NYC Startups: A Quest
February 21, 2012 6:19 PM   Subscribe

I want to work for companies like Tumblr, Kickstarter, Meetup, OKCupid, Yelp, and the rest of the hip NYC startup crowd. How can I become involved in the startup scene? What do I need to do to make myself a competitive applicant, especially when I have no idea what job title suits me?

I'm 24 and currently a copywriter for a decidedly nonhip company. My coworkers are fine people, but they have no interest in befriending me or each other or having an impact on the community. They are there to do their job and get a paycheck. Nothing wrong with it, but it's not the kind of place I want to spend 40+ hours a week.

I graduated from a good university, where I was heavily involved in radio and designing the newspaper. I run a blog that is not popular - I know my roommate and my mom read, and my cat sometimes looks at it over my shoulder - but it is very easy to navigate and aesthetically pleasing. I'm in charge of upkeep and beautifying a nonprofit's site in a volunteer capacity. I know a good bit of HTML and CSS. I'm pretty introverted, but I like people when I have a break every now and then and problem-solving is really satisfying for me. I like to think I'm a decent writer and easy to work with. I know that I'm totally willing and eager to learn whatever skills necessary to get in on this, as long as it's not spending years learning code. Tried that. Hated it.

Do I have the makings of a UI designer? Community outreach? Something else? How should I market myself? If I'm not even close to being to being hire-able to these people, what can I do?

Note: I'm one of those people with no particular passion to shoot for in my profession. I want to work to live and like my coworkers a lot and help the community, but I'm not particular about how I do it, hence the lack of specific parameters for what I want the startup to be all about. I just like the work environment, which is Priority #1.

posted by anonymous to Work & Money (18 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
None of the companies you listed are start-ups -- they were, once, but now are "established".Understand that start-up environments are grueling; you have to work long, long, long hours for a tenuous future and the real chance of failing. Most start-up companies do not succeed, and the "befriending you" is really "spends 80+ hours a week with you".

I don't think this is what you're looking for, honestly, but here's the advice I can give that actually answers your question:

The way into a start-up environment is (a) location, (b) relationships, and (c) skill. If you want into that world -- and speaking as someone who has worked in 4 different start-ups since the last 90s -- the trick is to develop powerful, marketable skills. A blog that nobody reads and HTML/CSS aren't interesting or valuable. Good enterprise customer support skills might be, with proven experience in fast-paced software companies. So would coding with years of experience, or sales with (again) a proven record of early-stage account acquisition. Basically, you need to offer something unique and proven to justify being hired into a cash-strapped, probably-going-to-go-bust company.

If you want to "work to live", you do not want any part of the start-up world -- that's a world where your life IS work, all the time, with the possibility of a payout if you go public or secure significant funding. Reading your last paragraph, I think you should focus on established mid-sized companies where you can grow a skillset, rather than trying to get into environments where you have to be an established rockstar with nothing to keep you away from your office or desk.
posted by ellF at 6:32 PM on February 21, 2012 [14 favorites]

Mirroring what ellF said, I believe start-up might be the wrong term. What you're probably looking for is "dot-com" or "tech company." Semantics aside, it sounds like you're just looking for somewhere "sexy" to work.

Given the fact that you're 24, there aren't going to be very high expectations for you to be a specialist in any particular field unless you have a bachelors or masters degree in something like engineering. The best bet would be to apply for any entry-level positions like sales, account management, marketing, etc.

UI design at companies of those caliber usually require a strong portfolio or a strong technical background in HCI. Community management might be within your realm, but requires expertise of a city, and you said yourself that you're introverted. I'd say that you should either submit your resume to a general HR address with a strong desire to work at company X, or to find entry-level positions and apply with the same said strong desire.
posted by petah at 6:50 PM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've worked at few startups. Assuming you want to get in on the ground floor, you have to know people most of the time. Where do the people you want to work for hang out? That's where you need to be. It'd also help if you developed a skill you were really kickass at, but being able to work for cheap/equity will get you in the door sometimes.

If you want to work to live, then run like hell. I worked at a place where 12 hour days, 7 days a week were mandatory and you got the stinkeye if you were gone for lunch longer than it took to run down to the local takeout/fast food joint and get something to go. I worked at a place where it was expected the entire team would be in whenever there was a problem, even if it was unrelated. I worked in marketing at the time, but I still had to come in if IT had an emergency or something and required being in the office. GOTTA SUPPORT THE TEAM. That's to say nothing of the "optional" socialization that's usually mandatory. It's a lifestyle, not an 8 hour a day job.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 6:57 PM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hey anonymous, if you're looking for a noncoding job, Meetup (where I work) is looking for Community Specialists. The A#1 requirement is having excellent writing skills. Hours for CS are very regular, 8 hour days. As to company culture, I present Exhibit A.
posted by the jam at 7:10 PM on February 21, 2012 [4 favorites]

TechStars NYC is about to announce their semifinalists for this spring's incubator class – that's 10 startups that are about to have some pretty smart money thrown at them. The TechStars blog aggregates current and past competitors' job tweets here.
posted by nicwolff at 7:34 PM on February 21, 2012

Assuming you don't take the jam's offer, I should think the answer is pretty obvious: Put your money where your mouth is and accumulate a portfolio that shows you have ability, rather than expecting them to take your word for it. Blogging for yourself is one thing, but maybe you should try getting examples of your work published. Maybe do contract work for other people.

Or if your university work was good enough, republish that. Either way, start aggregating examples so you can point to a body of work that loudly proclaims that you're good enough. Why else should they have reason to hire you, unless you know a guy?
posted by Strudel at 7:36 PM on February 21, 2012

How to get into a start-up, in my experience, is A) knowing someone and/or B) being willing to work for free (or close) and/or C) possessing and demonstrating a limitless supply of time and patience, as you will be working and waiting and working and waiting and ...

You have a fairly generic skillset at this point. Consider going for something entry-level - start-ups/tech companies often love to develop talent from within - or intern/temp. You might also want to temper your expectations of how hip and fun and cool the work environment actually is at these places. I've heard some less than stellar things firsthand.
posted by sm1tten at 7:36 PM on February 21, 2012

What you are looking for is not too far off my job, although I do more programming and came into it from a comp sci background.

As others have pointed out, you don't want to work in a startup. Startups are places where people go to work 80 hour weeks with the hopes of getting a big payout at the end of it. Don't let The Social Network and other mythologized tech narratives fool you. Startups are always a huge gamble, there is no free beer, and you need to really love the work to get through it.

You want to work for a young web company. With your skills set, you won't really be setting yourself apart from the average applicant. Almost everybody has some experience with HTML and CSS these days, but that's okay when you're starting out.

If UI is what you want to do, decide now where you want to fall on the designer-developer axis. Are you looking to get into more programming, graphic design or high-level design? The industry is overrun with overlapping and inconsistent terms for different roles.

UI Engineer/UIE/front-end developer = programmer who writes JavaScript, CSS and HTML.

UI designer = someone who designs features, produces graphics, etc., and sometimes does coding.

UX designer/User experience designer = someone who makes wire frames, site layouts and tests to find the optimal design.

UX/UI get interchanged fairly often and it is sometimes difficult to tell from a job posting what exactly the company thinks a UX designer does. (This resulted for me in one awkward interview where I realized I was not applying for the job I thought I was!)

You might want to check out the jobs board at 37signals for some examples.
posted by deathpanels at 9:53 PM on February 21, 2012 [4 favorites]

Oh, I'd also like to state that even "fun" web companies can be a pain in the ass. I've been working for such companies for several years now. You'd be surprised how quickly you can come to resent your job even when you have a limitless supply of free soda, foosball, and flexible hours. Every job has some bullshit that must be navigated, and there are people in every workplace that will seem hell bent on turning your days into a waking nightmare.

Try to find a good balance between challenging work, competent/talented coworkers, pleasing work environment, and time off. You're a fool if you work nights and weekends to build some website that no one will even remember in ten years. Do you think the guys that built Geocities are living it up on a beach somewhere now? Be realistic. Most web companies don't strike oil. Have a plan for a real life that doesn't involve making web pages until you're 40.
posted by deathpanels at 10:02 PM on February 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Attend the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU.

It's a graduate program. A shit-ton of people in interactive media and tech in NYC go through there (including me). It's fun. You'll meet a huge scene of people. It'll get you thinking in new and creative ways. And it's a great resume item in NYC, if that's where you'd like to work.
posted by chasing at 11:16 PM on February 21, 2012 [4 favorites]

You should come to the New York Tech Meetup and related events. That's where you'll meet the people who will connect you to a job at the kind of company you're describing. Even though these are bigger, more established companies than the true tiny startups, you can still get a great job with almost any of them.
posted by anildash at 11:43 PM on February 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

One way to get into a startup with the qualities that best suit your specifications is, of course, to go ahead and start one. You could, for example, take a postgraduate course which accommodates creative people (perhaps one involving UI design for example). When you are there you will gain some good technical knowledge, build up a portfolio make contact with potential partners/employers and (if you are lucky) have access to business startup advice.
posted by rongorongo at 3:32 AM on February 22, 2012

Attend the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU.

This is actually the best possible advice.

Or, you could just start hanging out in the Ace Hotel and calling yourself a consultant. (As was said above, work in those worlds is about relationships.) There's an impolite name for these people (or more than one) but it does sometimes get the job done.

But my real beef with you is that I have no sense what you actually want to do, or even can do. The whole "passion" thing you put forward is funny: SURELY there's something you're really into? This is maddeningly vague, and there's a number of troublesome buzzwords in your question that would have me, at least, running screaming from you. :)
posted by RJ Reynolds at 5:12 AM on February 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

Basically what everyone else said, but with the added suggestion that it's typically not wise to pick a career path based on how "hip" it looks on paper (the jobs that come off as hip tend to be anything but...lots of hours, little pay, no glamor past saying "I work for so-and-so). Pick a job that you are passionate about, or fits the lifestyle you want to live, or that you've discovered you have a knack for.
posted by Windigo at 6:33 AM on February 22, 2012

Whoa. I work at a startup and I work normal hours, get free beer, and enjoy my life. Clearly this is a minority position but it is possible. However, the companies you mentioned are not startups. I got my position (content development manager) after applying for the content intern position. From there I worked hard and got extended through the summer. They then kept me on and promoted me to manager. There's a lot of constant change and you have to be flexible.

I've hired several times for my company and I look for someone who is reliable, who is sincerely interested in the position (rather than just having A Job) and can work on their own with relatively little oversight. Check the internship positions but beware the unpaid ones.
posted by amicamentis at 6:39 AM on February 22, 2012

Are you at all interested in/willing to learn business? In my experience, idea folks & tech folks often know each other, but no one's into the business-side of things: business plan, budgets, bookkeeping, etc. It could make you popular. Would non-sexy work at a sexy company work?
posted by smirkette at 7:25 AM on February 22, 2012

There are two issues here - where you want to work and what you want to do. You have told us where you want to work. You have not told us what you want to do. That is not necessarily a huge problem but I think that a lot of young people romanticize where they want to work (the UN! Google!) without defining what it is they want to do and that's where they get in trouble. Most employers don't need bodies - they need smart people who can fill a specific niche but are also flexible enough to occasionally stretch beyond their job description in the name of doing what needs to be done.

That said, I would encourage you to figure out what it is you want to do for these companies, get experience doing it, and become awesome at doing it. That way, even if it turns out that you become the best stamp licker in the world and they need someone who can stuff envelopes, the fact that you learned how to become an awesome stamp licker will show that you can become awesome at stuffing envelopes.
posted by kat518 at 8:06 AM on February 22, 2012


This is the perhaps most accurate description of a job at an actual startup. The companies listed above don't really apply. Do you want this job?

I do and those that work with me do, but you know, not everyone does.

unlike shakleton, though, there is also the possibility of copious quantities of cash at the end and your safe return is almost guaranteed. Also, you get fantastic experience that you can turn into a regular, safer career later on if you can stomach the lack of adventure.

If you want this job, I will tell you how to get it: find the CEO of each company, get their email address. Tell them you love their company (must be true), you want to work for their company in any capacity and ask them if you can buy them lunch on the day and hour of their choosing someplace cheap near their office. If they are worth their salt, they will say yes. Before lunch do more research on their company and their marketplace they they have. This is not easy because it's likely been their life for the past two years, still, learn absolutely everything you possibly can. Use the product, think about the product, think about the clients of the product. This is like one final exam, during 30 minutes of lunch, for every class in a semester.

If you do this, you will get a job. It will probably be something like personal assistant to the CEO. You will get coffee and take out the trash ( if it's a real startup, prior to your arrival, that was what the CEO was doing). You will also do just about everything else. Congratulations, you're working for a startup. In one year, if you do it right and offer to do every job available, you will learn more about business than most MBA's. You'll have a wide variety of skills, doing important things, with a company you care about and own part of, for a person who realizes that being and audacious persistant scrappy can-do type person is incredibly valuable.

You will also make less than your peers in more stable positions, most likely the company will fail and your options (your chunk of the company) will be worthless. But you'll have had a real adventure, earned real experience, and be able to either start your own company or go work for somewhere else, this time earning far more than your peers who took the stable route, jumping several rungs up the career ladder in one fell swoop.

It is emphatically not for everyone, but if you want to do it, that's how.
posted by Freen at 10:35 PM on February 22, 2012 [4 favorites]

« Older What do with all the $#%!$ pecans?!   |   So, what gives? I thought nursing was a growth... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.