Hustle 101: How to Make Any Startup Want to Hire You


This post is by Sean Johnson. As a partner at Digital Intent, he helps companies build and grow new digital businesses. Sean also organizes the Chicago Growth Hackers Meetup, and is a lecturer at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. He’s very pale. Follow Sean on Google+ or Twitter.

Hustle 101

It used to be easy to get a job at a startup. Because they lacked the money and perks of more established firms, they often had to work with a cobbled together team of misfits and make the most of it.

But no longer. Greater access to seed capital has made salaries more competitive. And the lure of being in the now-fashionable startup community has made the competition much stiffer. Startups can choose from a huge pool of amazing talent.

For a college grad hoping hoping to land a job at a hot startup, the odds are stacked against you. The same vanilla resume with the one or two internships and the student groups won’t cut it. In fact, they probably don’t care about your resume at all.

Startups are the ultimate meritocracy. What matters is that you have the right skills – skills you didn’t learn at school. Skills that most people don’t possess.

Surprisingly, all of these skills are easy to learn. While it can take years to become great at any one of them, within six months you can acquire enough knowledge and practice to stand out among a sea of candidates with identical resumes and identical answers to interview questions.

In fact, I’d argue that simply knowing what the following skills mean and leveraging that information in your cover letter will get you an interview. Which makes this the most valuable blog post you’ve read so far this year. You’re welcome.

Customer Development

A startup in its infancy is nothing more than a bunch of guesses – the founders are guessing a particular type of customer has a particular need, and that their solution will address that need in a way the customer will pay for. Smart startups realize these are just guesses, and they try to identify which are accurate and which are flawed.

The primary vehicle for doing this is called customer development. Customer development basically involves “getting out of the building” and talking to the kinds of people who will ultimately become customers.

Initially you’re trying to validate the problem – you want to know whether or not there is a problem worth solving, and how bad of a problem it is. What you’re hoping for is a “hair on fire” problem – something they acknowledge as being a problem that they would gladly pay money to solve.

Later in the process your goal is to validate the solution. You want to learn whether your product adequately solves that problem.

In most cases some of these assumptions are wrong. The purpose of customer development is to learn that as early as possible, and to make the necessary adjustments to your business before you’ve spent considerable time and money.

Customer development is also the primary sales and marketing mechanism for smart startups early on. They do anything they can to get early users in. They learn what’s broken and what needs to improve. Then they do it again, continuing the process until they reach “product-market fit” and a user experience that people consistently love.

To be effective at customer development, you should:

  • be willing to email, call, or chase down people who don’t know you and ask for their opinion.
  • be able to create structured sets of questions that don’t “sell” the interviewee on the idea, and that don’t bias their answers.
  • have great listening skills, and be able to ask follow up questions to get to the root of an issue.
  • read The Entrepreneurs Guide to Customer Development and Running Lean.


Knowing how to craft compelling copy is a skill that very few college grads possess, but is absolutely critical for startups. Most of the interactions you have with a product or service involve copy:

  • The homepage
  • Signup emails
  • AdWords or display advertising
  • Marketing email
  • Facebook feed posts
  • Blog posts
  • Registration flows

Very few startups have someone dedicated to this job – it usually falls on the founders. Having a crack copywriter on the team can be a tremendous competitive advantage.

To be effective at copywriting, you should:

  • learn everything you can about writing headlines. Most people decide to read a blog post, open an email, or click on a search result based on the headline.
  • study ads constantly, especially if you see them over and over again. If something is running all the time, it’s most likely because it’s working.
  • read Ogilvy on Advertising, Hey Whipple, Squeeze This, and everything on Copyblogger.

Analytics and A/B testing

Smart startups understand their funnel. The funnel is the path users take from first-time visitor to happy, paying customer. Many startups use a framework called AARRR:

  • Acquisition: how many people visit your site
  • Activation: how many people register
  • Retention: how many people come back
  • Referral: how many people tell their friends
  • Revenue: how many people pay money for your service

Through the use of tools like Google Analytics and Kissmetrics, it’s possible to measure each step of the funnel. Google Analytics is free and very powerful – you can see users who have visited the site, their demographics, the pages they visit, the actions they complete and more.

People who understand how to properly set up and analyze the analytics being generated by an application are super valuable. By understanding the funnel, you can identify bottlenecks or areas of considerable dropoff. Armed with this information you can know whether it makes more sense to spend time acquiring more users at the top of the funnel or making tweaks to the bottom of the funnel for existing users.

Analytics becomes even more powerful when combined with A/B testing. A/B testing is a way to test two different versions of a page or part of a page, to see which one leads to better results. A common example is to test different headlines or calls to action on a homepage to see which one leads to a better conversion rate.

Google has a tool called Content Experiments as part of their analytics package, or you can use a tool like Unbounce.

To be effective with analytics and A/B testing, you should:

  • understand the difference between “vanity metrics” and metrics that actually move the business forward.
  • understand what a breakdown in each step of the funnel means, and have good ideas for improving them.
  • understand the different variables you can play with to improve results via an A/B test.
  • read The Ultimate Guide to A/B Testing.

Growth Hacking

The phrase “growth hacking” is a controversial one, but it basically refers to someone is focused on scalable growth. They are masters of understanding the funnel and identifying clever ways to manipulate and improve each step.

Growth hackers are great at identifying new channels for acquisition. There is an enormous advantage in being able to identify and exploit a platform before tons of other companies, because the cost to acquire users is typically very low and you can reach them without a tremendous amount of noise from other companies looking to do the same thing. Companies that were early to adopt the Facebook platform acquired millions of users through ads in the feed, but that strategy has declined in effectiveness as people began to recognize and avoid them. This is why being first to channel is arguable better than being first to market.

Growth hackers also understand that the product itself is the most important marketing vehicle. By focusing on the initial signup process and the core user experience, startups can drastically improve activation, retention and revenue. And by leveraging the social graph, email notifications and other mechanisms, the product is automatically able to drive retention and referrals.

To be effective with growth hacking, you should:

  • study new products and services carefully. How do they handle registration? When do they send notifications? How to they make it more likely that you come back and tell your friends?
  • constantly be looking for new channels to test, focusing on those that lead to low (or no) customer acquisition costs that can be implemented at scale.
  • always monitor how an enhancement to the product or the addition of a new feature impacts the funnel.

Become an Expert in 1 Hour a Day

As you can see, there’s a lot to learn. But don’t get discouraged – if you spend 30 minutes or an hour each day reading some of the books and resources outlined above, within 90 days you will know more than almost any of your peers and be uniquely positioned to take on a great role at an exciting company.

I regularly keep a running list of useful articles and books relevant to the skills outlined above. If you’d like my current list, just send me an email at

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4 responses to “Hustle 101: How to Make Any Startup Want to Hire You”

  1. RossPW says:

    Sean — Really like that you started out with customer develop and research, which is such an essential task for any early stage startup. But you missed out on an equally important role in any startup: that of user experience design.

  2. Sean Johnson says:

    Thanks Ross – I tried focusing on the skills that marketing / business folks could pick up relatively quickly. It’s the same reason I left off anything related to dev – obviously a critical role in most startups, but the learning curve is much steeper.

  3. Todd says:


    I appreciate this list. I have been mostly focusing on improving my programming over the past year. I have found a variety of topics such as these to be also quite important. Currently I’m studying up on the basics of graphics design and UI.

    You have given me more things to study on in the upcoming months.

  4. Sean Johnson says:

    Thanks Todd! Glad you found it useful.

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