FAQ: How to Get a Job at a Silicon Valley Startup

I was the national head of the NWU's Technical Writer Division. The NWU was affiliated with the UAW. I've worked in Silicon Valley for more than twenty years at all levels: contractor, staffer, manager, director, and the head of companies. I teach at a French business school now. Here's the reality of how to get a job.

I used to have long lists of job boards, recruiters, etc. on this page. But I deleted all of that because that's not good for you. No matter how sweet recruiters talk, they are not on your side. They make money by delivering your body to a company. They don't care how well you match the company, what you really want, your vision, etc. That's why they're called "body shops". Some people will say, "yes, but I need a job, and they can get me a job!" I say, "If you're that desperate, you have bigger problems."

No more job security. The cycles in technology go faster and faster every few years. No more "get a job and keep it for life". Or even ten years. It's likely that you'll change jobs every three to five years.

One word:Networking. Build a strong personal network of friends and colleagues in your industry. That helps you to get jobs; that keeps you in jobs.

If you're just out of college, find senior people and get to know them. They know of openings and they can help you to find jobs.

The best jobs (interesting projects, great work conditions, most pay, work from home, etc.) are all passed along by friends to friends within the network of the hardcore in an industry. These jobs are never posted; you don't apply; you don't do interviews with HR or presentations-. You get these jobs because A vouches to B for you.

That's the problem with the general world of jobs: people think you have to build resumes, apply to jobs, etc. Anywhere from 50-75% of those workers are miserable in their jobs. They are trapped because they don't have the social network to find better jobs; they don't even know where to begin.

So if anyone gives you a list of recruiters and jobsites, they're doing you a very bad thing. Don't get stuck in the jobs elevator that goes nowhere. Learn how the system works and work the system.

  • Go to a mountain by yourself, sit down for several hours, and think about what you really want to be doing ten years from now. Do not get a job that pays lots of money. You'll be bored; you'll hate yourself; you'll end up divorced and alone. Most bankers and Wall Street people hate themselves. What is it that you really like to do, you'd do it all day, including weekends, and you'd do it, even if it didn't pay anything? Once you've figured that out, look for people who are doing that and contact them.
  • Here's a Big Secret. Remember your classes in high school and college? A few sit up front and learn everything they can; a bunch sit in the middle and get a passing grade; and a bunch sit at the back and look out the window. Companies are like that: super workers, just-okay workers, and lazy turtles. All good managers know this and when they find super workers, these get hired on the spot. If your professor says to Laura, "hi, Laura, talk with Jennifer; she was one of the top students in my class", she'll be hired.
  • If you're just starting out, talk with your favorite professors. Ask them for connections.
  • Go in person to your university's alumni center. Ask them for alumni who are in the field that you want to join.
  • Places to find internships and entry-level jobs: RippleMatch.com, Internships.com, WayUp.com, AfterCollege.com, CareerRookie, CollegeGrad.com, CollegeRecruiter.com, Idealist.com, AbsoluteInternshipcom.com, LookSharp.com, InternQueen.com. Glassdoor is a special case: you can find internships and jobs, plus salary information and reviews by staff of the company and managers. If you know of more places, let me know.

What's It Like to Work in a Silicon Valley Startup?

Startups Are Cool!

Startups Suck!

You join at the beginning.

You burn out before your stock options become valuable.

You learn how to do everything.

Nobody teaches you nothing and you have to learn it on your own time.

You get lots of responsibility.

Everything is dumped on you.

You show up whenever you like.

You work extremely long hours (+90 hours per week for nine months straight).

You get to bring your dog to work.

You gotta bring your dog to work or the poor pooch will starve to death in your empty apartment.

You make lots of money.

You want money? Are you a greedy pig or what? It's an honor to work at this startup. We work for stock, not salary.

Paris Hilton's ex-chef serves organic, locally-grown portabello mushrooms, hand-grilled over a mesquite hibachi.

You get cold pizza and cold coffee.

Your career skyrockets. Two months ago you were an intern. Now you're a director in charge of 18 countries.

You're responsible for 40 people, $100 million dollars, and you must grow sales by 600X within 45 days or everyone will be fired and you haven't the slightest idea what to do.

You get pre-IPO stock options, become a zillionaire, and your parents can't figure out what you do for a living.

The startup crashes, your stock options are worthless, your health is wrecked, your dog runs away, and your parents say "We told you so. Why can't you be an accountant in Baltimore like your little brother Seymour?"

You buy an island next to Bono.

"Hello, Seymour? Can I work for you?"

So What Can Go Wrong?

Most likely, everything. Someone else comes up with a better idea. The public refuses to buy your company's silly product. Your company's engineers leave for a better company. The VCs were using the whole thing as a front for a insider trading scheme to loot the investors. The CEO gets hauled off in manacles by an FBI SWAT team. The investment bankers flee to Brazil. (Who says the computer industry is dull?) 95% of startups fail within two years. That's right: only one in twenty survive. So what happens to your salary, stock, and dreams?

You work at a startup either as an staff employee (IRS W-2 wage earner tax status) or as a contractor (IRS 1099 tax status).

  • If you work as an employee (W-2) and the company goes bankrupt, your stock options become worthless.
  • If your stock options are set at $15 but the 22-year old CEO goofs up and the price dives to $3, then your stock are said to be "under water." You still have the options, but you'd lose money to exercise the options, so it's worthless. So you hang on, hoping it'll rise.
  • If you work as a contractor (1099), you can get excellent rates. However, you rarely get pre-IPO stock, stock options, or stock purchase.
    If the startup goes bankrupt, you will probably lose your unpaid bills. So you should NEVER work without billing weekly and getting paid within 15 days. Otherwise, you run a very high risk of not getting paid (as I said, 80% of startups fail within two years.) If you work through an agency (IRS W-2 status to a recruiter), your recruiter's contract generally won't protect you. If you work as a contractor directly to the startup (1099 status), you are an unsecured creditor. If the startup goes bankrupt, you are at the end of a long line. You might get a small fraction of your bill after 6-18 months. On the bright side, the loss is deductible.

How Do I Pick a Startup that Will Be Successful?

People often actually asked this. If anyone knew how to tell which startup will be successful, they'd be richer than Bill Gates. Startups are new companies with new ideas in new markets. No one knows if they will be able to build the product, get it to market ahead of the competitors, build something better, or whether the customers will like it.

Find out as much as you can about the company, the people, the idea, the competitors, and their market. Ask your friends who have real experience.

Startups can be a great learning experience and financial opportunity, but they are not easy jobs. If you want a stable job and a steady paycheck, forget startups.