As a reformed corporate type, I often get asked by people with business backgrounds how to “break into” an early stage tech company. There is definitely no set path and it is highly dependent on the players already in the company. Occasionally, these jobs might be listed on LinkedIn, startup.ly or indeed. Keep in mind, however, that the earlier stage you want to go the more likely you will get your job through a networked search. Nothing beats connecting to people who can get you to the companies you want to work for. Here are some thoughts by stage of company:
Founding a company: If you have an idea that you are passionate about, starting a company guarantees you a job at a start-up. If you are a business person this will likely mean finding a technical founder and partner to work side by side with you to build the dream. This does not mean finding a rent-a-coder or some guy that will work for 5% of the company. This means a real partner who will influence and help build the business. Charlie talks about attracting a CTO and the list of questions you should ask yourself when looking for a technical partner on his blog. Outsourcing the technology piece can be done, but is generally more difficult and often times less successful.
There are examples of people bouncing out of the corporate world and into the startup fray, one that comes to mind is Michelle Peluso (ex-BCG), who founded Site59 that was sold to Travelocity for $43 million in 2002.
Pre-Series A: Generally the company has raised limited angel funds or needs to. The venture is at a stage where the company may be still proving its model and is running incredibly fast. They probably don’t have the time to figure out what they need from a hiring standpoint. Your pitch must be crisp on how you can help the company get to the next level and the value you bring. Be it generating sales, raising capital or identifying ways to monetize the platform, the founder is going to need to feel you bring a lot to the table right away. Coming in at this stage takes significant legwork to find companies that might be looking for someone.
Post-Series A: This is usually the round where a known VC puts in a couple of million dollars. The company has sold the “vision,” worked for awhile with a skeleton team and needs some help on a variety of fronts. This is also a good time to get into a company if you don’t have domain expertise, either in what the company is building or in any given function (finance, marketing, product development, etc.) For someone who is an “all around” athlete, this is a good time to enter.
While a financing makes it easier for a company to pay someone from the corporate world, from a stock option/upside perspective it may also be the most risky time to join a startup. I agree with Chris Dixon’s assertion that a Series A financing usually de-risks the company far less than the amount the equity grants drop.
Post-Series B and beyond: At some point after the Series B, job specs become more specific, a human resource manager is hired and a more formal hiring process becomes common. Advanced degrees and fancy titles are also more appreciated at this stage – but this does not mean a start-up is looking for a cultural wrecking ball who calls for endless meetings and unnecessary analysis. You can command a good salary, probably competitive to many larger company offers you might get, with a small amount of equity for some nice potential upside.
Despite the perceived risks, you will likely have more job security than working at a big company these days. You will at a minimum develop more tangible skills to bring to your next venture, whether another startup or your own company.