’re working on. This way, you’ll find it easier to actually move into a product-related position within the company or at another company.
Bonus: Saying you are an engineer with product skills gives you an advantage in the recruiting process. Don’t forget that you’re hired to move the needle in terms of projects that actually bring revenue/users/money to a company that has none. A startup team has to be sure that you won’t get distracted by challenges that are not mission-critical, and having a product sense is an unbelievable way to show them this.
In short, finding a dope startup requires some effort, but I promise that it’ll be worth it. Good luck!
As a disclaimer, I am writing from the perspective of a college senior looking for internships and a first job right out of college. Therefore, I have focused on entry-level positions. I have only included resources that I have personally interacted with or have heard positive reviews about. Therefore, this list is not exhaustive, so please let me know if I’ve missed a gem!
Thank you to Theodor Marcu, Todd Baldwin, and Kevin Hou for contributing; Bethwel Kiplimo, Quinn Donohue, and Sean Katz for suggestions; and Michael Li for inspiration.