Getting into Silicon Valley startups: a guide for a non-techie

Let’s start with a few Truths

 Silicon Valley is not a meritocracy. Many talented individuals will never get a first interview. You need persistence, hustle, and connections.  Want to get ahead in this industry? Keep reading.

Working for Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Apple, Linkedin or Facebook is not the same as working for a startup. While that experience is very valuable and generally respected, it’s an entirely different skill set. This piece is about getting that startup job as a non-techie.

Why a startup? The fun part about working at a startup is the greater autonomy, the ability to make a big impact on a small team, the higher upside if the company does well, and the faster professional advancement if you play your cards right. Startups are organizations in the process of validating a product and are inherently risky. As the valuation and traction of the company increases, the early employees can get a big reward. That’s the promise of joining an early stage company.

By joining a startup, you’re showing the world you have a higher risk tolerance, you’re willing to be flexible, you want to roll up your sleeves, and you can work in more unstructured work environments.

Let’s dive into the concrete steps you can take to getting your start in the valley.

1) Get a sector/functional focus. What’s your competitive advantage? What’s the one thing you might be able to get better at than 90% of candidates out there? Put in the time. Read everything you can. Start with the seminal pieces on Silicon Valley: books like Lean Startup, The Four Steps to Epiphany, The Design of Everyday Things, among many others: You can read more about that on Quora.

Follow some big thought leaders in the space you care about. Some of my favorite go-to bloggers are Mark SusterHunter Walk, Marc Andreessen, Fred Wilson, and Benedict Evans. Most job interviews include context-specific questions about recent product launches, recent competitors, etc. Twitter just launched a new service aimed at app developers? You should know that — I don’t care if you’re doing Software Engineering or you’re doing Customer Support.

Let’s assume you’re a political science recent grad. You decided working for a large corporation wasn’t your jam: now you don’t know exactly how your skills fit into the startup workplace. Guess what, your future employer doesn’t either. However, let’s assume you did research on commissioning government contracts in college— that’s a skill set that’s very interesting to startups. There’s tons of companies working in Govtech, go find them.

Now let’s assume you’re a native Spanish or Mandarin speaker. Start learning about marketing to those audiences, learn user experience research, prototype products that serve those populations, learn how to do internationalization or localization, or get your start in customer support: whatever you need to do to get your foot in the door. Language fluency is just one example. Figure out what you can bring to the table.

Maybe computer science isn’t your thing (yet). Not everyone can be a developer — but you should know about general tech trends, frameworks, how things work: you need to know how the company you’re interested in fits into the general ecosystem. Do a few classes on Coursera– try to build a simple site.

2) Try to position yourself as an expert. If you’re lucky enough to have a brand name degree you must first acknowledge that isn’t enough. Employers usually don’t want to take a risk on a new grad unless this candidate has something very concrete to offer. Position yourself as the best person to do a job— and don’t expect to get a job with a fancy title. There’s many folks out there who are willing to slog it out: you should prepare yourself for that.

Start using Twitter aggressively. It’s likely that your future employer has a Twitter presence. Follow what they write, and use it as a potential platform to communicate with them. Have intelligent conversations on the platform, and engage deeply with a topic.

Interested in working at a [fill in sector] startup? Use AngelList, Mattermark, and CrunchBase and read about every major competitor. Do a competitive analysis of the space. Post it on your blog (start a blog!) and explain why you think X company is killing it and tweet about it. Nothing gets you faster attention than a blog or Hacker News post that got a company some extra traffic.  Granted, use this strategy well: make sure you make an intelligent, new argument and don’t trash other companies. Show you have a great business or product intuition.

3) Try moving to Silicon Valley. I know this is a privileged stance, and some of you readers will not be able to do this. Particularly for those of you who are supporting yourselves financially (like I did as soon as I went to college), I know this is challenging.

However, this piece is specifically about getting a role in Silicon Valley – and being here, in person, is a huge asset. Many of you will be using this advice to get a tech job at another tech hub and that’s great too. Join the nearest tech hub in your area. The people who run tech orgs in other cities are typically well connected– get to know those people. Much of this advice is widely applicable outside of the geographical confines of Silicon Valley.

This field is very relationship driven. Pull whatever connections you can together and try to come spend a few weeks on someone’s couch if you need to. Can’t afford the ticket to a conference? Look for ways to volunteer to work at a conference. Can’t volunteer? Go to the after-parties. If you offer to volunteer, you might find that one of the organizers will offer you a spot on their couch.

In short, hustle.

4) Look for a community that you identify with. Find other likeminded people. They are the key to getting your first job because they become your network. Maybe you’re into Burning Man– those people will try to help you. Maybe you studied at an HBCU–those folks will try to help too. Networking is the key to scoring your first job in the Valley.

Organizations that help folks get started in tech include Women 2.0, Latino Startup Alliance, BitHouse, Blacks in Tech, Movement50, Women Who Code, Designers and Geeks, and other topic-specific events on The list goes on. I’m not saying they’ll set you up with housing or other resources: but they can offer networking, access to experts, and potential friendships.

If moving is not possible, your online presence has to be sharp. Twitter networking will become a priority. Hang out in the spaces where the technologists are writing: Hacker News, Stack Overflow, Tech Lady Mafia, Twitter threads, GitHub, Quora. Subscribe to blogs and newsletters like REDEF and Termsheet.

5) Be targeted in your search. Job hunting is humbling in today’s economy. Don’t go for quantity in your job search, go for quality. Identify exactly what kind of job you want, and be very targeted in your job applications. Use your new network to ask for intros to decision makers at startups. Don’t try sending your resume into the black box of job applications. In most cases, companies don’t take these very seriously: use referrals. Reach out to people, ask for advice, and ask if they’d be willing to refer you. In most startups, referrals earn employees a bonus if the candidate is hired — people are happy to do referrals.

Make sure you operate courteously as you ask for help. Be respectful of people’s time and don’t be transactional. Don’t assume anyone should help you just because of an affiliation or mutual friendship.

Use venture capital portfolio sites to find great companies that already have money. Joining a seed stage or Series A company means you’re joining an organization with a bit of funding.

6) Look for companies you think are making an impact. Here’s my short plug for joining impact companies. When you join a company that you think is making positive social impact, your passions will shine through. Working the long hours on a startup will feel so worth it. Check out the job openings at social impact companies we fund at Kapor Capital.

Food for thought: do you want to work in an unstructured work environment? Do you understand that typically, the mentorship will be limited, you’ll have to ask for help to get it, and your bosses could foreseeably be your age or younger? The exciting parts of startups are also the things that can unnerve the newcomers. Be prepared, and do your research on companies and founders. Arguably the most important part of choosing a startup job is that you like your team and have something to learn from them. While the product might change, the team and the culture of the company is less likely to change.

Silicon Valley might feel like a secret club you weren’t invited to. Getting a job in Silicon Valley as a non-technical candidate can be daunting. Start by identifying your passions and skills, putting in the hard work to learn what you need, and identifying allies.

As soon as you start figuring it out, don’t forget to mentor others. You can’t get ahead in this industry without giving and taking help from others.

Feel free to shoot me your thoughts on Twitter: @anadiazhernandz. I welcome new resources to link to, new perspectives, and new tips.

Check out other great resources:

Danilo Campos on hustling his start into design and iOS development:

Jonathan Anderson on getting a non-eng role after consulting. All his posts are a great, hands-on deep-dive on the job search, regardless of former background:

Erin Parker on teaching herself and launching her fitness app:

“The next thing Silicon Valley needs to disrupt big time: its own culture”:

***Special thanks to folks who contributed some thoughts to this: Elen AwalomAnarghya A VardhanaKimberly MuñozKarla Amanda Brown, Stephanie Parker, Morgan DeBaun, Danilo Campos, Diana Albarran Chicas

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