How to get a job at a hot startup

Yes, startups are back, big time. But the rules for finding a position in a dynamic young company have changed. Here’s what you need to know

Want a great job at a hot startup? Of course, you do. And there haven’t been this many opportunities since the dot com bubble burst. Just ask Renaud Laplanche, CEO of LendingClub.com in Sunnyvale, Calif.: “You’re in the driver’s seat. So think about the place you’d like to work at for the next few years and choose wisely,” he says.

[ See  related stories: A sampler of fresh startup jobs and How to avoid jobs ripe for outsourcing ]

Laplanche isn’t just talking -- he’s hiring. The former Oracle exec is looking for techies who can help him build a digital marketplace for borrowers and potential lenders. Not your style? Not to worry. There are 50 other high-tech startups in the same building looking to fill the trenches with programmers, developers, and engineers.

For better or worse, Web 2.0 has helped unleashed a perfect storm of job opportunities. Baby boomers are beginning to retire, and what’s more, enrollment in computer science and MIS degree programs is down as much as 30 percent, says Stephen Pickett, former president of the Society for Information Management.

The new environment, however, doesn’t mean you can get greedy. Salaries are good -- and despite the furor over the expensing of stock options at established public companies, options and equity stakes are again on the table. But “companies have learned their lesson” from the bubble years, says Tony Bush, senior manager of staffing at VMware. “They’re following best practices and offering salaries that are more in line.”

In interviews with more than a score of founders, venture capitalists, and senior execs at startups and other young companies, we learned that today’s culture demands more of employees than just technical expertise. If you want to thrive, you’d better be nimble.

“We’re not looking for a lot of coaches or place kickers. We want to see a small team of great athletes who are fast, versatile, and can work together very well,” says Doug Renert, a principal of Tandem Entrepreneurs, which funds and provides early-stage support for startups.

Don’t expect to wear just one hat at your startup job, says Amir Arbabi, vice president at Melodis, a startup developing advanced sound and music recognition technologies. “We want people who will roll up their sleeves and do a bit of everything.”

And while the stereotype of the flakey, inarticulate geek may have some basis in reality, startups want employees who can get along with non-technical teammates and customers. “You need people who are well-spoken and can write,” says David Smith, vice president of applied engineering at Firefly Energy. “In fact everyone who works for me has to be a tech writer,” he says.

Join the network
It’ll be a long time until virtual networking replaces real-world networking. You know, face-to-face contact over lunch, or at a conference or on the job. Its importance can’t be overstated. But social networking sites are still a valuable tool for your job search.

Indeed, real-world and virtual networking are complimentary. If you’re like me, your Outlook contacts folder has hundreds, maybe thousands of entries. But many of them are years old, and these days, people change jobs nearly as often as Italy changes governments. Joining one or more social networks is a good way to find -- and be found by -- valuable contacts that have fallen off your radar screen.

There are a lot of sites to choose from, but as we interviewed the men and women who do the hiring at startups in Silicon Valley and other areas, the names of a few popped up over and over again.

Before we list them, here’s a piece of advice from Samir Shah, founder and CEO of Zephyr, a quality assurance and test-oriented startup in Sunnyvale: Hit the technology discussion boards. “There are huge communities built around discussions of specific technologies. The people posting are a great source for us. We look at those boards and I often reach out to them,” he says.

And get this: Many of the people who have impressed Shah were posting or blogging about matters not directly related to their own jobs. Shah looks for people who demonstrate a great grasp of technology and know how to solve problems.

It’s hard to say which social networking site is best, but LinkedIn is the most talked about -- despite the recent surge in popularity of Facebook among tech professionals. LinkedIn boasts 14 million members in 150 countries. Search on a name by company or by former school and you’ll not only find contact information and a profile, but you’ll have the option of being introduced to that person by someone on LinkedIn who already knows you. Edward Kinsey, the founder of Ariba and now a principal of the Kinsey-Hills Group, says he reconnected with some 25 percent of the 3500 people in his well-stuffed database by joining LinkedIn.

Membership in Doostang.comis by invitation only, but if you have a friend who belongs, pull out all the stops to get a referral. Founded in 2005 by a pair of savvy guys from Stanford and MIT, it has grown to more than 250,000 members from companies such as Goldman Sachs, Google, Nike, Apple, KKR Summit Partners and many others. It’s getting a lot of buzz.

Xing, a social networking site based in Germany, has some 3.5 million users and operates in 16 languages. According to a recent article in Business Week, Xing users will soon be able to tap into profiles of 36 million business people contained in the database of partner ZoomInfo. Xing charges for premium services, such as the ability of hosts to add their company’s brand to groups.

Don’t laugh, but Craigslist.org should be on your list, too. Why Craigslist, the site of choice for apartment rentals and romantic liaisons? “It’s followed by much of the tech community,” says Delip Andra, founder and CEO of Minekey. Andra says he’s had more luck finding suitable hires on Craigslist than through the usual head hunter routine.

Get real
Now that we’ve sung the praises of virtual networking, we’re going to repeat something we heard over and over again as we scoured the Valley for job tips: Get out from behind that computer.

Nothing a job seeker or career builder can do beats real, old-fashioned networking. “I get tons of resumes,” says Barney Pell, CEO of Powerset, which is building a natural language search engine. But the ones he looks at are the product of a relationship with him, or someone he knows.

Be creative. Consider events like the annual Big Wheels Race down Lombard Street in San Francisco. It turns out that the race draws heavily from Silicon Valley and is a great place to make contacts and have fun.

A more conventional venue is the Silicon Valley New Tech Meetup Group, says Peter Thoeny, the founder of Twiki.org. It meets monthly and generally features short presentations by four or five companies. It’s always well attended and making an advance reservation is a good idea, he says. It’s a good place to meet VCs as well as potential employers.

And there are endless meetings of user groups, and tech-oriented conferences. Attend as many as you can.

Ace the interview
OK. You’ve done the networking and made a connection. Now comes the most critical stage of all -- the interview. Here are some tips from the people who do the hiring, so pay attention:

1) Dress up, not down. Employees at your target company may sport the standard, Silicon Valley casual attire, but don’t be fooled. “Dress shows attention to detail. I don’t expect a suit, but it impresses,” says Devin Poolman, COO of 8020 Publishing.

2) Do your homework. Know the company, its competitors, and its technologies. If it’s a software or Web company, download its products and think of ways you can help make them better.

3) Leave (part) of your ego at home. “Don’t be too focused on yourself. I’m looking for team players,” says David Smith of Firefly Energy. If you don’t know something, don’t be afraid to admit it. And if you don’t know, don’t guess, adds VMware’s Bush. Be up-front and be honest.

4) Be solution-oriented in your discussion. “Coming in with a list of certifications or languages might get you in door, but what impresses me is how you solved a challenge,” says Robert Rosen, CIO of the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Emphasize your ability to work as part of a team, or to be its leader, he adds.

Be their dream candidate
Hiring is a very subjective process. What impresses one exec turns off another. But you can’t be too passionate about technology. Asked to describe his “dream employee,” Samir Shah, CEO of Zephyr, wants “someone who really gets the new technologies that are coming at us so fast and furiously. Even if you don’t know them, show me you can pick them up fast.”

Arbabi of Melodis puts it this way: “We been very selective so far; we’ve tried to surround ourselves with the best and the brightest. What makes the best and the brightest for me? Number one is motivation, the desire to work in the space we’re in.”

Great advice. Follow it, and with a little luck and a lot of talent, you’re on your way to striking startup gold.

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