Searching for a job with a startup can be frustrating and confusing for MBAs, especially when compared with the “tried-and-true” process of recruiting with big companies who visit campus. In turn, MBAs who seek employment with startups aggravate entrepreneurs by making an alarming array of mistakes. The good news: it isn’t difficult to avoid these errors.
Below, I report findings from focus groups with 26 HBS MBA alumni running venture capital-backed startups in San Francisco and New York City. My colleagues from the HBS Rock Center for Entrepreneurship and I asked the founders what current students could do to better position themselves to get jobs in their startups. It’s fair to ask whether the interview findings apply in other geographies and entrepreneurial settings. I believe that they do.
Problem: Poor First Impressions. Startups usually rely on employees’ personal networks to source candidates, rather than online job sites or campus career services offices. To improve the odds that they’ll be referred when a startup is hiring, MBAs cast a wide net, reaching out to as many people as possible who can influence recruiting decisions.
Aggressive networking is crucial with a startup job search, but you can spread yourself too thinly. Overextended, you’ll lack the time to prepare properly for initial meetings, and as a result, you may make a poor first impression. Startup CEOs complain about MBAs who ask them for information that is readily available from a Google search, such as “Can you tell me about your business model?” or “How are you funded?” Founders of consumer-facing startups will be disappointed if you’ve never used their products. They’ll be annoyed if you haven’t checked their website to determine whether positions are open in the function you’ve targeted. Finally, entrepreneurs will lose interest quickly if you aren’t up to speed on sector trends—say, if you profess interest in social networking platforms but lack an informed response to a question like, “What do you think of Facebook’s changes to Instagram’s terms of service?”