Dear college graduates,

Looking for work at large, established companies? Going that route means you'll start your career as a cog in a well-oiled machine. You will go through formal training, have relatively few real responsibilities at the outset, and, if you're lucky, maybe progress ever-so-slowly up the corporate ladder.

For most people, this is a safe and comfortable way to start their work lives.

On the other hand, if you have the stomach to work in an entrepreneurial environment—which may mean below-market wages, impossibly high expectations, and more than a few sleepless nights—you open the door to an exciting and wild ride, not to mention invaluable work experience. Most start-ups fail, but the ones that succeed can take off quickly and profoundly.

I've seen both sides of this equation. Three of the companies I worked for opened their doors in the 1800s and will probably be around another hundred years or more. I have worked at three start-ups, too, and know just how insane and fun that ride can be. If the latter sounds more like your kind of challenge, read on for tips on how to get a job at a start-up.

Only Work for a Start-up You Love

Working at a start-up will eat up virtually all of your waking hours (and reduce your sleeping hours). If you are going to be at a job like that, the only way to thrive is if you love what the company does and where it is going, and the company culture suits you. So do the research.

There are dozens of resources to find start-ups. Some of my favorites include Crunchbase, Mashable, and LinkedIn. Another great place to look: the job boards on venture capitalists' websites, like this one at Sequoia Capital. That way you know the start-up has received a VC's seal of approval as well as at least one round of funding.

Web-stalk the Start-up

Learn everything you can about the company. A company search on LinkedIn, for example, will show you who is working at the company and if they're hiring.

By googling the company (including "news" and "blog" searches), you can get an idea for what impact the company has made and where there are issues. See what is working. Figure out where the company needs help and what you have to offer.

Arm Yourself With Marketable Skills

Once you start applying for jobs, companies are going to Web-stalk you—so make sure they find something worthwhile.

  • If you are not blogging already, blog. If you are not actively participating in groups relating to the industry you wish to work in, then dive in.
  • If you are not up to speed in the industry, then read every blog and every publication you can find serving that industry.
  • If you are not active on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+, then get moving!
  • Add a skill: Every start-up needs people who understand analytics, email marketing, search engine optimization, social media marketing, and coding.

Get the Interview

It should come as no surprise that for every great job at a start-up, there are hundreds of applications. To stand out from the crowd, you first need to be the right person for the job (education, experience, skills, etc.) and then you need to find a way to get the attention of the people who will make the hiring decisions.

This can take creativity, research, and a great deal of work. Some successful tactics I've seen have included slideshow/PowerPoint presentations, and attendance at seminars and classes with the people who are hiring. One of my personal favorites is a tactic Alec Brownstein tried: He invested a handful of dollars in Google advertising and targeted CEOs who google their own names. At a cost of $6, he advertised on the names of five CEOs, got four job interviews, and two job offers.

Of course, there's no substitute for offline networking. Look for start-up events on Eventbrite. Go to meet-ups such as Graham Lawlor's Ultra Light Startups in New York City, which attract entrepreneurs, investors, and wannabe start-up employees.

Nail the Interview

When you get that call or email telling you that you've got the interview, then go back to my advice on doing your research and do it again... on steroids. Learn everything you can about the company's people, culture, customers, and competitors.

Most importantly, be yourself. Don't be afraid to challenge your interviewer or point out things you'd do differently. When you work at a start-up, the people you work with are the people you'll be dealing with for most of your waking hours. You want to honestly assess whether or not you want to work with these people. Conversely, they need to see if you are the person they want to mentor, train, and oversee. Neither can happen unless you present yourself as the person your truly are.

Land a start-up job? Drop me a note in the comments and tell me what worked.