I'll never forget the first time a famous entrepreneur put his hand on my shoulder, looked me right in the eye, and said, "Steve, you don't want to miss out on this opportunity. You'll see; it'll be great. Once you get equity, you never look back."
He couldn't have been more wrong. The start-up he founded would eventually crash and burn. By that time I was long gone and begging for my old job back. Luckily, I didn't get it. It wasn't long before I landed at another start-up and experienced my first IPO.
That CEO was right about one thing, though. Equity. It's not the only reason to join a start-up, but it's definitely in the top three. There's nothing like having a piece of the pie.
You should all have the good fortune to join a hot startup once in your life. The excitement, the energy, the equity--you can't beat it. If you can find a way in and you know what to look for, that is.
Luckily, I've been in and around Silicon Valley's high-tech industry ever since that fateful day in 1989 and I've got three tips to help you land a cool job in a hot start-up.
1. Start local. It's easy enough to find all the mini-Silicon Valleys and the hottest start-ups in your area of expertise, but more important than their location is yours. If you're a hotshot developer in high demand, that's one thing. I'm sure you'll have no trouble finding a great opportunity. If not, you know how competitive it is out there. Your chances are far better if you're local. Recruiters will rarely admit that, but it's true.
Still, you don't have to be in Silicon Valley, Boston, or the Big Apple. Start-ups are everywhere these days, from L.A. to London, from Austin to Atlanta, from Des Moines to Denver. And the good news is, at least in general, the more remote the location, the less the competition. So start local and, if you want to move somewhere, try to get out there and at least "appear" local.
2. Look for the smart money. While not every successful company was backed by top-tier VCs, checking out the quality of the investors is a pretty good idea for a lot of reasons. Top notch angels and VCs provide start-ups with a lot more than just capital. They mentor founders, help fill in gaps in the management team, make key customer introductions, and help bring in new investors for subsequent rounds.
How do you know if the investors are top tier? Several ways. If you search around sites like VentureBeat, Gigaom, and Mashable, you'll see the same names pop up again and again: Kleiner Perkins, Sequoia, New Enterprise Associates, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, August Capital, among others. If not, go to the VC firm's website and look for lists of companies they've invested in that have had successful "exits," meaning IPOs or acquisitions.
If the start-up doesn't list its investors, then search online using the company name and terms like "Series A" or "round of funding." You'll find them.
3. Connect with real people in the real world. If you're smart, you already know that just applying for jobs online isn't likely to get you anywhere. Also, pretty much everyone's figured out how to try to connect with people through LinkedIn, so that's not a very good strategy, either.
So what does work? The same thing that's worked for decades: Real networking with real people in real time. That's how I found my way into startups back in the day and that's still the most effective way to do it. Sure, it takes real work. Welcome to the real world.
Failing that, here's a pretty good trick that actually works. Believe it or not, most venture capital firms provide contact information, even for their partners. Emails and phone calls are usually filtered by assistants, but in my experience, they tend to be very helpful. People are very nice at VC firms.
If you're a fast talker or you can write a good paragraph and have a good resume that gets their attention, it behooves them to pass you along to the start-up you're targeting. And believe me, companies pay attention to leads they get from their VCs. That's for sure.