Keith Cowing

Keith Cowing

Product guy. Entrepreneur.
Career advisor. Read bio

One thing you should never do when applying to a startup

January 14, 2016

job-application

There is something in the startup world, and elsewhere, that I see all the time.  It seems like the right thing to do, but there is no better way to kill your chances: the generalist pitch.  Here is a quote from an email I got recently: “I would be open to any position that would allow me to gain valuable experience and grow within the company.”

I see this a lot and I NEVER see it work.  Here is the problem.  This describes what you want.  It doesn’t describe what the company wants.  The company wants a marketer who has been fine-tuning their marketing skills for years and an engineer who loves coding and can talk database optimization for hours.

I like to compare it to a football team.  You might come in and say “I just want to play football.”  But in reality there are 2 job openings:

Lineman: You need to be strong, aggressive, 6’6″ and 350 pounds.  It doesn’t matter if you can run fast or catch the ball.

Wide receiver: You need to be lightning fast and have great hands.  It is not important how well you block or tackle.

It doesn’t matter which one you want to be, but it is important that you commit to one or the other.  Anybody who says “I’ll do anything you have” has already tipped their hand that they can’t compete against the linemen or the wide receivers.

My philosophy is to commit to being a wide receiver or a lineman, build the relevant skills, and then go hunting.  Let’s say you go to 10 teams.  5 won’t have an opening for that position and won’t meet you (which is fine), 5 will have a relevant opening and meet you, 3 will seriously consider you, and 1 will give you a job offer.  Alternatively, you can optimize for the initial conversation and say you’ll do anything.  Then all 10 will meet with you but 0 will hire you. So go for the kill and optimize for 1 job offer vs. 10 conversations.

It’s OK if you don’t know precisely what you want to do for the rest of your career, but the more you focus and describe how you will make the company better, the higher your chances. Don’t say you’ll do anything.  Tell them how you will help them get more customers (sales/marketing), improve the product (product/design/engineering), or run the company (recruiting/operations/etc.).

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