Make Yourself Irresistible To A Startup

A version of this article previously appeared on Forbes.

To the surprise of no one, other than snooty film critics, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey broke Christmas box office records. In addition to being a classic children's tale of good versus evil, the film also contains some surprising 2013 job hunting tips for joining a startup. Though you seldom encounter orcs or dragons in the startup world, the inevitable perils and risks of a startup are more akin to joining an adVenture than simply accepting a job.

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Bilbo's Offer Letter

For instance, the offer letter Thorin presents to Bilbo’s at the outset of the movie exemplifies the proper attitude that you must have when joining a startup adVenture. It reads, in part:

“For your hospitality our sincerest thanks, and for your offer of professional assistance our grateful acceptance. Terms: cash on delivery, up to and not exceeding one fourteenth of total profits (if any); all traveling expenses guaranteed in any event; funeral expenses to be defrayed by us or our representatives, if occasion arises and the matter is not otherwise arranged for.”

OK. So you are entrepreneurially minded, but you are not an inventor. You have no plans to found a startup, but you are driven to join a team that is building something from nothing. Like Bilbo, you are restless for something more, but you need a nudge to begin your journey.

No problem. Simply find an adVenture that compliments your passion and talents and then deploy the tactics outlined below.

Tactics For Joining A Startup AdVenture

Unlike seeking a position with a big company, you cannot simply scan Craigslist, shotgun your LinkedIn profile and do the interview dance. Finding the right position with a startup requires flexibility, creativity and patience. As with Bilbo's journey, many startup opportunities are quite unexpected.

Consider which of the following approaches best fits your personality, risk profile, financial standing and temperament. This list is not intended to be a one-size-fits-all recipe; leverage only those tactics which are appropriate to your unique circumstances.

Free Value – Create value for your new adVenture before asking for anything in return. In your initial discussions with the startup, identify one or more tasks you can perform which will deliver real value. Bilbo proves himself to be an affable, if somewhat flustered host, before he is offered a position at his adVenture.

During my career, at Expertcity (creator of GoToMyPC and GoToMeeting, acquired by Citrix), I negotiated a highly advantageous agreement with an online credit card processor months before I was added to the company’s payroll. This was in 1999, when it was a challenge to get big processors to handle transactions for a dot com startup. This agreement generated tens of thousands of dollars of value due to an advantageous chargeback clause. The Founders were impressed that I invested my time to negotiate and craft this agreement, without asking for quid pro quo compensation.

At Computer Motion (NASDAQ: RBOT, acquired by Intuitive Surgical), I helped negotiate the company’s new phone system, which saved over $35,000, before I was an employee. Thus, before ever receiving a dime, I helped the company in a direct and material way.

Not only will this proactive approach give you a chance to display your skills, it will also provide you with an opportunity to familiarize yourself with the company beyond what is possible in the context of the traditional recruitment process. By joining meetings and helping to make decisions before you accept a full-time role, you have an opportunity to assess the company’s fledgling culture and determine if it is a good fit for your temperament and aspirations.

Equity Focused Display your belief in the startup by negotiating for an out-sized stock option grant, in exchange for a lower base salary. Even with the upcoming Obama tax hikes, (relatively) favorable tax treatment of capital gains will allow you to retain a greater portion of the wealth you have helped to create. Bilbo signed up for 1/14th of any treasure secured by his company of dwarfs.

Flexibility – Startups are chronically in need of talented contributors. In Bilbo's case, the dwarfs need a burglar, a role quite unfamiliar to the hobbit. Because of startup's perpetual manpower deficit, emerging entrepreneurs are often given senior responsibilities that would not be available to them at a big company. Conversely, startups generally require early employees to perform menial tasks that would be delegated to more junior employees at a larger company. However, once your startup is successful, you can focus on the tasks that you want to accomplish and hire others to perform less desirable tasks.

Egoless – When you join an adVenture, check your ego at the door and subordinate your self-interest to that of the team. Bilbo and his dwarf brethren collectively learn that their individual success will ultimately be derived from the team’s overall success. Strive to be like Bilbo, a low-maintenance, high-performing contributor, as discussed in Recruit Cal Ripken, Not Reggie Jackson.

Not Of Middle Earth, But Still Relevant

Although applicable to securing a position at a startup, the following tips were not used by Mr. Baggins when he joined his adventure.

Leverage Your Startup Community – Establish relationships and gain credibility with the accountants, venture capitalists and entrepreneurial lawyers. Be patient. It will take time for your availability to become known to the entrepreneurial community regarding. Introduce yourself to the entrepreneurial ecosystem by offering to help others, rather than conveying a desire for a job.

Bat Cleanup – If you are fortunate to be in a relationship with a significant other, you can swing for the fences while your better-half maintains a secure job. I was lucky enough to deploy this tactic, as my spouse held safe jobs with various large enterprises while I worked for far too little pay and accepted significant risks at my various startups.

If you do not have a significant other, you may be able to call upon your family to provide a temporary financial safety net. Irrespective of the availability of a third party to financially lean on, you can create mini-ventures that will increase your financial flexibility and allow you to eventually swing for a home run.

Pay to PlayGiven that you have adequate cash reserves, another way to secure your position on a startup team is to directly invest. Bringing capital to the adVenture effectively offsets the incremental cost of adding you to the team. From a Founder’s vantage point, securing investments from early, key employees is a convenient way to further strengthen the employees’ vested interest in the company’s ultimate success. I purchased common stock, at its fair market value, at all of my startups when I was an operational executive.

Standout – I landed my job at Computer Motion, in part, because I took the time to read the Founder’s PhD dissertation, which was titled, A Computer Architecture for Advanced Robot Control. Although it was highly technical, it provided me with a basic understanding of the company’s technology. It also served as a great door-opener with a Founder who did not initially appreciate the value a businessperson could add to his engineering-oriented startup.

Become a User – If practical, use and rigorously evaluate the startup’s product or service. When I interviewed potential new hires, this was one of the key factors I considered when evaluating each candidate’s commitment. At Expertcity, we offered a free 30-day trial version of GoToMyPC, which made using the service very convenient for any potential new hire. The number of candidates who professed a passionate interest in our mission and did not take the time to download the free version of our product was consistently surprising and disappointing.

It is foolish to commit your life to a startup without a thorough first-hand, user’s perspective of the company’s value proposition. In some instances, the startup’s product or service will be under development and it may not be possible to test-drive their solution. In such cases, ask to become an Alpha user. Hands-on experience with the company’s solution will provide you with invaluable insights as you evaluate the adVenture’s fit with your skills and proclivities as well the startup’s overall chances of success.

There And Back Again

The title of Peter Jackson's third hobbit film is The Hobbit: There And Back Again. Serial entrepreneurs know that it is the journey that matters most, not the treasure you will split with your team at the venture’s exit.

Make 2013 the year you begin an adVenture that you will be proud to tell your grandchildren about. May you end up like Bilbo at your journey's end - proud of your exploits and content with your lifetime supply of Hobbit ale and Longbottom pipe-weed.

Follow my startup-oriented Twitter feed here: @johngreathouse. I promise I will never tweet about dragon sightings or that killer burrito I just ate.

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John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara's Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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