How to Land a Job at the Startup of Your Dreams
Jeff Ball knows startups. In 2013, he founded Visio Financial Services, an online lending platform for residential real estate investors, and the company has grown quickly since then. (Ball currently serves as president and CEO of Visio). Ball is also the president and one of the founders of Econohomes, which buys and resells “distressed” investment properties, and which has earned Ball a spot in the Inc. 500 two times over.
It makes sense, then, to turn to Ball on a topic like “how to land a job at the startup of your dreams.” Ball knows how to run a successful startup — and part of doing so is hiring the right people to staff the company. Ball knows what startups look for when screening candidates, and he also knows what job seekers should be looking for when they’re considering applying for a job at a startup.
Want to Work for a Startup? First, Be Comfortable With Change and Uncertainty
Ball notes that anyone who has spent their whole whole career in a large, highly bureaucratic organization may be uncomfortable with the rapid pace of change and the level of uncertainty that are inherent to life in a startup.
“The way I describe it internally is, we’re building the plane while it’s in the air,” Ball says. “People who have been in a 747 their whole career, they’re not going to be very comfortable with changing the engine at 30,000 feet.”
On the other hand, if a job seeker is flexible and focused on being useful to their company, then a startup may be a good choice for them.
“For somebody who really desires to be a part of shaping a business’s future, you can affect change much more significantly at a startup than you can at a larger organization,” Ball says.
Startups also offer leaner, flatter organizational structures, which may be alluring to some job seekers.
“There’s not nearly as much hierarchy,” Ball says. “In a startup, the person who is arguably the most junior at the organization could walk in my door [that is, the CEO's door -- ed. note] and share a great idea with me that could change the direction of the business.”
Before Applying for a Job at a Startup, Research the Leadership Team and the Company’s Financial Backers
Are you a job seeker interested in pursuing startup work? Then the first step is conducting research on the companies you may want to work for — as is the case for any job search, really.
When it comes to researching startups in particular, Ball says that job seekers should scrutinize three key aspects of any startup in which they are interested:
1. The Leadership Team’s Vision and Goals
Can the leadership team clearly articulate the vision of their business? Can they coherently explain why their product or service is valuable to customers? If so, great! That’s a leadership team that has all its ducks in a row. If not — well, be wary. Do you really want to work for a leadership team that doesn’t know exactly where its company is heading or why the company is valuable?
2. The Leadership Team’s Background
“Teams require complementary skill sets and experiences to be as powerful as they can be,” Ball says.
Therefore, the members of any startup’s leadership team should have complementary skill sets and experiences. Otherwise, the leadership team may not be set up for success — in which case, the startup itself is in danger of flagging.
3. The Venture Capitalists Backing the Startup
If the startup is a venture-backed company, job seekers should research the individual venture capitalists that back the business. It can be useful to research the venture firms to which the capitalists may belong, but Ball says that job seekers should really focus on the individual capitalists themselves.
“The brand can be helpful, but it’s much more helpful to see what the given representative from that firm has done … that fits with where the business is going,” Ball says.
What Startups Want Out of You, the Job Seeker
Once you’ve researched a few startups and selected some companies to which you’d like to apply, the next step is proving to any given startup’s leadership team that you have the right mindset and skills to be a productive and important member of the company.
When hiring for his companies, Ball says he looks for these four qualities in potential employees:
1. The Understanding That Success Is a Process, Not a Destination
“What that really means is I’m looking for folks who are looking to continually improve [and are] committed to that,” Ball says.
To determine whether or not a candidate is committed to continuous improvement, Ball will ask them to tell him about a skill they are currently working on improving. This could be a skill related to their current job, or it could be something in their personal life — e.g., maybe a candidate is working on becoming a better guitarist. The specific skill a candidate is working on is not as important as the candidate’s ability to demonstrate their commitment to improvement.
“I’m very focused on how intentional they are about improving,” Ball says.
Ball wants employees who know themselves and who know what support they need to succeed.
“I’ll ask them, ‘In your current role, what are you great at?’” Ball says. “People will tell you they’ve done a whole bunch of different things, but what I want to understand is where they think they really excel.”
Ball will also ask questions like, “If you had only one person that worked alongside of you, what skills would you want that person to have?”
“I’m looking for how cognizant are they of what they need, what skills they need to be complemented with,” Ball says.
“I’m looking for people who embody the saying, ‘It’s not not my job,’” Ball says. “I’m looking for folks who are willing to dive on a grenade when necessary.”
In startups, employees can’t be territorial. They can’t rigidly stick to the confines of their job descriptions and refuse to do things that “fall outside of” their perceived responsibilities. Startups often need to take an “all hands on deck” approach to furthering the company’s vision — especially in the early stages, when there are fewer people in the office.
“I’ll ask [candidates], ‘Tell me about a work experience where you took on solving a problem that wasn’t in your immediate job role,’” Ball says. “I want folks who are flexible and who are constantly looking for ways to be useful in advancing the organization’s vision.”
4. Dedication to Their Particular Role
“At the end of the day — particularly for senior folks — no matter what you do, you must do your job,” Ball says. “I love people who are curious and who have a desire to contribute to the organization, but they also have to understand that in order for the organization to get [anywhere], they have to own their responsibilities first.”
So, while flexibility is important, employees at startups must make sure they aren’t so flexible that they fail to perform the tasks their roles entail. Startup employees need to be able to juggle both the specific duties of their jobs and extracurricular demands of the startup itself.
Ball will often ask candidates how they structure their typical work days in order to find out if they can handle the sometimes chaotic workflow of startup life.
“I’m looking for folks who understand the 80/20 rule,” Ball says. “[They] need to focus on a few big things to advance the rock. I’m looking for people who have a structure to think about how [they] to measure whether [their] day is successful or not.”
If you’re looking for a job at a startup, be prepared to demonstrate these key qualities to the company’s leadership team. If you can do that, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to prove that you’re the person for the job.