People often ask for advice on how to get a non-technical job at a start-up, so I've decided to write a post so I can organize my thoughts and answer at scale. Below are the seven things I recommend doing.
1. Learn everything you can about start-ups
Learn everything about the business, the culture, and the challenges start-ups face and how it all changes based on the stage of the company and the business model. Learn what non-technical people do at start-ups. Read blogs from prominent entrepreneurs and investors. Here's a short-list of blogs to get started with (there are many other great ones though):
- AVC: Musing of a VC in NYC
- Both Sides of the Table: Entrepreneur Turned VC
- Chris Dixon
- Paul Graham
Talk to friends and family who have founded, funded, or worked at start-ups. Attend relevant Skillshare classes and one of Lean Startup Machine's weekend seminars (these are also great networking opportunities -- more on networking below).
2. Decide if start-up life is really for you
Now that you've learned about how start-up companies work and the culture, decide if it's something you're sure you want to do. Understand that you're going be underpaid and overworked. That there's a lot of uncertainty and it's risky.
Also understand the benefits, such as having a lot of responsibility, being able to work with incredibly talented and motivated people in an awesome work environment, and having the opportunity to build something innovative and meaningful that can have a lasting effect on society. If you're fortunate enough to join a successful start-up (which is probably more rare than you think), there can also be significant financial reward. I've shared my thoughts on this topic in a Quora thread titled "Why do people want to work at startups."
3. Identify a target list of companies based on industry, product, and stage
Based on your research from step one, determine what stage you want the company to be in based on your tolerance for risk, skill set and interests. Pick an industry or two that you're passionate about. Know everything about the industry and the companies in it.
Then make a target list of the companies you'd like to work for. Become a power user of their products if it's consumer-facing. Learn everything you can about the company, its challenges, and its culture.
4. Formulate your pitch
Match what you like to do and what you're good at to what the company needs (as determined above).
5. Network your ass off
Networking is an entire topic on it's own, but the most important things you need to know about networking are: 1) It's about helping others first with no expectation of reciprocation; 2) It's about building relationships over time, not just meeting people; 3) You have to have something people want or you won't get far; and 4) It takes time to build great relationships and get value from it.
New York City has really great events catering to the start-up community almost every night of the week. The most essential resources I recommend you use regularly are Gary's Guide and Meetup.
You should also reach out to everyone you already know to ask if they can introduce you to anyone who has founded, funded, or worked at a start-up. Use networking as an opportunity to get advice, learn about new companies and trends, and get introduced to more people who have founded, funded, or worked at a start-up.
To learn more about networking, I recommend the books Never Eat Alone and The Startup of You, and my Skillshare class, How to Build an Awesome Professional Network.
6. Go in!
Now you're ready to get meetings and interviews. Take out your target list. Use LinkedIn to see if you know anyone who's connected to the company and can make an introduction or if you know anyone at the company. Ask for a meeting.
If you don't know anyone at the company and you can't get introduced, you'll have to go in cold. Find an individual's email and write a personalized and very short email asking for an "informational" coffee meeting or phone call to get advice and learn more about the company as a way to get acquainted.
Build a relationship. Try to help them in any way you can. Deliver your pitch from step four.
7. Prove your value
You should have a blog that displays your knowledge, skills and character. Quora is another great tool for that. Have a strong and thorough LinkedIn profile. Build a following on Twitter.
I would recommend offering to work for free on a part-time basis, especially if it's an early-stage company. Use it as an opportunity to prove your value, as well as determine if you like the people and the work you'll be doing. Develop ideas on how to help the company implement them. Make introductions, line up deals and sales, write a marketing plan, design something, etc.