30 tips for landing a job at a tech startup

Written by:
August 24, 2018

30 tips for landing a job at a tech startup

With unemployment at an 18-year low, the time is ripe for career advancement for folks at all age and experience levels. But even in one of the hottest job markets in almost two decades, it seems there is one industry truly raising the tide: tech. The tech sector added over 200,000 jobs in 2017, and shows no sign of slowing down. Not sold yet? Tech workers earn more than twice the national average, according to a recent CompTIA report. Still, tech can seem an exclusive club to many, and viral stories about mind-bending interview questions at the likes of Google and Facebook can be intimidating for first-time job seekers and seasoned career veterans alike.

Fortunately, with over-the-top perks and friendly cultures, tech companies can be some of the most welcoming firms to work at, and frequently grab many of the top spots on various "Best Places to Work" lists. Moreover, not all jobs in tech require the applicant to be 'technical,' with endless opportunities in sales, marketing, project management, and more.

So how can you stand out when applying for a role in this booming industry? To help reveal some of the tips that make this field so unique, Stacker worked with Secret Sauce, a career development company that helps college students prepare for landing their first job, to compile 30 tried and true methods for upping your chances at nabbing a job in tech.

Think you've got what it takes? Read on for 30 tips for landing a job at a tech startup.

ALSO: 42 popular jobs for Millennials that didn't exist for their parents 

Ask good interview questions

The job interview is a two-way street. It’s an opportunity for the interviewer to learn about your qualifications and for you to get a feel for the company culture and specifics of the role. As an interviewee, it is crucial that you do your homework and come prepared to an interview with creative questions. Great interview questions demonstrate to your potential employer that you’ve done thorough research, are able to think critically, and have the intellectual curiosity necessary to thrive in an innovative startup environment. Having no questions for the interviewer is a huge red flag, and having boilerplate questions you got from Monster.com comes off as lazy and uninspired.

Look in the right places

Use job platforms made specifically for tech and startups when searching for open positions such as AngelList, Glassdoor, or BuiltIn platform. Also, many venture capital (VC) firms list their portfolio companies, which is a great way to find venture-backed startups.

Passion goes a long way

Genuine enthusiasm and fascination with a company’s product or mission goes a long way in a job interview at a startup.

Follow the money

Look to VC funding news sites like Crunchbase to see which companies have recently raised money and are likely hiring.

Learn some technical skills

Even if you're not looking to land a technical position, taking some free online courses in  Structured Query Language (SQL) or Python coding will show that you're interested in tech and eager to learn.

Understand common tech business models

How does the company you’re applying to make money? Do they use software as a service for a B2B audience like Salesforce CRM does? Or do they reach consumer audiences like Headspace does with their app? Perhaps they share an e-commerce focus with Warby Parker, a company that harnesses technology to make its e-commerce business possible. Another example would be Buzzfeed, who uses an advertising and content subscription business model.

Network, the old-fashioned way

Attending local tech networking events is still the best way to make a connection with a potential future employer.

Have a side hustle

Entrepreneurs love to see the startup spirit in job candidates. Having a side project where you wrote a Python script to analyze your friends’ Spotify music listening habits or you made a Shopify website to sell your artwork shows that you are a self-starter.

Have constructive product feedback

The majority of tech startups have a business model based on a well-defined product offering. The product is the lifeblood of the organization and everyone at the company—regardless of their department—needs to have a detailed understanding of how it works. On top of product knowledge, most startups foster a real passion within the team for the product and what it can accomplish. In your interview, it is absolutely essential you demonstrate that you understand the product and believe in its potential. The best way to show you’ve bought into a company’s product is to bring constructive feedback to the table in your interview.

Build your social brand

LinkedIn is the go-to recruiting platform for employers. Make sure your profile is top notch and showcases your accomplishments. You should be actively engaging with content related to your potential industry on the platform to show that you're in the know.

Do a competitive analysis

You should know everything there is to know about your would-be employers’ competitors; how those competitors product offerings compare, and how the market they operate in is carved up.

Startups vs. big tech

You should understand that working in tech and working at a startup can be two incredibly different things. While big tech companies may promote the kind of laid back working culture synonymous with startups, they are fundamentally different professional experiences. Startups usually have a small team where you’ll be expected to assume larger responsibility quickly and may be required to take on projects outside the scope of your current abilities as the needs of the business grow. Larger corporate positions in well-established tech companies may not offer the same opportunities for professional growth or horizontal movement.

Be willing to sacrifice

Working for a startup is hard work, but the upside can be huge if you get in at the ground floor and prove your value. Scrappy cash-strapped startups may offer an undermarket salary to start, but don’t let that deter you if you are genuinely excited about what a company is doing.

Not all tech roles are technical

A recent study by Glassdoor found that 43% of open tech roles are for non-technical support positions, so don’t think you’re not qualified to work in tech because you can’t code.

Know what to look for in a good company

Good startups are generally venture-backed, have an executive team of seasoned industry professionals, and are willing to offer employees ownership in the form of stock options.

Use your network to find jobs

An employee referral is the surest way to land an interview. Use LinkedIn’s job search for open positions via your own network. That way you can find companies where you have connections and explore those options first.

Reach out to people that have the job you want

Use LinkedIn to reach out to people currently in the role you’re applying to and ask for a few minutes of their time to chat about the role. Chances are if the company is hiring then they’re encouraging their team to help with the recruiting process and team members would be happy to share their experience in the role with applicants. And if you really hit it off, they may put in a good word for you and get your application fast-tracked to the interview stage.

Use the STAR method when interviewing

STAR stands for situation, task, action, and result. There is nothing worse for an interviewer than watching a candidate ramble trying to answer a direct question about their professional experience. Using this framework, when applicable, is the clearest way to structure your interview responses.

Situation: My company’s newsletter needed a larger audience to attract higher quality advertisers consistent with our brand.
Task: My goal was to grow subscribers by 30% in the next six months.
Action: I designed a paid social media campaign to promote the newsletter.
Result: We grew the subscriber base by 50% in the first six months of running the campaign and as a result, we were able to attract the advertisers we wanted.

Do your homework

Researching the company you’re applying to should be common sense, but some candidates are still doing inadequate preparatory work for interviews. Tech companies, especially smaller ones, often struggle to get press, but you can bet the company website has an active blog and social media presence with company updates. It’s impressive when a candidate makes a specific reference to an article from a company’s blog from several months ago during an interview.

Have a good struggle story

Startups and people in the startup world often face seemingly insurmountable challenges and outright failures. When evaluating a candidate, startups want to see someone who sees adversity as an opportunity for learning and growth. Have a good struggle story and be ready to share what you learned from the experience.

Stand out by engaging with a company online

One way to stand out in the application process is to engage with the company’s social media online.


Finding your fit, Part I: Know your strengths

Here’s a quick way to identify your professional strengths: Pick two of the following profiles that sound the most like you.

The Visionary: The visionary is naturally drawn toward long-term and high-level thinking. She could spend all day brainstorming and is never short on creative, innovative ideas.

The Designer: The designer is a meticulous planner and data-driven analyst with sound, reasoned judgement. She can't help but break down a situation into its components and understand how all the pieces fit together.

The Builder: The builder is a process-oriented do-er that values order and efficiency. She thrives implementing systems, standards, and processes, and she always delivers.  

The Influencer: The influencer is an empathetic, top-notch communicator who can relate to anyone. She loves building personal relationships, helping others, and working in teams.

Finding your fit, Part II: Strengths meet tech roles

Here’s the tech departments that align well with the strength profiles you chose on the last slide.

The Visionary: Marketing, product

The Designer: Engineering, finance and accounting

The Builder: Customer success, business operations

The Influencer: Sales, business development, human resources

Show passion for your personal life

Startups are looking for candidates that are inspired by their professional and personal lives. Having hobbies and interests outside of work shows employers that you can maintain work-life balance and that you’re an interesting, well-rounded person they would be lucky to work with.

Find a mentor

Finding a professional mentor in the tech ecosystem is one of the quickest ways to get up to speed on the tech industry in general and make important connections. If you can't find a connection personally, LinkedIn recently launched a Career Advice tool to help find mentors when looking for specific pieces of career advice. There's also more specialized mentorship platforms like BuiltbyGirls to help connect aspiring female tech professionals with mentors.


It’s easier to move down the chain than up it

Startup founders and executives are often far more accessible than their corporate counterparts. Take a shot and try to get in front of them at an event they’re speaking at, or even reach out through email or social media.

Be willing to take dream-adjacent roles

When entering the tech job world for the first time, be realistic about which roles you’re qualified for. If your dream job is a product manager role, but you don’t have any product management experience, you should look for entry-level analyst positions in the same department. Odds are if you perform well, you’ll have the opportunity to move into that dream job eventually.

Be a team player

With some startups having fewer employees than a football squad, it is crucial you can demonstrate that you have a successful track record of being a team player.

Interviewing: Practice makes perfect

This may seem obvious, but a lot of people still don’t actually go through the process of mock interviewing before the real interview. You can’t prepare for the pressure of a formal interview situation by researching on your own. If you don’t have a professional connection that can sit down and perform a mock interview with you, ask a close friend or family member. It’s important to practice talking through interview questions out loud. Record the interview and identify the areas that need work, then repeat. Practice makes perfect.

Positivity is contagious—and an indicator of success

Startups can certainly be a roller coaster of highs and lows, and the attitude of the team is often times what allows a company to persist through the lows and make the next high even greater than the last. Show a company that you'd make a valuable addition to the team by exhibiting positivity throughout the application process. Be upbeat about the company's growth prospects, excited about the role you're applying for, and confident you have what it takes to make an impact.


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