Recent College Grads: How To Get A Job At A Sweet Tech Startup

By    January 7, 2013

Hey you. Yeah, I’m talking to you: recent graduate and desperately unemployed. Maybe you’re the guy who was involved in every club in college and graduated with three majors. Or maybe you changed your major in junior year from zoology to nursing. Or maybe you’re like me and spent four years listening to people tell you that your English degree would ultimately amount to nothing.

We all know that the job market is tough right now; the unemployment rate in Los Angeles, for example, is almost 3% higher than the national average. The Atlantic reported back in April that more than half of college graduates are currently unemployed or underemployed. So what’s a college grad to do with a degree and an unbridled desire to get a job?

“Startups, especially tech companies, can be good places to get a job right out of college, because they like hiring people eager for experience who aren’t necessarily set in the ways of other companies and can be grown up inside,” said SpareFoot CEO Chuck Gordon.

Unlike bigger companies, most startups don’t have 500+ employees and endless resources. SpareFoot currently has 50-60 employees who can be seen working tirelessly in the office cradling a variety of energy drinks and caffeine. Our marketing manager Tony even estimated that he spends half of his life here.

So why startups? As Chuck pointed out, they like “hiring people eager for experience,” which means that bright college grads ready to jump in and contribute will feel right at home. And if your parents are lecturing you on the “95% of startups fail” scenario, know this: regardless of the success of the company, you’ll emerge from your job with much more experience and the battle wounds to show for it. Even if you don’t ultimately stay with the startup in the future, your time will have been well spent–all employers want someone who has shown tremendous maturity, and this is what working at a startup is all about. They may not be as established as big companies, but they require a huge amount of dedication, motivation and drive. Plus, there’s the added bonus of perks individual to the personality of each startup–like tacos, sake bomb events, and a really sweet kitchen filled with hopes, dreams and beer.

If you just graduated and find yourself jobless, don’t give up. I know–rejection is hard and our middle school selves can attest to that. But maybe you’ve just been looking in the wrong places. Google, Facebook, and other huge companies might seem appealing for their names and benefits, but even getting an interview can be extremely difficult. Stop trying to appease your relatives and start thinking about what you want to get out of a job. Then ask yourself: would I love working at a startup? If so, here’s some advice from our CEO Chuck, who conducts the final round of interviews for potential new hires, on acing the interview and getting the job.

Before the Interview

It’s common knowledge that you should at least be familiar with the company you’re interested in working for. Imagine how embarrassing it would be to walk into an interview sounding confused and unknowledgeable about the services, products or goals that the company offers. When you’re interviewing at a startup company, however, it’s even more important to grasp the concept of the company and startup culture before you sit down for the actual interview.

“A job at a tech startup is not like a job at a nine-to-five place,” Chuck told me. “You should understand and desire a startup culture if you’re applying, and make it clear to others. Show that you’re passionate, that you really get into what you do and think about it all the time.”

You should also be comfortable with the idea that most startups eschew the super corporate environment and strict structures for a casual and accessible work dynamic. SpareFoot, for example, encourages contributions from everyone and maintains a transparency policy, so that employees know everything that’s going on at all times. While this kind of nonhierarchical practice is attractive to some, other may find it disconcerting.

“First you have to actually want that kind of environment personally. Then, you need to be able to communicate that you want it.”

During the Interview

The interview process will invariably differ depending on the environment of the startup. At SpareFoot, for example, I went through two interviews and talked with four different people before my final interview with Chuck, which happened to fall on Halloween. I walked into the office only to be greeted by a slew of colors, mustaches, and one unabashedly almost-naked sumo wrestler. That was when I knew I really wanted to work here.

If you are passionate and enthusiastic about working at the company, let it show. Startups need people who are genuinely excited about coming into the office everyday and doing meaningful work.

“Show an enthusiasm of willing to get your hands dirty and doing a whole bunch of different things–don’t just go into your interview thinking, ‘I only want to do this or that.’ You’ll be much more valuable and attractive to companies looking to hire.”

Being a well-rounded and flexible person is often the number one thing that most startups look for in a potential hire. Since startups have fewer employees than big companies, they may require you to juggle several responsibilities at once or even help out in areas outside your field of expertise. Be level-headed, adaptable and receptive to these scenarios–after all, you’ll gain invaluable experience by working in different areas.

“You’re always going to be hired to do a job, but unless you’re an engineer or a salesperson, the likelihood of you having a lot of hyper-specific experience is low. Be able to do a lot of stuff and be interested in other things going on in the company, even if you are just focusing on one area.”

In addition to keeping yourself open to all possibilities, Chuck stressed the importance of having past experience.

“The stuff you’ve been doing shows whether or not you’re a go-getter. We want people who are self-motivated, and they can best communicate that by showing the stuff they’ve done to present.”

Which means that despite what Asher Roth tells you, you can’t just coast through college. If you’re a current student and have a general idea of the field in which you would like to work, gear your projects, work and activities towards that direction. Start a blog if you want to write or try your hand at making your own iPhone app if you want to work for tech companies. Make a zine, get an internship, or badger your professors for research opportunities. Badger them often.

Be motivated to go off and do more, rather than just doing the bare minimum,” Chuck said. “That’s the style you need to succeed.”

Commit to something and finish it, and at the end you’ll not only have done something that you genuinely enjoyed, but that you can also legitimately use in your portfolio. It doesn’t matter how big or small your project is, only that you have the passion and enthusiasm to pursue it. Any examples of extra effort on your part will make you stand out in an interview. And for those of you who have been told time and time again that your major was “unimportant” or “impractical?”

“I don’t care about that,” Chuck said almost immediately when I asked. “I’m an art major.”

Image courtesy of money.cnn.com

Jenny is part of the marketing team at SpareFoot. She currently lives in Austin, TX and likes sushi, Faulkner and Asian horror movies.

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