Nothing beats personal connections when it comes to landing a job interview. Yet what you know can matter more than who you know, especially at early-stage startups. Employees will likely wear many hats, placing a premium on those with multifaceted skillsets. That could mean writing code in the morning, editing marketing copy in the afternoon, and moderating a panel at night.
Young companies, however, rarely have the luxury of a dedicated human resources team to give each application more than a cursory vetting. But the first hires are the most crucial. Chemistry matters when you’re working irregular hours in close physical proximity in the office.
So how can you stand out from the deluge of applications amassed in their inboxes? Below are some of the more creative and unorthodox efforts that we’ve personally seen and heard about. (Disclaimer: Follow these tips at your own risk. Employment at EdSurge or anywhere else not guaranteed.)
A Clever Interview
It should go without saying that one should check out the company’s website before starting on the application. What’s even more important: reading carefully between the lines of the web copy. That’s where one can glean some information about the team’s personality and attitude.
That’s the first thing Jamila Amarshi did when she saw a job post at Clever in December 2012. “I didn’t know much about the company other than what I saw online, but the tone of the website made it seem like the team would be open to something less traditional,” she recalls. In lieu of a cover letter, she sent in a mock interview written in the form of a casual, conversational Q&A.
“Hello Clever Team!” the note begins. “Instead of adding another cover letter to your inbox, I thought I’d go straight for the interview.”
By anticipating and answering the hypothetical questions that an interviewer might have, Amarshi expressed a deeper level of thoughtfulness around the needs, concerns and priorities of the company. Perhaps the most critical question, to which she responded, was: “Do you really get what we’re trying to do here?”
“I definitely remember feeling [that this letter] was a little bit risky,” says Amarshi, who joined as Director of Operations and Clever’s sixth staff member. (She is now a product manager there.) Yet she adds: “If something more traditional was what the company was looking for, it probably wouldn’t be where I wanted to go anyway.”
Clever’s San Francisco headquarters now houses roughly 100 full-time employees, many of whom were vetted by Amarshi. “I like to see personality and what’s driving the person to submit an application,” she tells EdSurge. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be super formal. For me it’s more about: Does the candidate understand the vibe of the place where they’re applying?”
He Can Write a Press Release, But Can He Report?
Knowing what makes a company click—and tick—can also quickly grab the staff’s attention. Michael Winters, a product manager here at EdSurge, submitted his letter to us in April 2014, in the form of a press release. From the dateline to prepared quotes and testimonials, Winters nailed the formatting and structure. It began:
SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — SOMA resident Michael Winters hit “send” today, finalizing the submission of his application to an open position at edTech [sic] journalism site EdSurge. A management consultant for the past two and a half years, he is looking for a new career that will better align with his interests in education while taking advantage of his communication skills.
“It felt great to hit ‘send,’” commented Winters. “I’m looking forward to the opportunity to discuss my qualifications with the team further.”
The creative exercise could have backfired. Perhaps unbeknownst to Winters, he was straddling a fine line, between the love/hate relationship most newsrooms have with public relations firms. (Reporters sometimes can’t stand PR, but also know they can’t live without them.)
Beyond the gag, however, the letter surfaced a twang of levity and humility. Recognizing that “not everyone shares Michael’s enthusiasm for his qualifications for the Editorial Assistant position,” Winters wrote, he detailed how “management consulting, like reporting, is all about communicating ideas.” One of his visual examples gave us chuckles:
He has also generated and presented reports on a variety of topics. “I learned quickly that in a client presentation or report, the ‘pyramid principle’ is a valuable asset,” he recalls. “The bottom line always goes up front. Then, what are the 3 key details they need to know about the bottom line? For each of those details, what are the 3 key details they need to know? And so on until it all makes sense.”
“The job spec asked for experience in journalism and education, and I had neither. So I knew that I needed to do something that got EdSurge’s attention, or else I would be (rightly) dismissed immediately for the role that I was actually applying for,” Winters reminisces. “Writing a press release about myself was also much more fun than writing a formal cover letter.”
His advice: “When you want to work for a startup, apply to whatever they have open. They probably have something else that needs doing too.”
A Coffee Goes a Long Way
The first steps toward your next career may start with a cup of coffee. That’s what Jenna Kleine, now the Community Growth Lead at ClassDojo, did as she explored options outside the classroom in early 2014.
As a middle-school science teacher in San Francisco, Kleine had been using the company’s classroom management and communication tool. One morning she received an email from the ClassDojo’s product managers who wanted to visit her class to see how the tool was being used. Kleine recalled being “blown away by how much time and care they took to observe the class, ask the kids tons of questions, take the learnings and improve their products.”
After the visit, Kleine found the email contact of ClassDojo’s CEO online. “I just reached out to Sam [Chaudhary] and asked, ‘Hey, your product managers came to observe my class. Would you like to get coffee?’”
Chaudhary initially offered her a contract position on the customer support team, to help manage the flood of new signups during back-to-school season. That experience spurred her to think about building an online community for teachers. Despite seeing “significant” user growth, Kleine says, the company had little visibility into how teachers were using the tool. Even more, she felt ClassDojo could do more to connect its teachers with one another.
After the fall, Kleine pitched the team on the need to figure out how to grow ClassDojo’s online community. By winter, that became her full-time job, as the company’s 14th full-time employee. She has since built several Facebook communities, a #DojoChat on Twitter, and helps ClassDojo users self-organize physical meetings across the world.
For teachers who’ve decided they want to find an edtech industry job, Kleine stresses the importance of trying different tools and finding one that resonates. “What’s most appealing to an edtech company,” she says, “is someone who has used your product, is passionate about it, and genuinely wants to help it grow.”
Brief and Sweet
There’s always the option to cut straight to the chase. Often the best way to get someone’s attention is to point out a glaring problem. That’s how EdSurge hired its first engineer, who emailed us in 2012:
Brevity and succinctness of speech can reveal one’s personality more so than flowery prose. In four sentences, he was able to say: “You’ve got a problem, and here’s why I’m qualified to help fix it.” What we’ve learned: Shu is a man of few words, but when he speaks, we listen.