So you want to work for a startup? (the first job to seek for non-coder aspiring entrepreneurs)

Giff Constable startups


At Fred Wilson’s Donors Choose event, I met a bright college senior from my alma mater who wanted to work for a startup as prep for eventually founding a company himself.  Like me, he wasn’t a programmer, so the two of us discussed the best place to start.

A non-coder founder has to wear a lot of hats: you will most likely be in charge of big chunks of tasks like customer and market development, alpha/beta test management, fundraising, product features, wireframes, financial business model, customer support, legal issues, etc.  That’s a lot of shoes you’ll need to fill, so where to start?

Here’s my advice on that first job to chase, what size company, and some ideas on how to get the job:

Start with Sales, but Do Marketing at the Same Time

A job in Sales, Marketing, or indirect Business Development?  If you want to start your own company eventually, you want experience in all three, but I recommend starting in sales, because there is nothing like the experience of generating and closing business.  You might find this scary or uncomfortable at first, but take the plunge.  You need this skill — an entrepreneur is constantly selling to customers, employees, and investors.  As a founder-entrepreneur, you’ll get even more familiar with “scary” and “uncomfortable”!

If you’re doing sales for a dynamic startup, no one is going to stop you from also doing “marketing” unless it is hurting your performance.  You can discuss positioning and get respect because you’re on the street listening to the market.  You can work on improving the materials you need to create and close business, and then be a hero by sharing it with everyone else. You can volunteer to help customer acquisition projects.  It means working two jobs and long hours, but your goal is to learn and achieve as much as possible right?

On the other hand, if you go into marketing, it is much harder to do part-time sales, because you can’t pick up and drop relationships and sales cycles based on the needs of your “official” job in marketing.  Sure, in a good company you’ll be able to talk to some prospects and customers, even sit in on a few sales meetings and calls, but you won’t be able to learn the guts of how to develop a pipeline, shape a customer, negotiate pricing and contracts, etc.  And frankly, there is nothing like being forced to cold call.  It’s not fun, but it’s something every business person should learn.

But why do I need to do this when I want to create a lean Web startup that doesn’t have a direct sales force?

Building a company takes more than agile coding and A/B tests.  There are exceptions where virality was almost miraculous, but that is very hard to duplicate.  If you start a company, expect that you are going to have to get out there, cultivate a market, cultivate investors, and sell sell sell.


How Big A Company Should I Join?

Don’t go to a really big company if you want to learn how to be an entrepreneur.  It will give you a great brand for your resume, but won’t teach you what it means to do sales and marketing for a startup.

If you are coming straight out of school, I would target companies between 25 and 100 employees.

You want to join a company that is small enough where you get to learn a ton and be a real part of the team, but big enough to have some momentum, venture capital backing, market credibility, and management.  It will be easier for you to start in sales after a startup has cleared some initial hurdles; furthermore, the larger team implies that there should be a little more support and mentorship available.  You also want to start with a company on your resume that was big enough that someone else would have heard of it, even if it tanks.   There is a BIG difference between a 25-person startup and a 100-person startup, but once you’re within that range, I would prioritize by picking a team, a VP of Sales, and a product you’re really excited about.


How Do I Get A Sales Job?

In this environment, it is going to be tough because startups are managing growth very carefully.  Luckily there are glimmers of sunlight peeking through so some companies are investing in the future.  You have the downside of being inexperienced, but the upside of being cheap.  Your job is to stand-out as a go-getter, and you’re going to need that attitude as a salesperson and entrepreneur.

Once you have your list of target employer companies (researching portfolios of VCs who invest in your target city is a good place to start), do your homework on their product, current customers, and online buzz.  Prioritize the companies you are most excited about.  Look at their websites to see if they have sales openings, but if you’re really really jazzed about a company, don’t let a lack of a job posting stop you.  Instead, do something for Company X that goes above and beyond the norm and proves you love their business, understand their customers, and are a total go-getter.  (an easy thing to say in an interview, but another thing to prove!)

Here’s one idea: go ahead and actually put that sales hat on.  Think about who you might know, or be able to get to, who fits the Company X’s customer profile.  Tap into your alumni network or parent’s network and try to find someone who would be willing to talk to you.  Explain your situation and motivation so they realize how they can help, and try to get into a meaningful dialogue about the following:

  1. Whether they have heard of Company X, and if so, what they think about it. If they are already a customer, how do they feel about the product/service?
  2. If they have not heard about X, find out if they have a problem that X’s product might solve.  Try to learn about their pain points and how they have tried to solve it.
  3. Ask if they know any of Company X’s competitors, and if so, what they think?
  4. take notes and listen; a great salesperson listens and engages in a two-way dialogue, not a 1-way advertisement.

You now have something of value to Company X — at minimum, you have additional market data, and at maximum you have a customer prospect.  Call up the VP of Sales or CEO and leave a concise message saying who you are, that you want to work for the company, and that you have done this work, gathered this information, and would love to share it.

Time and effort, yes — but this effort doesn’t have to be only for conversations with Company X.  You might not have time to do this for every potential employer, but there’s no reason why you can’t spin a story around this work to other employers: it shows you know how to network to a prospect, qualify them, draw them into a dialogue, understand their pain and thus understand how to position a product as a solution.

I’ll add that if you are looking at a consumer company that sells integrated sponsorships to advertisers, it might be hard to get to the advertisers, so another approach is to talk to the target consumer demographic. Try to recruit new customers for the product (make sure it’s the age and gender they care about), do a little market research study on what people do and don’t like, and present that information to the company.  Again, you’re now adding concrete value to the business and proving you don’t just sit on your ass waiting for the world to hand you something.

It’s a lot of work, but then startup sales is a lot of work.  Compared to passive graduates who do nothing more than glance at a website before showing up for an interview, you will stand out as a massive breath of fresh air and show that you have some serious startup moxie.

Of course, you don’t have to take this exact approach, but whatever you do, don’t be passive!  If you really don’t think you’re quite ready for sales, by all means start with a marketing job and then try to transfer over to sales when you feel ready.

Best of luck!