How to Optimize Your Résumé for Startups

October 15, 2019
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If you’re in the market for a new job, you’ve probably come across the advice that you should tailor your résumé to each position. That may be easy enough to do when you’re choosing which of your skills and experiences are closest to those in the job description for a specific role—but what if you’re trying to show off your cultural fitness?

Startups tend to prioritize hiring people who will be effective in high-pressure environments that demand flexibility, commitment, and the ability to successfully learn and use new skills. At the same time, they’re looking for people who will enhance the team’s dynamic—people they want to spend long hours working closely alongside. Your résumé still needs to show off your experience and your skills, but what you emphasize (and how you do it) will likely be the difference between an enthusiastic interview request and a polite rejection.

Startup hires matter more

In its earliest days, a startup’s team will be just a handful of people, so founders need to consider each hire’s impact very carefully. On a very small team, each person is responsible for an outsized contribution to both the project and the team’s culture—a bad hire can tank morale or slow progress just as easily as a great hire can multiply effectiveness or add a welcome presence to the office. For that reason, a founder is likely to consider an applicant from a wide variety of angles, and to be significantly more cautious and thorough in their search for talent than a hiring manager at a large company.

Your résumé isn’t the only tool in your toolbox, and isn’t the only opportunity you’ll have to prove that you’re curious, driven, and pleasant to work with—you can also use your blog, portfolio, or summary (assuming you’re using—but it is often the document the hiring team will pass around to decide whether or not you’re worth an interview. So, how do you make the case?

Place emphasis on results

Because a startup is a small team, usually with few resources available (and none to squander), startups need to hire team members who will be able to directly impact the project’s chances of success. When they’re reading résumés, therefore, hiring managers at startups are looking for concrete information about what you personally did, and what happened as a result. If you can claim your work directly produced a particular effect, that’s likely to be a lot more compelling to a startup founder than saying that you oversaw a direct report whose work had that effect, or that you hired a consultant that moved the needle. You’ll get bonus points for quantifiable effects here, too.

Consider these two bullet points:

  • Participated in branding and rollout of new homepage, including brainstorming, visual design review, and approving final release.
  • Wrote copy and defined conversion paths during rebranding and redesign of homepage, resulting in 20% higher on-page engagement, 10% lower bounce rate, and 3x conversion rate.

These could easily be descriptions of the same contributions to the same body of work—but in the second case, it’s clear that the work this person specifically did resulted in demonstrable improvements to the site’s performance.

Be specific about your tools and skills

Startups don’t have the luxury of long employee ramp-up periods or dedicated training resources on the job (except in some cases, like hiring very junior developers or interns). They need you to hit the ground running. As a result, hiring managers on small teams are much more keenly attuned to the technologies and tools you do or don’t know than recruiters at a large company that can afford to give new hires time and training to familiarize themselves with the team’s chosen stack. To increase your chances of looking like you’re ready to go on day one, be as specific and as thorough as you can in listing your competencies.

For engineers, this means listing frameworks, SDKs, and APIs you’ve worked with, rather than just the languages you mostly prefer to code in. Marketers need to say which automation platform and CRM they know how to use. Customer success representatives need to list every ticketing system with which they have experience. Leaving off Zendesk because you really like Intercom is a missed opportunity if the team’s not on Intercom.

Make sure you show initiative

When everyone’s doing ten things at once, there’s not a lot of time or energy left to spend on giving each other constant direction. Startups work best when they’re staffed by self-starters, and the best way to show that you possess the ability to contribute meaningfully in the absence of clear instructions is to phrase as much as possible of your résumé in terms of what you drove yourself.

Consider the difference between “Posted to well-followed Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter” and “Led cross-channel social media strategy, owning community engagement with an audience of over 20,000 users.” Leading a project may not sound like leadership if the project was a team of one, but your goal is to show off your autonomy (and your responsibility). Look for places where you can rephrase whatever it was that you did in your previous positions to emphasize the parts you did without anyone telling you what to do or how to do it.

Don’t skimp on the extracurriculars

One thing startup people really love is… startup people. Most startups begin as a side project, and founders are usually on the lookout for self-starters and hustlers, especially if they show any inclination towards entrepreneurship. If you have a side business, a volunteer position, or a serious hobby that requires dedication and effort, make sure it’s represented on your résumé. This is especially important for people towards the beginning of their careers—you may not have made a lot of money at your on-campus coffee shop pop-up, but the fact that you started one may say a lot more about your willingness to create and pursue valuable opportunities than your entry-level social media marketing gig does.

Even if you’re relatively established in your line of work, making sure the founders see that you run a nonprofit literary magazine on the side indicates that not only do you have a lot of drive, you also have interests other than work, and that you work hard to advance them. Remember, founders are looking for someone they can spend a lot of time with, so people with passions and hobbies are likely to be a more compelling addition to the team culture than people who clock out at 5pm and park themselves in front of the TV.

Give your résumé a bold headline

Although “professional objectives” are somewhat staid and, at this point, even passé in the startup community, the top of your résumé is still prime real estate to say exactly who you are. Are you looking for a full-stack development job? Feel free to write “Full-Stack Developer” directly below your name. Trying to land a first-marketing-hire position at a B2B SaaS company? Go ahead and put “B2B SaaS Marketing Leader” up there.

The banner at the top provides a few critical advantages for sticking out. First, it’s in the absolute first place any résumé reader will look, so it’s a quick and easy way to tell them you’re exactly what they’re looking for. Second, because it’s a small text unit in most layouts, it’s trivially easy to change—so you can be a “B2B Saas Marketing Leader” for one company, and just a few minutes later, a “Full-Funnel Startup Marketer” for another. As long as you’re just restating your (actual, honest, valid) competencies in a new and tailor-fit way, you can take this opportunity to match the job description to a T with almost no additional effort. Third, it gives you a chance to point out what your strengths really are. If your reader is already thinking that you have a lot of B2B SaaS marketing experience, they’ll read the bullet points below as support for that idea, rather than having to infer that you have B2B SaaS marketing experience from the bullets themselves.

Cover all your bases

Even though you may be optimizing for a specific audience when you redo your résumé to appeal to startup hiring managers, you still need to cover the basics. Name, contact information, a link to a relevant portfolio site (like Github, Behance, or your blog), complete work history, education, skills, and service should all be present. Remember to keep everything neatly organized, scannable, and readable. There are innumerable résumé templates on the internet that you can use to make sure you have everything you need in the document—and from there, it’s just a matter of making sure you’re putting your best foot forward in startup world.

Here are some résumé templates and tools we particularly like:

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