Dear MBAs who want to work at startups

So you just finished up the year at Harvard/Wharton/Stanford/NYU, etc. and since your lifelong dream of being a banker doesn’t seem like a viable route anymore, you’re thinking that a startup might be the place for you.  (You’d much rather be a VC, but you’re smart enough to know that there are like 8 junior VC positions open a year, so you’re looking for a backup.)

Well, let me break the news to you bluntly—most of you are going about this startup thing completely ass backwards and no early stage startup that I know of is really dying to hire an MBA.  What they want is a ninja, and a hundred grand or so later, your diploma is not universally recognized as a “I haz ninja skillz” card. 

I probably get two or three MBAs a week asking me about what opportunities there are at startups and whether or not we can sit down and chat about them.  I take some of these meetings, but right off the bat, the approach is wrong on nearly all of them.  Instead of asking what opportunities there are for you, you should be telling me what opportunities you are going to create for the startups I know.  (“Ask not what startups can do for you…”)  Just tell me right off the bat what you can do for [insert First Round portfolio company] and why, when I pass you off, that CEO is going to thank me a million times over for sending you over—because if you’re not of immediate and immense value, you’re just a time sink.  If someone is hiring one of the first 10 or 20 or even 50 people in their company, they need to be awesome.  You can’t hide in a startup and there’s no room for dead weight or mailing it in. 

There’s often going to be very little structure and guidance on how to create value when you’re at a startup, so if in your approach to me, you’re asking me to do work for you right off the bat, like tell you about the opportunities and tell you how to find them, I’m going to be very suspect about your ability to just kick ass.

Here’s a different approach:  If I don’t know you, go find three opportunities at startup companies that you think you could kick ass at.  It’s so easy to find… just do a job search on or on the First Round jobs page.  Outline a couple of ideas for ways in which that company could improve its efforts related to that job.  Ex: “As Community Manager, I would get Modcloth on Tumblr because their users are already talking about the company there and it’s the right demo.”  That’s the kind of thing that I can just forward outright to the CEO and say, “Check out this person’s awesome ideas.”

Even better would be if you were to suggest ways in which you could be working at companies that didn’t even have openings listed for what you want.  If you think there’s a clear need for what you can do, create the opportunity for yourself!  Tell me why this company absolutely needs to hire you to get to the next level—and don’t say because you could “help their strategy”.  You know what startups hear when you say that as an MBA?  “This person is going to write a report.”  Startups don’t need more reports.  Some of them don’t even have printers.  They need sales, users, biz dev wins, etc… and they have little time and even less money to explain to you how to get that.

Another note on the approach—a resume attachment is fail on delivery.  It’s 2010.  We may not have flying cars just yet, but attached word docs are archaic.  Send around your public and visible LinkedIn profile at minimum, with a well written bio and bullets that tell me what you did and what you know.  Even better would be additional links to your blog and Twitter.

Here’s the thing about the social media stuff: You’re being hired as a knowledge worker.  We want you for your brains and a resume and even a LinkedIn profile just don’t do a good job of explaining to me why your brain is different than anyone elses.  MBAs, for the most part, kinda look all the same on paper.  However, when I can see that you wrote some awesome posts on why a COO should be one of the first 10 hires in a startup and how poor startup operations cost companies more than they realize in the long run, that’s going to get me thinking and maybe even passing it to a few startups that I know that are organizationally challenged. 

When you’re not blogging, even occasionally, here’s what a startup is going to think, fairly or unfairly:

  • This person isn’t passionate enough to share their ideas about this industry.
  • This person has no ideas about this industry.
  • This person’s ideas about this industry aren’t vetted thoroughly because they’ve never been shared.
  • This person has not attracted a network around themselves and their ideas.
  • This person is the same as everyone else.

Don’t get me wrong, you could be absolutely awesome without a blog, but it’s very hard to prove that in just a resume when you’re cold emailing someone or even getting a lukewarm intro and asking for an entrepreneur’s time. Plus, if this is something that thought leaders are doing, it’s legitimate to ask why you aren’t striving to be a thought leader.

Same thing with Twitter.  Clearly Twitter is commonly accepted in the startup world as a business and networking tool.  It’s an indication of how well networked you are, and what the community thinks of your ideas. 

Think of it this way:  If my business depends on email conversion and I need to hire a killer e-mail marketing manager, then am I going to look for an attached Word doc that will often get lost in e-mails?  Wouldn’t I rather have a note from someone who links to a popular and thoughtful e-mail marketing blog they write and a twitter account where 500 more people follow you than follow you back—and indication that you say things worth listening to.  Running the e-mail marketing Meetup group wouldn’t be a bad thing either—because then I know that you’re tapped in to the flow of best practices and that you could even perhaps bring your network to bear when we need to expand the team under you. 

The point is, startups assume that MBAs are going to look for too much money, have classroom knowledge that won’t likely transfer to the real world, and want things to be handed to them.  You’ve got to counter that by providing immediate upfront value, differentiating yourself, and creating your own opportunities.  From what I see, these aren’t necessarily skills most business schools are teaching well.