How Not to Get a Job at a Startup
The founders of an early-stage startup that’s currently hiring share the major mistakes they’ve seen from candidates.
By Carly Zakin and Danielle Weisberg (Co-founders, theSkimm)
We are very excited to add to our Skimm team in 2014 and so thrilled with the new hires we’ve already made. We have been interviewing a LOT of people. Turns out it’s actually not more fun to be on the other side of the interview process.
Putting aside everything that’s about to follow, the biggest takeaway we have from the job application process is how amazing it is to see how excited people are to join our team and how much they believe in theSkimm. Truly, nothing has meant more to us than that.
Things we’ve learned:
- An interview is as much about you interviewing the candidate as it is for them to interview and learn about you. Both sides need to bring their A-game and want it.
- People need direction and it is hugely important for the employer to lay out what they expect from this position.
- Negotiating is an art. And you (the employer) will be very bad at it your first few times.
- People need to hear your short term goals and long-term vision. Share it. Make them excited.
The process has also brought to light a lot of major mistakes we’ve seen from potential candidates. Examples below.
Things people need to learn:
Thank You Notes
Skimm A: Hey I like Applicant X and Y. Did X send in a thank you note?
Skimm B: Nope.
Skimm A: OK, let’s talk to Y.
Your parents weren’t just being annoying when they made you write them. It seems like such an obvious thing to do but so many people do not take the time to do it. We literally have a column on our interview spreadsheet indicating who wrote a thank you note and who didn’t. First, they show you have manners. And if you are talking about a role where you will be representing the brand and interfacing with clients, these are things we are are paying attention to. Secondly, they show an interest in the product and the know how to follow up.
Apply for a Specific Position
Applicant: Hi I have a lot of talents. Let me know where I’d be a good fit.
Early startups have very specific problems that need solving. Positions are specific to skill sets that can offer solutions. Having us do the work to translate your talents into positions we’ve already posted doesn’t make us excited. This is a big mistake Skimm A and B made in pre-Skimm lives when applying to jobs and something that is very annoying to see on the other side.
Apply for the right position
theSkimm: Hi, what are you applying for?
Applicant: I’m a college senior and I’m going to be your head of Business Development
theSkimm: We have an entry level position you may be better suited for
Applicant: No, no, I have a lot of experience
We have gotten so many applications with people saying they are interested in both our most senior role and our most junior role. That is a big red flag. If you are graduating from college this spring, you are likely not qualified for a senior role.
theSkimm: Thanks for applying! Please send us a sample Skimm in our voice
Applicant: Sorry, I’ve been writing so many applications I’m not interested in doing another writing sample.
We ask most candidates to complete a homework assignment. This is a test to see how you think, that you can complete tasks specific to the role, and that you can meet deadlines and follow through. Getting your trial homework in late is not a good start.
For editorial candidates, we ask them to write a sample Skimm in our voice. This is to see they can master what we do on a daily basis. When candidates write it in a different format or ask to see examples of our format (read: try signing up for the email) it goes to the “No” pile.
theSkimm:Thanks for coming in! Would love for you to tell us more about yourself
Applicant: Let’s actually start with you. How did you get investors to give you money?
Candidates are 100% interviewing us as much as we are them (see above) but there’s an art to doing that. We are the first to say we are new at this, that this is an early-stage company, and that we are learning a lot. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t professionals. We have had too many meetings when the interview asks us questions like “do you really think this is a business?” Yes — one you won’t be joining.
Know your stage
theSkimm: Tell us what you’re looking for in this position
Applicant: Well I don’t do ad sales, I hate powerpoint, and please never ask me to deal with Excel.
Startups are not for everyone. That’s OK. Early stage startups are definitely not for everyone. Sometimes people forget that. They weren’t for us pre-Skimm lives. When you list all the things you don’t want to work on, it’s a sign you are not cut out for the constantly changing environment of a new company. It’s fine to know these things but should also help you redirect your job search to something more stable.
theSkimm: We’d like to make you an offer
Applicant: Great, I’d like to be paid $200k and have 8% of your company.
No one joins an early stage startup for the salary. It’s very common place for compensation to be a mix of cash and equity and as a new company we have decided to grant all of our first employees equity, as a sign we are invested in them as much as they are in us. If you’re looking at a startup, see how much money they’ve taken in, how many people they are hiring, and do the math. And know, there are no “departments” yet.
Applicant: I’m 110% taking this job if you offer it
theSkimm: It’s yours.
Applicant: Actually, I’m up for a big promotion at my current job and probably would want to get that first.
The best kinds of candidates are the ones that are very candid. Honesty about what you want out of the position and if you’re talking to other companies is totally OK. It does no one any favors—on either side of this process—to lead someone on if you’re not serious.
Start What You Finish
theSkimm: Great chatting! We’d love to take next steps
Applicant: Well, I don’t know if I’d take the job if I got it
While this may seem contradictory to the point above, this one is for the benefit of the interviewee. It is always best to go through an interview process just to see what happens. We benefited from this in our pre-Skimm lives and recently tried to return the favor and helped a candidate who wasn’t right for us get a new job. She starts next week.
Know How to Lie
theSkimm: Great to meet! What do you think of the product?
Applicant: It’s meh.
Again this may seem contradictory to a point above but there is an art to lying in an interview. When we ask what you think of the product, you might want to make us feel like you like it. And when we ask what you want to do we aren’t impressed when you say “I have no idea.” We are all figuring it out but there’s a way to artfully do it and sometimes it involves a fib or two.
Know the Time
theSkimm: We’d love to talk with you about opportunity to join our team
Applicant: That’s amazing! I really like my job now so can I join in a year?
Startups move very quickly. A year in startup land could mean new funding, acquisition, or disbanding. Waiting too long to act means missed opportunities. We’ve made the mistake of waiting too long to close a candidate and losing the opportunity and many applicants have made the mistake of thinking our needs now will be the same a year from now.
This post originally appeared on theSkimm Tumblr.
About the bloggers: theSkimm was co-founded in 2012 by Danielle Weisberg and Carly Zakin. Danielle was an associate producer for MSNBC’s “The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell” and previously worked for NBC’s “Nightly News.” Carly was an associate producer for NBC’s Peacock Productions. Prior to that she worked on MSNBC documentaries.