If you have ever wondered about or researched the Boston startup community, you have almost certainly seen the Boston Startups Guide, a resource for getting connected to Boston’s startup community and learning more about local innovation happening in your industry. Jay Neely is the creator of Boston Startups Guide, and he shared his advice with Level on how to find not just a startup job, but the right startup job.
What do you love the most about the Boston startup scene? What makes it unique?
I’ve heard a lot of people say this: Boston’s startup community is very welcoming. I think it’s one of the few benefits of this underdog-skewed mentality we sometimes have in Boston, is that there’s a big focus on giving back and helping make the community as a whole stronger.
The other thing that’s unique about Boston is the high concentration of universities here, and that really expresses itself in a lot of different ways. For one, all of the university research labs, PhDs, and academic/industry partnerships drive a lot of work in deep tech that you just don’t find in other cities. We also have this huge talent pool of students and recently-graduated young professionals, and thanks to startups becoming more prominent in the cultural zeitgeist, we’re seeing a lot more student startups and students wanting to get involved in startups.
What skills do Boston startups tend to look for when hiring new talent?
Outside of role-specific skills, the common things I see early-stage startups looking for are an ability to learn quickly (e.g. proactive research, practice, & learning, not waiting for instructions), teamwork skills, and sheer capability of getting things done. Early-stage startups tend to need problem-solvers that can be trusted to accomplish their work without a lot of oversight or guidance. At the same time, you’ve got to work well with others, because friction (e.g. difficulty in resolving differing opinions on why or what’s important), inefficiency, focusing on what you want rather than what the team needs can all slow things down at a time when the whole goal is to lift off before you run out of runway.
Later-stage startups tend to have things more figured out, and are more often looking for people who are simply great at what they do (or are on the path to it). And the important thing here is: regardless of your level of experience. So even if you’re entry level, if you’ve done work to get “ahead of the curve”, startups look at that and say, this is a person worth investing training and mentorship into. So although it’s not a skill of its own, demonstrable passion for whatever skills you’ll be using in the role is really important. The only caveat is, that passion needs to not close you off from learning other new things, too.
What advice do you have for startup job-seekers on becoming more marketable to startups?
The advice I always give is to make sure you build a portfolio. No matter what your skillset is, in the startup world of execution-is-everything, you need to be able to show what you can do, not just have a resume that talks about how long you spent contributing to this and that. Doing discrete, finite projects is so valuable; it helps you hone and grow your skills, it demonstrates your passion for using them, and it gives you multiple opportunities to show not just what you know how to do, but what you can accomplish. If your day-to-day work doesn’t provide enough different projects to build a portfolio from, then participate in hackathons, do sideprojects, or compete in Kaggle competitions.
The other thing you should do is participate in the community. Whether it’s working on things with people, going to the same meetup and getting to know the crowd there, or volunteering at events. If you can build a network of people connected to the startup community, and you have some skills, and you’ve put some kind of intent out in public view (e.g. “I’m looking for data science projects I can contribute to, or a role using those skills.”), then opportunities will come to you.
How about advice on finding a startup that is right for them?
The first thing is to just understand where you fall on some different criteria about yourself. What’s your risk tolerance? Are you mission-driven or experience-driven? What do you want out of the job? Use these to understand what kind of criteria for the startups you should be starting your search with. Early-stage or VC-funded? By industry or by whoever has a role that needs your skills?
If what you want out of the job is either of two particular things — a chance for large financial upside, or a chance to go from an individual contributor into a manager / team leader very rapidly — then I’d emphasize that a huge amount of startup “jobs” are never advertised or listed (and I mean anywhere, even the startup’s site) to begin with. The first people in the doors are always people the initial team knows or that come recommended to them when they express a need. So again, participating in the community and building your network will give you opportunities to join startups that otherwise would be completely unavailable to you.
People are everything. Remember, most startups fail. Regardless of how great the concept is, there are so many things that can go wrong. The market can change, a juggernaut can enter your space, the founders can fall out… so you want to think about any startup as a step in your journey. The skill growth is invaluable, the resume / portfolio addition can be great, but the connections you make have the potential to last long past anything else from the job. They’re also what will most define your daily experience for as long as you’re there, more than the work itself even. So first and foremost, choose based on the people. Can you communicate well with them, are they people you want to spend a lot of time working intensely with, does the culture they’re building suit you? And remember, they’re asking the same the things about you.
If you’re looking at startup jobs, you can find them on Boston Startups Guide, where you can filter by hiring startups or by industry. Boston Startup Guides is always adding new and interesting startups, and you can follow those updates on Twitter.