Art of the Start-Up May 29 2012

Getting a Start-Up Job, With or Without a Degree

By Kelly Eggers

Is it worth it to fork over four years and a bunch of cash to get a college degree if you have dreams of working at a start-up? That age-old question in Silicon Valley is getting new impetus as more graduates find difficulty landing work, much less work in their field, right out of school.

Still, while some companies--particularly start-ups--have been scooping up high school graduates and college dropouts, many will still only hire those with college degrees.

Regardless of the category you fall under, there may be a home for you at a fast-growing business.

"There are two camps: those who care about academic experience, and those who care about 'what you have done' and 'what you have done lately,'" says Craig Tockman, founder of StartUpers, a website that lists job openings at start-ups.

The best way to tell which way your desired workplace leans is to read the job posting, he says. "Most start-up jobs at my site or even on Craigslist will mention something like, 'CS degree required' if they are in the camp of 'degree matters,'" he says. "The others will advertise something like 'five years of relevant experience in…'"

If you're looking to land work at a start-up, you need to identify your audience before you submit your application. Knowing which "camp" your sights are set on can help you determine if you'll be a good fit for the business. Here's how to cater your application to both parties.

Playing up Your Education

While a degree is certainly valuable, the emphasis on employees' education at start-ups is often less than at larger tech companies and than in many other industries. Many well-known entrepreneurs--most famously Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg--never completed their secondary education, and went on to launch successful Silicon Valley businesses.

While the example they've set certainly contributes to the education-optional mentality at some start-ups, traditionally trained entrepreneurs may stick to convention when it comes to their employees' backgrounds. Not all start-ups are created equal, and some steer clear of the casual, low-key atmosphere that has become notorious in the Valley.

If you have a lot of education under your belt, play up studies most relevant to start-ups and their founders.

Any kind of entrepreneurship courses should be highlighted, says Kathy Ver Eecke, founder of Working for Wonka, a Silicon Valley-based start-up consultancy. "If you completed 12 credits on entrepreneurialism, put that on your resume," she explains. "Entrepreneurial studies under your belt will show you have the right mind-set."

Most start-ups looking for a strong educational background will be expecting computer science experience. "The camp that cares about your university curriculum and degree are naturally looking for computer science students and will look down on you if you are coming from a different background," Tockman says. While there are certainly roles within start-ups that require expertise in accounting or marketing, for example, Tockman says that there is a brimming pool of candidates for those roles, so it is tougher to distinguish yourself.

"If I were advising a high-school student to invest $120,000 in borrowed money on a university education, I would recommend choosing the computer science route," says Tockman.

Playing Up What You've Done

If your educational history isn't your strongest selling point, look for a start-up that wants you to add immediate value. "This camp wants to see an online portfolio of sites, apps, or software that you coded, designed, or developed and will judge you solely on that," says Tockman. "It's entirely possible to get hired without a CS degree or any degree for that matter."

It is important to note your accomplishments in any industry, but it is of particular interest to hiring start-ups. "When you are trying to get a job at a start-up, what you did yesterday will never be as important as what you will do for them tomorrow," Ver Eecke says. Emphasizing that you helped to grow a business, or some part of a business, is of significant importance.

Don't limit yourself. "When it comes to start-ups, you will get more mileage when you explain how you grow your paper route" than what you studied in school, Ver Eecke says. Of course, the more business-applicable experience you have, the better, but Ver Eecke explains that if you can pinpoint how you grew any business, it can show your ability to identify new customers, more efficient means of production or distribution and other important growth channels for start-ups.

"If you sold more Girl Scout cookies than everyone else and can explain how you did that, that will get attention," Ver Eecke says. "If you started a business in college, even if you did it just to get beer money, it's going to be more impressive than your degree by far."

A reason for this "prove yourself" mentality, Tockman says, is because there is really no substitute for experience. "Most start-ups start employees off on a contract-to-hire arrangement," he says. "This way they get to see if you really are who you say you are on your resume, as Yahoo recently found out when they discovered that their CEO had a phantom computer science degree."

Write to Kelly Eggers at kelly.eggers@dowjones.com



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