Joining the next unicorn

8 min read

Question: How to network and get to know startups that are amazing (<100 ppl, Series A/B, product/market fit, pre hypergrowth with good culture)

I’ve been asked a few times over the years about how to find the right early stage company to join.  

Foundational assumptions

I got some really great advice from a mentor which if you believe, changes how you examine options and choose what to do in life.  All the following comments assumes you have the same worldview as me else what I say below will not be as helpful

1. You’re optimising for learning, growth
If you’re optimising for something else this advice won’t help, e.g. cash, though I suspect from a net worth perspective the advice below is the highest expected return.  If you think about a graph where the x axis is time and the y axis is impact/$$/value created, typically most people make the most money in later parts of their career. The difference between a low and high point on the y axis is the slope of the curve.  And I think the best way to adjust the slope of your curve is to learn.

2. Join the rocketship, not the function/product
I’ve seen story after story of friends who start  off as nothing inside a rocketship but prove themselves trustworthy and over short periods of time find themselves with large scopes  of responsibility beyond their years.

From the founders’ perspective, the logic is simple.  If you join early and I trust you, I’ll keep throwing more things on your plate or if you think we should do something, I’ll default to yes.  I can think of a few examples within my org where they’re trusted. They don’t care about titles and are willing to do the dirty work and scale with the org. 

At Xendit, we had someone who joined by working at Xendit on the weekends for free.  They then launched the product that is most reliable and has most positive customers (BD, sales and product).  They then ran a bit of sales. They did some hiring but it didn’t suit. They then built one of the most functional product teams.  Then he gave up that role to someone else with more experience. Then I asked him to fix something we were super annoyed by. In that world he now manages more than he ever has previously in his career. 

Compare that to a friend who is adamant on “strategy” and having a certain title.  He finds his options limited because he doesn’t have the experience nor the execution capability to be trusted with that at the best places.  But he also doesn’t want to do the dirty work that is required in an early stage rocketship where he could be eventually trusted to run strategy.  He got into a great Silicon Valley icon, but his cash is high and net worth isn’t changing YOY except for what he saves. His learning is pretty restricted and he swims in his lane – totally fine too.   Just not what I’m solving for below.

TLDR: find the right organisation and hustle.  Prove yourself, then go whatever direction you want coz you’re trusted to do so.  

3. You’re a business person
The following is roughly aimed at non dev types, think product, sales, BD.  I’ve never tried to go hunting for dev jobs so don’t feel qualified to suggest anything there.  I suspect a lot of the principles apply because the below relies on a lot of factors that transcend dev vs non dev personalities.  

Building the candidate list

My framework for building candidate list is pretty simple:

  • YC backed businesses – YC has the network effect to pick from the best companies by the best founders around the world.  I can sense lots of hate coming but as a sweeping method of filtering founding teams then YC’s heuristics are pretty exemplary (defs relative to other incubators/accelerators).  If you want later stage then try find a YC Growth stage company.

  • Series A from respected VC firm – define “respected” however you want but if Top 10 firms (Google it) then they’re validating the startup for you.  Lots of good and bad things about following this guideline but makes for an easy heuristic. Venerated funds don’t always make good bets, but if the Partner has a good sense of choosing winners then I’d lean on their thoughts more than my own

  • MOM growth rates – each company has its own mix of real and vanity metrics.  Find the real metrics and figure out MOM growth. Ultimately we’re all hunting revenues but that may not be useful depending on stage/type of business. 

  • Culture – word that encompasses a lot of intangibles.  I’d probably look for how I would fit across 2 things: a) how do decisions get made, b) chemistry with decision makers.  I look at decisions because it tells you how culture is applied vs lofty altruistic statements. Within that I’m looking for decision making that aligns with my values and that they’re often right. 

  • + your filters.  I can get passionate about anything so I find industry a fairly useless heuristic for me.  Consumer vs B2B has very different dynamics so useful dimension to think about where you want to specialise.  Heavily regulated industries mean you need that much more traction to stand up to giants, e.g. healthcare, fintech.  There’s plenty more of filters to think about, e.g. personal fit and interests and you have those, so I won’t talk about them more.  I do think these should be secondary to finding the rocketship.  

How do I network into these teams?

  • Find connections – search linkedin for connections, alumni database.  Easy theory. Painful to execute to find connections somehow. Commonality is so important for human psyche so having a friend intro you or finding some common ground immediately changes the dynamic. 

  • If connection – get intro.  In my experience it’s >98% hit rate for a reply in Silicon Valley.  People are super willing to share their time to chat. I can’t think of a time when an intro has been turned away in the last 3 years.  Then you have coffee.

  • If no connection – cold email, Linkedin.  You can get personal emails fairly easily from various stalking websites these days.  Interesting subject. Find a common ground as quickly as possible. Be flexible to meet them where ever (I’m amazed how many ppl want advice from me but want me to travel >60 min to get to them).  One fun hack on human condition. If you’re “in town for the week” I find people are far more likely to make the extra effort to meet. I found this out by actually being in town for just the week but have started purposely making time scarce because people will move lots of things for perceived scarce-ness. 

  • At the end of every meeting, ask for 2 other people you think you should talk to.  Try to push them to say the names of the first 2 people that come to mind. Forcing them to say it plays on human psyche of being more likely to do something if you’ve verbally committed to do it.  Secondly, give me a few days to think about it most commonly means “no thanks” but I find that if I can make them to do cognitive effort with me there than much higher success rate for a name and introduction. 

    When we first started Xendit I didn’t know that many folks in Indonesia.  I emailed every Indonesian I could find at Berkeley (100 emails). Of those 4 replied.  1 met me. He introduced me to his room mate. His room mate introduced me to his father.  His father introduced me about 10 ppl in Indonesia (including the former Economic minister).  From there I applied this rule and know everyone I know. It’s not magic but compound interest is real. 

  • A sidebar on meetups/conferences.  These are good and I’ve had serendipitous occurrences that have been super helpful, e.g. found a customer that opened a whole new industry for us.  A YC partner once gave me advice that conferences are not real work. I’ve bought into that rule when I measure ROI of my own time. I’m not an extrovert so end up talking to only a handful of people.  For me, this means ROI is low (conference goal would be breadth) and find myself making much more meaningful relationships over 1:1 coffees vs environment where everyone has FOMO over who they’re meeting next.  I replace the song and dance of whether I’m worthy of spending more time with an intro that establishes that context. I also get to replace the distraction of looking over the shoulder for a cooler person if the person has dedicated 30 minutes to chat to only me.  

Getting the job

  • Network > resume.  I exaggerate, resume and pedigree helps.  But you really want a referral in. My easy example is I applied for Google with my resume.  Handed it in through a job post. I’m not amazing but I thought I should at least get an interview.  No reply after 3 months. I ended up getting an internship at Amazon (much closer to a meritocracy!) so was pissed at Google’s process.  I asked some advisors and then was told “You have to learn to network”. I was livid. Here I came to the American dream where everything is a meritocracy.  Bullocks. It’s all about network. Once I learned I needed a referral to get a job at Google, within a few months I had a job offer. To be clear, this story is not about my job offers. 

    Point is, network and ask for advice until someone really likes you and then ask to meet more people in the firm.  Through that process, once you sense they think you’re smart and a good fit then ask about if there is anywhere they can think of where you would fit.

    I have another friend moving from VC into the startup world.  Banking -> VC doesn’t give you a whole bunch of execution skills.  He got himself introductions to the founders of an edtech company. After a coffee chat, he made a large deck for what they’re doing wrong and what he would do if he was there.  That deck blew the founders’ minds (I now make all senior ppl that apply at Xendit do this for me) and he got into a role no one wanted as an individual contributor. He executed really well at small tasks in his scope and always put his hand up whenever the founders needed someone to do magic time work.  He now has a litany of teams reporting to him because he was trusted with more and more things and as the company grew he was trusted with the new scope. No politics, no nastiness. Just trust built by executing on small things and putting his hand up for bigger things.

  • Experience vs hustle.  YC gave us advice that we should measure experience by how many different experiences did the person we’re looking at have, e.g. 10 years of experience or 10x 1 years experience.  Repeating the same task over and over has limiting returns. The second useful mantra I follow is hustle beats experience when experience doesn’t hustle.

    This means that for candidates I would emphasise how hard you’ve hustled throughout multiple projects that increased in scope, impact for an organisation over time.  I would then demonstrate that hustle. Candidates at Xendit that have stood out to demonstrate hustle have: introduced us to other candidates, customers, made powerpoint decks with their 100 day plan given what they know about us and gone through our UI/UX and pointed out a litany of issues.  It’s so easy to stand out given how little people do in their job searches to stand out.

    If I was meeting a founder, I’d be asking them what are their biggest issues (gives u sense of how they think, what things are most important, where you can help most) and then probe deep.  I’d then take that homework and go build a deck of how I understood their world working, speaking to other folk I knew at competitor firms or customers and then recommending what I’d do differently.  If I really want the job and it’s not moving, I’d offer to just do a consulting arrangement for free for a week. Once you’re in, do the consulting work, but then just start helping people in the org.  Suddenly you’re indispensable and proving your work. Even if they have interviewed others you’re making a role for yourself.

TL;DR

  • Join the rocketship, don’t care WHAT you do
  • Rocketships often look like YC backed companies raising follow ons from top tier VCs
  • Network your way in via connections, cold emails 
  • Ask for another 2 ppl you can meet at every meeting.  Network grows exponentially

Thanks to Curtis, Cara for reading drafts of this post.  

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