It's competitive to get a job at a startup, so it's useful to know what qualities the hiring managers are looking for. Having looked at thousands of jobs, and worked with hundreds of startups, I’m able to draw out some common personal qualities that all startups value.
When you’re making applications, or interviewing, I recommend you emphasise these qualities. It will give the hiring manager confidence that you can perform within a fast-paced environment.
A practical next step after reading this article is to prepare examples from your last 2-3 years of work (or education) that show you can demonstrate each quality.
1 - Customer-centric
Startups have to build something their customers want. When competing against incumbents with decades of experience, it takes obsession with improving the customer experience to stand out as a product or service.
People who are customer-centric put customers first, seek to understand their needs deeply, and strive to exceed their expectations.
My favourite line from a job description: “We look for customer obsession. Our measurement is a simple yardstick: do our clients rave about us?”
2 - Think big and aim high
Great startups want to change the world for the better. For example, “Make people around the world feel like they could belong anywhere” is Airbnb’s mission statement and “Transportation as reliable as running water, everywhere for everyone” is Uber’s. Startups try and break boundaries with ambitious goals.
People who think big and aim high are ambitious, don’t get overwhelmed by big problems and embrace risk.
My favourite line from a job description: “Be confident in your curiosity: aim high and take chances with big and scary ideas”
3 - Move fast and learn
Startups often have 18-24 months to reach a milestone and fundraise, otherwise they’ll run out of money. Therefore there is a desire to make a lot happen in a short time. But moving fast is only good if you’re heading in the right direction, therefore it’s important to learn quickly and ensure the business is not making poor decisions.
People who move fast and learn tend to have a bias to action, iterate using feedback, and use their judgement to make decisions without perfect information.
My favourite line from a job description: “We’re looking for an expert at moving fast, making intelligent decisions rather than deliberating over the perfect answer”
4 - Challenge the status quo
Startups often succeed by dramatically improving the experience compared to established incumbents. Fintechs like Revolut and Monzo saw how broken banking was, and the opportunity of smartphones, and challenged the status quo that we choose a bank based on a trusted brand like HSBC or NatWest.
People who challenge the status quo use their curiosity, embrace innovation and search for new ways to improve things that matter.
My favourite line from a job description: “We look for explorers. Those who challenge the status quo by discovering, innovating, failing fast and learning”
5 - Impact-oriented
Startups need to deliver results to survive. There isn’t room for projects that deliver small improvements, or features that are “nice-to-haves”. Everything must have a high return on investment, whether it’s improving the wellbeing of staff or improving the experience for customers.
People who are impact-oriented tackle the biggest problems first, measure the impact of projects and prioritise rigorously.
My favourite line from a job description: “We're a small team but pack a lot of punch. We’re looking for someone who understands that energy is precious and focuses on the biggest problems”
6 - Take ownership
Startups are busy, people are often stretched and processes break as the business scales. This provides a need for people to take ownership in their work rather than over relying on others. It also provides an opportunity to develop skills and take on stretching tasks.
People who take ownership make ideas happen, solve their own problems wherever they can and take accountability for decisions.
My favourite line from a job description: “We’re looking for gumption. Someone who gets things done, and solves your own problems wherever you can”
7 - Adaptable
Startups face many unknown challenges, and so a lot will change over the course of a year. This can be at the highest level (e.g. the business changes its product as the last idea didn’t work) or within teams (e.g. the processes to manage the workload have broken now the team has doubled in size).
People who are adaptable take on whatever life throws their way, innovate when things change and take on whatever task is required.
My favourite line from a job description: “Be flexible - we innovate, adapt and respond to new information quickly”
8 - Humility
Startups have a low tolerance for egos. When starting a company, a sense of self-importance won’t help to beat an established incumbent. Hard work and innovation is what matters. As a startup grows, it can’t afford to get carried away by previous successes as there will always be bigger challenges.
People who display humility tend to respect teammates, avoid being carried away by past wins and understand everyone makes mistakes.
My favourite line from a job description: “We hire people who are great because of their humility: the brilliant people who ask stupid questions, give their best ideas away and celebrate others before themselves”
This is a brief tour of qualities that will help you stand out when applying for any startup. Don’t forget to look at the job description in detail, as you’ll likely find more things that you should prepare for. If you need more help with preparation, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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