Seeking A Job in Start-Up Land

My first time jumping into the start-up world was as a freshly minted Harvard MBA in 1995.  As my classmates were rushing off to high-paying, high-powered jobs on Wall Street, I joined a Series A start-up with 30 employees as a product manager, making $65,000 per year – lower than my pre-MBA salary at management consultancy The Boston Consulting Group.  Since then I've had a terrific ride, but I often think of that fateful decision when I get asked, repeatedly, by other freshly minted MBAs:  "How do I get a job in a start-up?"  Or, more generally, "How do I even begin to find and assess start-up job opportunities – I don't even know where to start?"

The start-up universe is a large one and can seem overwhelming and impenetrable to the uninitiated.  In order to narrow things down, I recommend following a simple, four-step heuristic.  Here's the advice I give:  

  • Pick a Domain.  First, figure out your passion in terms of domain.  Are you more of a B2C type or a B2B type?  What blogs are you reading?  What articles in Techcrunch or the Wall Street Journal capture your attention?  What companies are your dream companies to work for?  Answering these questions will help narrow down a set of domains that you are excited about.  It can be more than one, but it shouldn't be more than, say, three.
  • Pick a City.  Next, figure out where you want to live.  Again, there may be multiple options, but ideally one or two favorites.  Each start-up community has its own plusses and minuses, quirks and idiosyncracies.  I find that once young people choose a particular start-up community, they stay there.  It's a natural phenomenon – they build relationships over time that lead to one opportunity after the next.  Your co-workers in one start-up become your co-founders in another.  Thus, young professionals should be thoughtful about choosing a city early in their career because of this "settling in" phenomenon.
  • Pick a Stage.  Next, determine what stage company you prefer to work in.  Do you want a company that is still in the jungle phase (hacking through and trying to establish a path to success), the dirt road phase (established initial product-market fit and now trying to execute and scale in a relatively clear direction) or the highway phase (optimizing and scaling along a well-trod path)?  This decision should be made somewhat based on risk appetite and somewhat on personal makeup and preferences.  If you are a risk-taker and enjoy the challenges and roller-coaster ride, then the jungle phase is for you and you should bias towards seed funded or recently Series A funded companies that are pre-revenue.  If you are more conservative, want a good salary and prefer to pick a "safe" winner, then a highway phase company that is pre-IPO or recently IPO'ed is the right choice. 
  • Pick a Winner.  Now that you have your target domain, geography and stage, focus on picking out a few winners – the hot companies that everyone thinks has great momentum and potential.  After all, why would you want to work for anyone other than the absolute hottest company in a given category?  How does an outsider figure out who the winners are in a given domain, market and stage?  Ask a handful of insiders.  Find the top 3 VCs, angels, tech lawyers and headhunters in your target geographical market and ask them for the two or three hottest companies that match the domain and stage you are interested in.  Compile this list, pressure test it, and see what patterns you find.  The firms who get the most mentions with the most compelling underlying evidence will naturally rise to the top.

Below is a sample chart that I put together answering the question for someone interested in either e-commerce, mobile or SaaS companies in SF/SV, NYC or Boston.  The first company listed is an earlier stage company (either jungle or dirt road) and the second company is a later stage company (either dirt road or highway).  This list is illustrative – just to make the point – not in any way attempting to be comprehensive.

MBA blog 3-31-13
(full disclosure:  tracx, 10gen and Savingstar are Flybridge portfolio companies)

Once this heuristic is complete, you now have your target list.  The next step is to get warm introductions to the target.  This is easier than you would think.  LinkedIn is an incredibly powerful tool, as are the various alumni databases.  VCs are often happy to pass along your resume and background to their portfolio companies – after all, they are doing them a favor by sending them highly qualified talent.

In general, the start-up community is so incredibly generous with its time and has such a strong "pay it forward" culture, that with tenacity and time, you can get to almost anyone.   In fact, I recommended you aim high.  Use this heuristic to narrow down your search and then list out the 10 people that would be your absolute top choices to sit down for 30 minutes with face to face.  Then, go after those 10 people in any way you can (without stalking them or being a nudge!).  These networking meetings will help you establish valuable relationships, even if the job fit isn't there.

In short, be organized, focused and tenacious.  Aim high, seek out the incremental networking meetings and pick yourself out a winner.  Things may not work out, but at least you're putting yourself in a position for a little positive serendipity.

15 thoughts on “Seeking A Job in Start-Up Land

  1. Pingback: Advice to Grads: Join A Winning Startup (v. 2017) | SEEING BOTH SIDES

  2. Great post. I think a lot of MBAs need to ensure they are mentally ready for what startup means – deliver value. Not “think about delivering value”, but deliver value. In many cases this is sell or code. If you can code, then you don’t need to sell. If you can’t code, you need to sell. Sell product, sell partnership agreements, sell marketing deals…


  3. Jeff, so glad I found your blog (though I am quite late to the conversation). Very interested in taking the start-up route. I think in processes, so I get the above. How important would an MBA be for me? I have a masters in ed tech but not in business. Thanks for any thoughts. Here or via @edtechtropolis would be great! –Israel


  4. I would also suggest starting to blog about your thoughts on the startup world. Even if nobody reads it, it solidifies your interest and own viewpoints and shows that you’re not just trying to jump on the startup bandwagon 🙂


  5. Great post, Jeff! Would suggest that another consideration in “Pick[ing] a Stage” is the type of professional development experience the candidate seeks. If the candidate flourishes in a highly unstructured setting, isn’t entirely committed yet to mastering a specific function (read: isn’t exactly sure if she wants to be in BD, marketing, recruiting, etc.), and wants to function closer to a general manager from day one … odds are better for having that kind of day to day experience at a jungle startup or at select “dirt road” stage companies. Typically by “highway” stage, the professional development experience is going to have different upsides: more structure in terms of initial role definition and career progression expectations, for example.


  6. Jeff – awesome article! As a “freshly minted” MBA looking to take career steps in the start-up realm in San Francisco, I found this to be very helpful.
    Based on your heuristic, I am most interested in domain(s): B2B, sharing economy; stage: dirt road/highway; and location: SF. A winner I can think of is Lending Club (though B2B may be a stretch). Any ideas for other great companies that fall within these parameters? Thanks!


  7. I really enjoyed this post, Jeff, especially as you lay out how to network and “USE” the network to meet the movers and shakers. Anyone can sit in front of a computer or tablet and read. But stuff happens when you meet the people and make a mental connection. It takes guts, tenacity and self-confidence, as I have found that meeting smart folks is a means to all of our boats rising.


  8. Agreed. MBAs develop domain expertise in assessing their classmates and cultivating the network of classmates and alums. That skill and that network become increasingly valuable over time, I don’t want to denigrate a business school education (especially since, like you, I teach at one), but so much of what will be valuable later in their careers happens over beers at school that it is really important to be “present” in the non-academic aspects of business school. Then again, I’ve only ever stood on one side of the lectern at a business school, so I really can’t “See Both Sides Now”!
    Thanks Jeff


  9. Jeff: Great post, as always. Rather than applaud that with which I agree, I’d like to respectfully disagree with this statement: “After all, why would you want to work for anyone other than the absolute hottest company in a given category?” My counter: just because a company is “hot” doesn’t mean it is a great company. Yext and AppNexus have, at different times, epitomized the ‘un-hot’ category while Friendster (remember that one) and so many others we can’t recall have been very ‘hot’ companies. I remember the angel deal 3 years I couldn’t get into because it was so hot that we angels got ridiculously cut back and my friends couldn’t make room for me. Turns out that they did me a favor as the company folded and returned zip to the investors. Look, some companies get hot and stay there or get hotter, but most startups zig and zag through their lives until a certain point. There’s only so much crowdsourcing can do and if crowds were right about the best companies than angel and venture investing would be much easier than it is.


    • This is a great point, Ed, and I’m probably guilty of using the adjective “hot” in too colloquial a fashion. I should have said “great” or “enduring”. That said, you have an additional good point about crowdsourcing. Sometimes you want to be an outlier / contrarian. It requires more direct research, though, which is hard for MBAs to execute if they don’t have domain expertise.


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