Everyone’s hiring engineers (shameless plug: so are we at Abine), and I’m not one. Odds are, neither are you. Nor was I about 2 years ago when I was perusing Craigslist Boston’s legal services section for an alternative way to use my law degree. It’s pretty dejecting to spend your entire life getting straight A’s in honors classes, doing everything you’re supposed to be doing, going to good schools, getting a freaking law degree in my case, and then finding out that no one’s hiring…unless you’re an engineer. Well, I have 6 tips for you to get hired at a tech startup anyway.
Despite having a J.D. and sitting on an academic lifetime of great grades and extracurricular activities like track and field, the jobs that were supposed to be raining out of the sky just didn’t exist. I wanted to do something that mattered, something that used my skills—which I’d always thought were more than decent—and not endure a soul-crushing work/life balance in the process (I’m looking at you, first year law firm associates). And there was that small matter of the $90,000 debt I’d acquired from law school.
That’s how I ended up scrolling through Craigslist in a Barnes & Noble café in December 2010. I needed a change, and Boston seemed like it had more opportunity than the suburbs of Connecticut. I found a posting for a “legal technology type” who was passionate about online privacy rights, and it sounded perfect. I wrote the best cover letter of my life, got an interview, and got the job. It was Abine.
I was the fourth person at the company. The two co-founders, one engineer, and I sat in a tiny room above the Tavern in the Square in Cambridge, sometimes with a dog, sometimes on exercise balls, sometimes in sweatpants, trying to make this online privacy company succeed. I quickly learned that you do a lot of things at a startup: there isn’t a designated person to handle most things, so you have to just do them and do them fast. You have to have good instincts and be willing to implement them, then fight for them. You have to take risks. You have to adapt.
I was writing blog posts about privacy news and laws, running our DeleteMe service, answering the phones, pitching journalists about our products, writing copy for our software UI, grammar-proofing pretty much every written thing, managing our Twitter and Facebook accounts…the list goes on. And that was right out the gate. It was great—it was exactly the kind of responsibility I wanted after all that education. It was strangely unlike most law firms, which sequester you from actual responsibility for as long as they can despite your credentials.
The company got its A-round of funding in June 2010, seven months after I’d joined, and then everything blew up: we quintupled our employees, moved to a new office (with more than one room; hooray!) in the Innovation District in downtown Boston, and moved super fast on developing and shaping our products and services. My role shifted, too. Although I’d been scrappily handling a wide variety of things without a main area of responsibility, I moved toward content and communications: public relations strategy and media management, continuing to blog, and acting as a company spokesperson.
At Abine and at most startups, you’re usually in the engineering camp or the marketing camp. I know I’m oversimplifying, but bear with me. Going back to our high school days for a moment, it’s like the engineers are the kids who are good at math and building things, and the marketers are the kids who are good at writing and creative things. At bottom, you always need an engineer to make whatever it is you need. That’s why they’re so highly sought: you need them, and there aren’t a lot of them. But just because there’s so much emphasis on engineering and coding and building doesn’t mean that startups don’t need us creative types. Quite the contrary.
Marketing/communications types make sure that users understand the thing that engineers make, how it works, and why you should use it. We can get it out to the public and the press. We can help people discover it, then work with them when they need help using it. We can speak publicly about what it all means and why it matters. We can translate between customers and engineers, two groups who—let’s be honest—don’t always speak the same language. Marketing/writing people and engineering/math people together make extraordinary teams.
So, yes, you can be an integral part of a tech startup even without engineering skills. Here are 6 tips to get started:
1. Take a position you wouldn’t ordinarily consider.
You just have to get your foot in the door—that can mean doing customer service, guest posting on their blog, being an administrative assistant, anything you can do—and chances are there will be so much work that you can help absorb some of it and demonstrate your talents. Startups are crazy. There’s always way more work to do than people to do it, so chances are really good that your role will expand quickly.
2. Look for a super early-stage startup.
The less established a startup is, the more flexibility there is for you to fit in. The startup is probably trying out a lot of different products and services in the beginning to see what works, and they’re less set in their needs and ways of doing things. If you’re adaptable, you’re valuable.
3. Network your face off.
I know: “networking” brings to mind awkward, forced conversations with people you don’t know in suits. It doesn’t have to be that way. You’ll be better at networking if you just be yourself. Be professional, sure, but be witty and sarcastic and whatever else makes you real and not a cardboard cutout. Think of it like making friends (but maintain appropriate boundaries, of course). If you make a legitimate bond with someone, that’ll go a lot further in helping your career than stiffly handing out business cards and only having conversations about your work skills.
Go to MITX events—they’re fun and not stuffy–and search LinkedIn for people with connections to companies you’re interested in. Message people with jobs you’d love to have and ask if they’d be willing to spill how they ended up there. Just asking questions and learning about someone else’s experience can give you extremely good info, plus you’ll build a relationship with that person. And who knows? Maybe they’re hiring.
4. Write an awesome cover letter.
Make it clear that you’ve done your homework and you know a lot about the startup to which you’re applying. Let your personality shine through; now’s not the time for a form cover letter where you swap out the name of one startup for another. And one more thing: grammar and spelling matter. They matter in all applications, but even more so for non-engineers who are selling themselves on their communication abilities. Their =/= they’re =/= there.
5. Work for cheap at first.
Most startups are strapped for cash, so your desired pay will be a big factor in whether your resume makes it into the “consider” pile. If lowering your standards by $5/hour is enough to get in the door, it’s worth it. You can always renegotiate your salary later.
6. Look for opportunities to be valuable.
Don’t wait around for someone to come to you with a task you might excel at. Be proactive: ask the other people in the startup where you can help. Do the product FAQs need a rewrite? Would it be helpful to have well-written answer templates for common customer questions? If you see something that could be improved, just do it. If it’s good, odds are your co-workers will make it your responsibility from then on.
To sum up: get your foot in the door however you can, then make yourself an indispensible part of the company by being adaptable and self-motivated.
The best startups don’t just make awesome products; they’re great at communicating about those products to the world. And if you’ve been a great communicator throughout your academic career and with the people in your life, it’s likely you’ll thrive in a startup, too.
Now go check out Craigslist or BostInno’s careers or VentureFizz, and try not to feel bad about all the postings for jobs with skills you don’t have. Focus instead on getting into an early-stage startup however you can, even if you work for a little less than you’d like or accept a job that you feel overqualified for. Prove you’re valuable, and you’ll be treated as valuable. If my experience at Abine is any indication, it’s worth it.