As a followup to this morning’s post, I completed my graduate program in 2007, AKA the worst time to look for a stable job because the economy was having a huge meltdown. I remember going to a job event at school where The New Yorker’s David Remnick told us that although the journalism industry was struggling, The New Yorker was thriving, and that we should look for jobs in places that were thriving like they were. The advice was hilarious to me at first—sure, let’s all go work at The New Yorker! But it actually got me thinking about what I could do to make it as a living as a writer, and that thought process led me to the then-burgeoning startup scene in New York.
While traditional outlets were imploding (and still are)—a few lucky/unfortunate friends got jobs at venerable publications like The New York Times, and then swiftly lost their jobs—startups were beginning to find themselves flush with cash from venture capitalists, and they were in desperate need of not only programmers, but people who could write well for the Web. I got an early in, and I held on for a wild ride. I was instilled with an entrepreneurial spirit that has led me here, to this startup of a blog.
Interviewing for startup companies was an interesting experience because I was used to wearing a suit to all my interviews, and the places I met with were a bit more casual than that. Sometimes it seemed like they were more interested in me as an individual, rather than me, the person with a graduate degree and previous job experience. Sometimes they were just interested in my ideas for what I thought the next big thing was going to be. Sometimes they just wanted to see how active I was with social media (remember when being a “social media expert” was shiny, new, and super desirable?).
Here’s Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape in a 2007 post:
For the background part, I like to see what someone has done.
Not been involved in, or been part of, or watched happen, or was hanging around when it happened.
I look for something you’ve done, either in a job or (often better yet) outside of a job.
The business you started and ran in high school.
The nonprofit you started and ran in college.
If you’re a programmer: the open source project to which you’ve made major contributions.
If you can’t find anything — if a candidate has just followed the rules their whole lives, showed up for the right classes and the right tests and the right career opportunities without achieving something distinct and notable, relative to their starting point — then they probably aren’t driven.
Here’s Steve Jobs in a 1998 interview discussing the importance of recruiting:
You’d take a lot of time finding the partner, right? He would be half of your company. Why should you take any less time finding a third of your company or a fourth of your company or a fifth of your company? When you’re in a startup, the first ten people will determine whether the company succeeds or not. Each is 10 percent of the company. So why wouldn’t you take as much time as necessary to find all the A players? If three were not so great, why would you want a company where 30 percent of your people are not so great? A small company depends on great people much more than a big company does.
Here’s a Forbes profile of Jeff Bezos in April which talks about the importance of looking for employees who can push themselves and learn self-reliance:
The respect for that ethic explains why Amazon screens its job candidates for a strong bias to action and an ability to work through ambiguity. Both help identify people who can innovate fast and do right by the customer. One popular interviewing tack: asking candidates to create an action plan as brand managers in an area where they lack any direct knowledge—and then being told they have no budget.
Stumped candidates will find their path into Amazon slipping away. Those who cobble together guerrilla answers—informal polls through free online tools such as SurveyMonkey—tend to thrive at Amazon. They are the same people who might have challenged Bezos in math class and also succeeded on Grandpa’s ranch.
One great thing I learned from working at startups is that you should never try to change yourself to fit some sort of ideal candidate you think a company is looking for (unless changing yourself is what you want to do in the first place). The places I thrived the most were the places that liked me for who I am, which is a shy, somewhat quiet writer with a lot of ideas (thanks to The Awl for liking me for who I am).