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Notes from Last Night – “How to Get a Job at a Tech Startup”

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An eager group gathered in the City outpost of Bathtub2Boardroom on Thursday night, keen to hear from our speaker, Alex, a Sales Recruiter at Dropbox Dublin.  The room was packed with Escapees which is no mean feat given the event was scheduled at the same time as the England v Uruguay World Cup match!

With over 275 million users and a $10 billion company valuation, Dropbox is often touted as one of tech’s hottest startups.  They are an American company founded in 2007, and their first European outpost opened in Dublin in July 2013.  Alex joined the organisation as the Dublin office was launching when there were only 12 employees working in a cramped office with a terrible internet connection!  Since joining Dropbox last summer Alex’s Dublin team has tripled in size.  He amused us with stories of new talent joining the young team and having to muck-in for their first few weeks on the job by building Ikea furniture.  Oxbridge graduates were no exception!

Over the past few months Alex has been running “Transition to Tech” events around Europe, spreading the good word about the Tech industry to finance and management consulting professionals.  Our audience was made up largely of Escapees without a tech background.  So it was a relief to all that Alex highlighted from the outset that Dropbox, and other tech startups, are eager to attract talent with business, as well as tech, expertise and most importantly you don’t need to know how to code!

Alex’s talk centred around how to get a job at Dropbox (or any venture-backed tech startup), advising Escapees on how to transition into a startup from the corporate world.  His talk focused on six core themes:

Hypergrowth

The tech industry is rife with jargon and in this world ‘hypergrowth’ refers to companies still in their startup phase.  However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the company is still bootstrapping with just a handful of employees.  Alex told us that Dropbox still considers itself to be a startup, despite now having several international locations and hundreds of employees globally.

Alex explained that many tech startups have huge financial backing from VCs for recruiting and virtually unlimited headcounts.  This can result in huge recruitment drives and potential issues with hiring the right people but at the wrong time.  Alex cited Google as an example of a tech company that has their staff ratio just right; a 50:50 split between employees with a tech specialism and those with a business specialism.

Typical tech roles include:

  • Engineering
  • Product development
  • Design
  • Coding

Typical business (non-engineering) roles include:

  • Sales
  • Marketing
  • Support
  • Analytics
  • Consumer focus

Alex warned that if there is an imbalance between these two areas then problems can ensue.  You need plenty of staff on the tech side to innovate, however, without the right number of sales people, for example, your company will fail to drive revenue and growth.   This is all good news for any Escapees who lack technical expertise but who are keen to leverage their business skills and get started in the exciting tech startup world!

Values & culture

So you’ve decided to go for it and look for your dream role in a tech startup.  But how do you decide which company is right for you?  Alex encourages asking yourself several questions to help you choose:

  • Which companies and products do you like?
  • How do you want to work?
  • Is the company culture a good fit for you?
  • Consider your core beliefs and values – do they match those of your target organisation?

As an example, some of the Dropbox core values include humility and team spirit so all of their new recruits need to have these qualities.  Alex stressed that Dropbox categorically won’t hire people who can’t demonstrate their values.  With regards to work-style, most startups need a dedicated team to get the company off the ground and into the ‘hypergrowth’ phase as quickly as possible, therefore most don’t have a typical 9-5 corporate culture.  Alex emphasised that working for a startup is therefore a lifestyle choice.

It’s important that during your job search you bear in mind that companies will not hire people who aren’t the right ‘fit’ so it’s best to target those whose work-style, culture and values are a good match for you.  Remember, not all startups are the same so it pays to do your research to understand as much as you can about each company you’re looking to target.

Networking

Alex recognised that it can be challenging to find out about company culture, as this is not something that can be easily defined on a company website.  It’s something you have get a feel for by meeting employees and asking questions.  So how do you go about this?  Alex had some useful tips for our audience:

  • Use LinkedIn to search for employees of your target organisation and contact them directly using InMail to ask if they are willing to spare 5 mins to answer some of your questions.  Some may not get back to you but often there are employee incentive schemes in place encouraging staff to refer talented people to their recruiters, so you may find you get a better response rate than you might expect.  Alex said that lots of people in Tech love to chat so don’t be afraid to approach them!
  • Find email addresses for employees doing a role similar to the one you want to apply to and reach out that way
  • Start a blog and use this as a networking tool – this can be particularly helpful if you don’t have relevant experience as it can give you some authority in the new space,   another bonus is that you can develop your blog from the safety of your current job
  • Follow your target company or key people on Twitter to get a feel for the company culture and stay on top of the latest developments
  • You could also go to Meetups or join relevant forums

Company vision

Before you can choose the right startup for you, you need to consider the vision and future direction of the company.  Where are they going?  What new products are being developed?  What are their short and longer-term goals?  Be sure you are informed about the direction of the company and if it doesn’t come up in the interview go ahead and address the point directly as it will impress recruiters to know you are future-focused.

To gather this information, don’t simply rely on the company website.  Do web based research to find out about any upcoming acquisitions that may indicate the direction of growth for the organisation.  For example, Dropbox is building on their original model as a simple cloud data storage tool to focus on new projects, including, ‘Hackpad’ a new note-taking and collaboration tool which they have recently acquired, and ‘Carousel’ which is a new photo sharing tool.

Hiring bar

This is something every tech company has.  It’s a basic level of requirements candidates need to demonstrate to enable them to progress from application to interview stage.  This information will usually be highlighted on the job spec.

To find out whether you have what it takes to be considered for your ideal role you could use social networking sites such as LinkedIn and look at  the profiles of others doing similar roles to assess their skills and level of experience and see if you have something relevant to offer.

Alex emphasised you should always take job specs with a pinch of salt as often they have an unreasonable list of dream skills which would be extremely rare to find in any one candidate.  So if you tick enough of the boxes go ahead and apply, even if you don’t tick them all!

Be realistic

Much to the disappointment of our Escapees, Alex was quick to dispel the myth that tech startups are full of ping pong tables, scooters to get around the office and free food!  He said that the tech startup world is not always fun and games and it’s a hard slog, especially at the launch and hypergrowth stages.  Remember to leave your corporate expectations and mindset at the door when joining a startup as they are quite different beasts.  Hiring structures are often fairly flat without clear progression mapped out for employees.  Be willing to consider taking a more junior entry-level role to break into your ideal company and work you way up from there.  Fast growth will almost certainly mean you aren’t stuck in a junior role for long.

Questions

Our Escapees asked Alex some great questions towards the end of the talk – here are their questions and Alex’s answers.

What separates you from being a typical user of a tech product / service to being a viable prospective candidate for a job?

  • Passion for the product
  • Demonstrate you have done your research on the company, industry and competitors
  • Show you understand the company strategy
  • Have an opinion and be able to communicate your thoughts in a constructive and persuasive way

Is it a barrier to entry into the tech startup world if you aren’t already familiar with the tech jargon?

Alex said this really isn’t a problem as you will pick up everything you need to know on the job.  As long as you can demonstrate a passion for their work and a willingness to learn you should be fine.

How do you identify a high/fast growth startup?

  • Do online research into acquisitions to see which companies are acting on their plans for growth
  • Be direct by asking recruiters about growth plans
  • Look at sources such as Techcrunch and PandoDaily which often give info on how many rounds of funding a company has seen
  • Look at Sequoia Cap for info on cash injections given to various tech startups
  • Alex was keen to ensure our Escapees understood the dangers of what he called ‘IPO hopping’, which is when people move to a new organisation every time a company IPOs (i.e. receives stock payouts) and he said recruiters in the startup world can spot this a mile off and won’t hire you if they suspect you of this.

Adele had a few final tips for our audience looking to break into the exciting world of startups:

  • Partner with people who are actively searching and help each other by recommending events, sources of information and so on
  • Be open to working on shorter term projects or even volunteer your time as a way of building a relationship with your target employer
  • Consider your end game; i.e. if your goal is to eventually work for a major search engine you could offer to do pro-bono project work in this area for smaller search engines to gain some relevant experience
  • Look at targeting organisations that have just received VC funding

Other than Escape the City (of course!), sources of jobs and information on the world of tech startups include 3Beards and WorkinStartups.

Alex left our Escapees with one final piece of valuable advice.  Beware of jumping on the tech bandwagon – don’t lie to yourself.  If you aren’t a good fit for this type of organisation in terms of culture and your values and core beliefs then consider targeting a career in a different area.


Guest Reviewer: This post was written by Celia Staton.

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