“If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat. Just get on.”
- Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook)
With a little audience, I get students reaching out for startup internships/jobs all the time. It used to only be students from my undergrad and grad school, but it has grown to more students looking to get their careers started.
This is a proven method for landing a startup internship.
My Startup Beginning
During my senior year at Macalester College I was a part-time student about to graduate with majors in Econ and Math. I have always loved tech and startups, but I figured it was out of reach for someone without a coding skill set.
Luckily a venture capitalist (Thanks Seth!) gave a talk in one of my classes and I followed up with him after. He connected me with a serial entrepreneur starting something new. I offered to work for free doing anything, which turned into an internship and eventually made me the first employee of the new venture.
Everything starts with putting yourself out there. Don’t be afraid to cold email. I started my podcast with cold emails. I’ve spoken with billionaires and countless interesting people from cold emails. Everyone remembers being a student and most are willing to help.
Here are some other students that have cold emailed their way into startup jobs at some of the best companies.
Tristan Walker / FourSquare
Tristan Walker had no background in startups and was in his first year of MBA when he cold emailed the Founder of FourSquare.
Here is the first email he sent…
Hey Dennis and Naveen
How’s it going? Hope all is well!
My name is Tristan Walker and Im a first year student (going into my second year) at Stanford Business School (originally from New York). Im a huge fan of what you both have built and excited about what you guys have planned for FourSquare. It is an awesome , awesome service.
I would love to chat with you guys at some point, if you’re available, about FourSquare. This year, I’m looking to help out and work extremely hard for a startup with guys I can learn a ton from. Dennis, with your experience at Google and the Dodgeball product, and Naveen, with your experience at Sun and engineering in general, I know I could learn a great deal from you both!
Before business school, I was an oil trader on Wall Street for about
two years and hated it! Moved out to the Bay/Stanford to pursue my passion for entrepreneurship and the startup world. This past spring I had the opportunity to work for Twitter as an intern and learned a ton. Solidified my commitment to working at a startup that I’m passionate about, and FourSquare is one of those startups that I believe in.
I know you guys are probably getting inundated with internship-type requests, but thought it’d be worth a shot! I can assure you Im humble and Im hungry! Let me know if you’d be interested in chatting further.
I definitely look forward to hearing from you.
tristan j. walker | mba class of 2010
stanford graduate school of business
He emailed Dennis, the Founder, eight more times before he got a reply.
He started working for free signing up new merchants and became the VP of Business Development at one of the hottest startups in New York at the time while still a student.
Intern / Eight Sleep
This student emailed an investor in Eight Sleep who forwarded it to the Founder. She landed the internship.
Niraj Pant / Snapchat
This one's super short and effective. Overly long messages are less likely to get read.
Alessa Massa / Morning Brew
In February 2019, Alessa sent the founders, Austin Rief and Alex Lieberman, an email with a resume in the format of a Morning Brew newsletter.
She was a college student with no media experience, and they weren’t hiring at the time.
To get their attention, she taught herself just enough Photoshop to mock up the newsletter and started a Twitter to tweet at Austin & Alex. It wasn’t revolutionary. It just took a little extra time.
4 hours of work turned into becoming the 13th employee at Morning Brew. Shoot your shot.
Things To Keep In Mind
Email the CEO - The CEO is the one with the power to give you the job. If the startup is big enough that someone else is doing the hiring they will pass it on. Many of the best CEOs are surprisingly responsive.
Display Your Passion - Excitement is contagious. Show that you really know the product or space and aren’t just cold emailing every startup you come across. Research as much as you can. Read articles, founder blog posts, and anything else you can find about the industry. Follow the founder and employees on Twitter.
Offer To Work For Free - Startups are moving away from unpaid internships because not everyone can work for free, but offering is still a great way to make your involvement as low risk as possible for the company. Get your foot in the door, prove your worth, gain their trust and then you can negotiate compensation.
Working for free doesn’t have to be with the company’s permission either. You can do a guerrilla usability study and send over improvements for the site. You can find customers and send them over. You can do a class project that helps with a topic you know they need help with. Invest your time to set yourself apart.
Be Helpful - Figure out what they need help with and do it. Show you can run on your own and don’t need anyone to babysit you. Showcase what you can do.
Follow Up - Founders are busy and may miss/forget to answer your first email. Don’t be annoying, but a little persistence can pay off. Tristan emailed Dennis at FourSquare eight times before he responded. I had to email the first founder I worked for twice.
Be Unique - Show that you are unique in your first email. This isn’t the time to be modest. Don't follow a formulaic cover letter like everyone else. Write like a real person. Brevity is your friend.
Reach Out Early - You want to preempt any formal process. Once the job is listed you are already behind. The best jobs are never listed. A good time to reach out is right after funding rounds. You know they have cash and will be looking to hire.
Best of luck!