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Stand out to startups: what are they really looking for?




5 minute read

How can I differentiate myself from my peers? Which skills should I highlight in my interviews? Why would a startup hire me over someone else with the same skillset? These are questions we’re asked every single day.

Whether you’re reading this considering your first move from corporate to startup, have had a small taste of startup life, or are a startup veteran, you’ll likely want to compare notes.

Every company and their product is unique, but there are a lot of similar qualities these companies look for from candidates.

Surprisingly for you, or maybe not, the weighting really sits on soft skills above all else. In the startup sector, you have businesses that need to scale rapidly: building product at pace, growing teams, innovating, pushing boundaries.

Startups recognise that to achieve this, you hire for personality, approach, values, not just for technical skills.

It’s important to remember that due to the very nature of a startup, you could be applying for their first open position. Therefore, there might be a few ‘kinks’ in the process. It’s likely that their job ads may have been ‘inspired’ (aka copied) from other companies. Use the ad as a bare guide, find key themes, but ultimately, take the long lists of ‘required’ with a pinch of salt, and speak to someone in the know about what that company is really looking for. Ultimately, some of the non-negotiables are probably in the list below… so keep reading.

Our team spends every day working with startups, helping senior leaders scale up their teams. We spend hours immersing ourselves into our clients' businesses, giving us a high level of insight into what they’re really looking for. And, that’s what we’re going to share with you today.

So, what qualities are startups really looking for?

When we first put this together there was a list of 20+ common qualities, with a lot of overlap. We have compiled this list to be what we consider is the most important and common across startups.

The qualities:

  • Communication and Collaboration
  • Passionate & Progressive
  • Business Savvy
  • Change Advocate

Communication and Collaboration

Most startups, at least within the first few years, have flat structures with cross-functional teams, this means:

  •  You need to have at least an appreciation for the other people within your team building the product. If you are a Developer you will need to understand what the UX Designer is doing, the QA Engineer, the DevOps Engineer. Every person has a role to play, the team need to be a cohesive unit rather than working in silos.


  •  Collaboration is key. Great product gets built by bouncing ideas off each other and leveraging each person’s area of expertise. You need to be able to work constructively within the team, challenging what’s possible.


  • Ego’s don’t exist. In a flat team structure, there is no hierarchy. You might be the most talented engineer in the world, but no person is bigger than the product or company. You need to be able to have a voice and opinion, but if that opinion isn’t followed, you just get on with it

Business Savvy

This might be the most surprising quality for most people.

You have to picture that you are working in a small business, you are working on a customer-facing product, and chances are that other areas of the business are going to be the ones interacting with these users and understanding their feedback.

The company will have a vision and a problem they are trying to address within their marketplace. However, as the product is built, it also needs to evolve and there will be constant user feedback and validation of your work.

This means a few things:

  • You need to understand your role within the context of the product AND the business. What is the company trying to achieve? What does the user want from the product? Does the product deliver on those needs? What will users want in the future?

  • You need to appreciate everyone’s function within the company. Quite often user feedback will come through the sales, marketing and product teams. Build strong relationships across the business.


  • You will have internal stakeholders outside of technology. Quite often the CEO, CPO, Head of Marketing, Sales Director and others will get involved with the product. Don’t fight it, understand their drivers and be able to talk to them about how your role can enable what they are asking for. A salesperson won’t want to hear about code, they’ll want to know that what you're building addresses their client’s needs.

Passionate and Progressive

We personally hate the word passion, it is overused by companies when hiring, not just startups, corporates plaster it everywhere. *rolls eyes*

What startups are trying to get across here is someone that genuinely enjoys their work. Your job is more than a 9 to 5. This doesn’t mean that you are coding 14 hours a day, this means that you’ll be constantly playing around with new tech, researching new ways to do things, you’ll likely contribute to open source, you’ll go to meetups or events. You’ll have strong peer relationships outside of your immediate company.

It will mean that you are more likely to be a person driven by the need to constantly improve your work. You will never sit down and be satisfied. Technology changes so quickly there are constantly better ways to do things, which you will either love or hate.

Startups want those that love improving and have progressive mindsets. They know this will help push the team to build a better product and innovate.

You will also likely be someone that wants to progress themselves careerwise. Again, startups need to scale, they need high calibre individuals that will grow with the business, having individuals that want to become leaders or take on more responsibility is key.

Change Advocate

If you want a steady job, where the day to day never really changes and each year you will keep plodding on with your career – do not join a startup!!!

Startups are dynamic by nature. The journey of any startup is one of building at pace, with high levels of growth at each round of funding. The product will keep evolving and becoming more complex, the teams will scale up and branch out.

You need to be able to embrace change and see it as an opportunity, not a blocker. If you do this, it’ll be like a career on steroids where you learn and grow as an individual super fast.

This is a mindset you either have or don’t. If you don’t that’s not a problem but don’t put yourself in an environment that doesn’t suit you.


As a startup ourselves, we know better than anyone how hard it is to stand out. We’d be really grateful if you could spare a few minutes to follow us @LinkedIn and @Twitter

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