At Opus, I’ve been helping strategy, operations, and finance professionals navigate startup recruiting for the past few years. Most candidates who come to me early on in their search have the same few questions:
- Where to start — How to begin my search?
- What does the recruiting process look like — How do I ensure I am prepared?
- What to expect in terms of comp — How do I negotiate this? What is fair?
This article covers part I – where to start.
Step 1: Reflect on your career to-date.
Many candidates come into an intro chat with a recruiter without having even thought about what they want, beyond just ‘wanting to work for a startup’.
While that is completely fine, it doesn’t make for the most productive conversation around next steps and where we go from there.
Other candidates come in with staunch notions of titles, roles, and companies they want to work for or in next, without being able to articulate why that is the case.
When all of this happens, I normally like to guide everyone back to square one: First, you need to reflect on your career and identify aspects you’ve liked, disliked, and want.
- What you’ve liked: What about your current job do you enjoy? (i.e., team, type of work you’re doing, work environment)
- What you’ve disliked: What about your current job do you want to do less of, or stay away from entirely?
- What you want next: Are there aspects that you aren’t getting out of your current job, that you’d like to try to aim for next? What are your longer term career goals?
Step 2: Translate likes, dislikes and wants into startup recruiting preferences.
From there, you want to map your likes, dislikes, and wants, into preferences that you can articulate as they pertain to startup recruiting.
For example, if you’ve enjoyed working with clients and stakeholders, then you might want to look into roles that continue providing that opportunity (i.e., customer success, or business development).
If you’re trying to grow into a leadership position quickly, then you might want to join a smaller but faster-growing company where you might be able to take on a greater scope of work than you otherwise would have at a larger organization.
If you want to start a company one day, then perhaps you want to work under a seasoned entrepreneur, or in a company with exposure to top tier VCs.
Here are common startup recruiting preferences that you may want to consider:
- Money: How much do you care about the money? There’s high-base-salary-rich, and then there’s get-lucky-off-equity rich.
- Brand name: Is it important to you personally, or for your resume, that people recognize the company you’re working for (i.e., Warby Parker, Square)?
- Building your network: Certain companies might be more conducive to helping you expand your network than others. How much does this matter to you?
- Scope of work / Responsibility: Are you trying to solve for increased scope of work? Maybe take on more than someone of your tenure otherwise would have traditionally taken on?
- Mentorship and Team: How much do you care about mentorship, or working with a team that has a track record of success? Correspondingly, do you care about exposure to the founding team of the startup you’re at?
- Culture Fit: What working environments do you work well in, and how much of that is critical to you finding success or enjoyment in your job?
- Industry: Do you want to be working within a certain industry eventually? And if so, how important is industry expertise to that industry?
- Role Function: Are there specific types of work you’ve enjoyed over others (i.e., analytics, stakeholder management) that you want to keep building on?
- Location: Do you need or want to be in certain cities?
Step 3: Prioritize your preferences, and be able to articulate them.
You might be tempted to try to solve for everything on your list of preferences. This can make the search process a long and taxing one, and I’ve seen people get burnt out by recruiting this way.
Instead, I recommend a more tailored approach: Figure out how much time you want to give yourself for recruiting (most people say 2–3 months), and then open up your parameters as time goes by.
More specifically, you should rank your preferences in order of priority to you: Identify what non-negotiables are to you, and then identify what the other 2–3 nice-to-haves are.
When you first start your search process, try to shoot for that dream job, and then as time goes by, acknowledge that you may have to get more flexible or forego some of the lower priority preferences.
Additionally, note that not all preferences are positively correlated with each other: Solving for one thing might sometimes mean you have to forego another.
For example, if you’re looking for a high base salary, then odds are you may have to exclude looking at extremely early stage (<10 FTE) startups from your search, which consequently means that you might have to settle for a role that is a little bit more defined in scope v.s. the jack of all trades type roles commonly seen when you join an early company.
Having a clear sense of what’s important to you before you begin conversations with startups will both help focus your efforts and show your potential employer that you’ve put thought into the search process, which will help you come off as a stronger applicant: You know what you want, hence you can better articulate why you’re applying and why their job makes sense for you.
Step 4: Start recruiting.
The fun begins. Now that you have a more refined sense of what you want, you can set out to look for it.
In general, there are 3 main ways in which one discovers job opportunities:
- Publicly posted jobs: For the most part, startups with active needs will end up advertising their jobs online — whether via Angelist, LinkedIn, BuiltIn, and/or other job boards (i.e., VC job boards, alumni access job boards). This is usually the easiest and most robust way to search for roles that may appeal to you.
- Network, and networking: Many job seekers also leverage their network in order to come across roles that they otherwise might not have found publicly. I’ve seen networking work really well for helping find early stage opportunities (i.e., if you want to join a <10 FTE startup), for helping catch competitive opportunities as they first pop up in the market (i.e., Chief of Staff at upcoming rocketship startup), and, on occasion, for helping create opportunities (i.e., you’re the hire a company didn’t know they needed).
- Recruiters: Search firms serve as conduits to job opportunities, and their services are often free for you to use as a candidate. Working with a good recruiter can not only ease the burden of the recruiting process for you, but also ensure that you are kept in the loop whenever something relevant pops up. Many recruiting firms also get access to exclusive opportunities that you may not otherwise find elsewhere, so you should keep your recruiting partner updated of your preferences, in order to get the most value out of that relationship.
Opus is a boutique search firm that helps strategy, finance and operations professionals get connected to opportunities in the startup and tech space. For more information, feel free to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.