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Ben Debayle By Ben Debayle • September 15, 2015

How I Landed a Tech Startup Job With No "Tech" or "Startup" Experience

I was two years out of school and working in commercial real estate. I didn’t dislike my job, I just really wanted to experience the fast-paced, innovative startup environment. Reading about it on Mashable wasn’t enough. I needed to be in the trenches.

The problem was that I seemingly had nothing to offer a bustling startup. I had no startup experience and I certainly couldn’t code. The startup world is also very relationship-based and I didn’t “know somebody” either. You can see the dream was looking bleak. I needed a strategy.

Something helpful I learned during my time in real estate is that it’s best to start at the top. Much like choosing an office space, deciding whom to bring aboard a small team always ultimately ends in the hands of the CEO. I made my list of ideal companies to work for in my city and researched who was calling the shots. I probably could have started right from there, but I wanted to apply the “start at the top” principle one level higher.

I knew that CEOs of investor-backed companies meet with and answer to their investors regularly. There are a handful of angels and VC firms in each region so I decided to meet with a partner at one of these firms. How did I land the meeting? It wasn’t by asking for a favor because that rarely (never) works. My approach was to ask for advice. The ask was very simple and very personable. Partners at these firms always hear, “I want to pitch you my idea so you can help me,” but don’t as often here, “I want to be in your shoes one day and would love some advice on where to start if you were me.” Remember, every high-dollar big-shot started as a scrappy go-getter at some point. They usually appreciate the hustle and will likely be open to meeting with you if they recognize your sincerity and can see themselves in you.

In the brief meeting, I asked for advice on what they would do if they were in my shoes and wanting to break into the startup scene. You’ll pick up a ton of great advice. If they’re impressed with you, they will think of ways they can help. They'll they realize that they actually can help and remember the several young companies they’re incentivized to assist by sending quality employees. That’s when the “‘you need to meet the CEO of [xyz company]” conversations start to happen.

And then I got hired the next day. Just kidding. Not that easy.

But, I did have a powerful email intro to send to a startup founder: John Doe at Angel Partners (you know...your boss, essentially) asked me to reach out to you. This didn’t get a reply, surprisingly. Though I’m confident it got read, if opened. I followed up four times in the subsequent weeks. With each touch point, I was sure to include something incredibly relevant. For instance, I learned what programing language the developers were using to build the technology with and enrolled in an online class through UC-Berkeley that taught how to build and deploy a cloud-based application using Ruby on Rails. It exactly matched what the company was doing and was proof that I was serious about working there. If you find ways to go the extra mile, it shows that you will find ways to add value in a small team that needs versatility.

Being that I was suggesting the company essentially create a role for me, I needed to pitch exactly what that role could be. That means I needed to identify which of my skill-sets were transferable. Though not an exact match, the experience in my previous job that was most valuable was my sales experience. Real estate is about closing deals. I decided to highlight how I would be able to effectively sell their product given my experience. Always look for what about your experience would be relevant to a startup.

Eventually, I got a response with an opportunity to meet. Though not a formal interview, I prepared as if it was--resume and all. Don’t go unprepared. Shortly after the interview, I was invited into a short interview process followed by an offer letter. The CEO later confessed that the only reason he accepted the meeting was to get me to stop emailing him and had no intention of hiring me.

Moral of the story, you don’t have to already be in the startup scene to get in the startup scene. Just try. I hope my story helps inspire you and maybe even gives you a few tips to try yourself.