Tips for Breaking into a Salt Lake City Startup

Move over, Silicon Valley: Utah has become a hotbed for tech startups. The Interstate 15 corridor that connects Provo to Salt Lake City and Ogden is brimming with tech companies; last year, for the first time, Utah companies raised more than $1 billion in venture capital funding.

If you’ve been thinking about venturing beyond a traditional corporation into Salt Lake City’s dynamic startup market, you might be wondering which job-hunting strategies are most effective, and how to create a pitch that will appeal to the founder and his or her passion.

To help you land such a job, we asked two local founders to share their advice for breaking into a Salt Lake City startup.

Prioritize Passion Over Money

One of the biggest misconceptions about working for a tech startup is that everyone gets rich. The reality is that only about 37 percent of startups are still operating four years after founding. So if you really want to break in, demonstrate alignment and passion for the company’s mission and goals during the hiring process.

“Starting a new venture is not a nine-to-five job,” said Grant Gordon, co-founder and CEO at Artemis Health. “When a bug hits production, your heart has to be in it because you may have to work late to resolve the problem.”

How does Gordon identify passionate prospects who will truly love their job at a tech startup? He looks for tech pros who work on open-source projects or contribute code in their spare time to public repositories on Bitbucket or Github. Reviewing a candidate’s code also helps validate their skills and technical specialty.

“You don’t necessarily need experience with cutting-edge tools to work at a startup, but being an expert at something is definitely a feather in your cap,” he added.

Show You Can Balance Execution with Innovation

Another prevalent myth about startups is that tech pros get to spend all their time coming up with ideas for new products and solutions. But moving from concept to reality requires execution, self-motivation and the willingness to handle routine tasks such as coding, testing and debugging.

Founders are looking for professionals who are able to combine high energy and hard work with high output, explained Chris Knoch, CEO of data analytics firm Big Squid. For instance, Knoch evaluates a candidate’s self-directed learning activities and the way they approach their job search to see if he or she has a proven track record of following through.

“Show me that you’ve done your homework right out of the gate by stating why you want to join the industry and possibly our company,” Knoch said.

Don’t hesitate to call or send a letter to follow up after a job interview, he added: that not only shows interest but a willingness to take initiative and drive things to a conclusion.

Offer Advice and Opinions

If you worked for a big company for a long time before joining a startup, you may be reluctant to make recommendations when it comes to choosing a tech stack or resolving a problem. At larger firms, such decisions are often made by senior executives who don’t appreciate outside input. But startup founders want you to contribute more than code: they’re looking for strong people who will add to the conversation.

“We like to hash things out before we make a decision,” Gordon explained. “So we look for ‘smart creatives’ when we hire.”

“Smart creative” is a term coined by Google’s Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg. These kinds of tech pros combine technical know-how with creative flair, and aren’t afraid to suggest new ideas or different ways to tackle complex issues. (To help you put your best foot forward, here’s what characterizes a “smart creative,” according to Schmidt.)

For instance, do your prefer React or Vue libraries for building user interfaces, and why? Do you opt for Python over Java? Do your homework so you’re ready to discuss actual problems and potential solutions when you meet with a founder.

Take the Initiative

Don’t just offer to connect on social media and leave it at that; send an InMail message to the founder if you are interested in a position at a startup. Reach out to various people, call, or drop by.

“It’s shocking how few calls we get from candidates,” Knoch said. “If a startup isn’t welcoming to applicants, keep looking until you find one that is.”