An employee referral is a strategy where an existing employee of a company recommends someone they know for a job opening within the organization. As a startup job-seeker, you'll get referrals by asking someone within your network to endorse you at one of your target startups.
Many companies, especially startups, prefer to find candidates through employee referrals because it often results in high-quality candidates who make for great cultural fits. Employee referrals also lead to a faster and more cost-effective hiring process, resulting in higher employee retention.
Employee referrals are the highest-leverage way to get your foot in the door at a company, especially a startup.
Here are some interesting statistics about employee referrals from Zippa:
These statistics are likely to be higher for startups when compared to more established companies.
Now that we know what employee referrals are and why they're so important, let's talk about how you can use employee referrals to get your foot in the door at your dream startup.
Use Dream Startup Job to conduct thorough research into which startups align with your skills, values, and career goals. Choose companies that resonate with your interest and have open roles that align with your skillset.
Shoot to develop a list of 20-40 target startups across multiple industries. Having a solid list of target startups will streamline the process of getting referrals within these companies.
The first place to start when looking for referrals is to ask yourself the question, "Who within my network knows me as a person and understands my skillset?"
Write down the names of anyone who comes to mind. It may be helpful to go through the contact list on your phone. Use a notebook, Google Doc, or spreadsheet, and keep it organized, because you'll be adding to this list in the next step.
Here’s an example of what this list would look like for two imaginary names from your immediate network.
Once you've developed a list of anyone who comes to mind, hold on to the list and move on to the step below. We'll reach out to them and ask them to connect later on.
Go through each company on your target list and follow the steps below:
Note: Go through the entire process for all of the target companies on your list and track everything in the notebook, Google Doc, or spreadsheet that you started in the previous step. You will put together a full list of connections for all of the companies on your target list first, and then you will batch your outreach after you've compiled all of your contacts.
Here’s an example of what this process would look like for a company on an imaginary target list. The names are fake, but this should show you what your notebook or Google Doc should look like as you go through this process.
If you’ve fully completed the previous step, you should now have a nice long, organized list of people you can contact to ask for a referral.
It’s never easy to ask for help, and it’ll be uncomfortable at first, but once you get started, you’ll see that most people are more than happy to help. Many startups also pay an internal referral bonus when referrals are hired, so many of the people you’ll be reaching out to will have extra motivation to put you in contact with the right person within the startup.
In most cases, the purpose of your outreach will be to set up an “informational meeting" or a call with the person you’re reaching out to. If the person is in your area, ask if they’d be willing to meet for 15 minutes over coffee, and always offer to come to them. If the person is out of your area, ask to set up a 15-minute video chat or phone call.
For people that you know well, it’s best to ask for a referral in person, through text, or over the phone. For people who are not within your immediate network, a well-crafted email or LinkedIn message will be most effective.
It would be nice if there were a one-size-fits-all option when asking for a referral, but unfortunately, that isn't the case. You'll want to prioritize your outreach based on the strength of each person on your target list.
Reach out in the following order:
For this example, we'll reach out to Sam Wilson from up above. Sam has been our best friend since childhood, and she's been a Product Manager at one of our target companies, Dropbox, for five years.
Since we've known Sam forever, we can send her a text.
"What's up, Sam! Hope things are going well at Dropbox. I saw a posting for [open role] that aligns really well with my skillset, and I’m very interested. Would you be willing to hop on a call to discuss how you like working at Dropbox and give me your input on if you think the role would be a good fit for me?”
When you hop on a call with Sam, your goal should be to learn about her experience at Dropbox and get her input on whether she thinks you'd be a good fit or not. If she has great things to say about the company and role, it would be the perfect time to ask her to refer you to the recruiter or hiring manager for the role.
For this example, we'll reach out to Uncle John from up above. Although Uncle John doesn't work at one of our target companies, he works in the industry, so he may know some people who we'd benefit from connecting with.
Since we have a close relationship with Uncle John, we can give him a phone call.
"Hey, Uncle John. I hope everything is well with you and the family. I know you’ve worked in the generative AI space for some time, so I wanted to connect about a couple of roles I’m looking at.
I’m interested in [open roles] at OpenAI and Anthropic, and I was curious if you knew anyone at these companies. Based on my experience in [previous roles], I think I’d be a really great fit. If anyone from your network comes to mind, I’d really appreciate an intro so I can set up a quick call with them to discuss the company and the open role. Totally no worries if no one comes to mind.”
The ideal situation would be that Uncle John has someone at one of the companies that he’d be willing to connect us with through email. After he makes an email connection, we’d provide a brief background about ourselves to the person he connects us with and ask them to hop on a 15-minute call to discuss their experience at the company.
For this example, we'll reach out to Olivia Thompson from up above. She works at OpenAI, which is one of our target companies. We worked with her at a previous company, and we have her contact information, so we can send her an email.
"Hey Olivia - hope you've been well. Seems like forever since the [previous company] days. I've been looking for my next role, and there's an [open role] position at OpenAI that looks like a great fit for me.
If you have the time, I'd love to hop on a 15-minute call to catch up and discuss how you like your General Counsel role at OpenAI and the [open role] that I'm interested in.
If it's been a while since you chatted with your contact, it might be a good idea to include an updated version of your resume in the email. You'll want to avoid asking for a referral directly in your outreach. Instead, you want to learn about their experience at the company. More often than not, the person will offer to provide an introduction if they think you are a good fit.
For this example, we'll reach out to John Smith from up above. John is connected to Ava Rodriguez from OpenAI, so he may be able to provide an introduction. Since you and John are in the same pickleball group, you can ask him next time you play together.
"John, I noticed you're connected to Ava Rodriguez on LinkedIn. She's a Member of the Technical Staff at OpenAI, and I've been thinking about applying for an [open role] position there.
I'd love to chat with her to get some insight into the company and what the role is like. If you're OK with it, would you mind connecting me with her? I can email you a copy of my resume and some information about my background to make things easy for you."
The ideal situation is that John knows Ava well and is willing to provide a warm email introduction. If John isn't willing to offer an intro, see if he'd be OK with having you mention his name when you reach out to Ava.
In some cases, you may have a connection to someone but won't feel comfortable asking your mutual contact for an introduction. In that case, you can still leverage your connection when reaching out to the person directly.
For this example, let's use Isabella Martinez from up above. Isabella works at OpenAI, one of our target companies, and we're connected through Sophia Williams. We know Sophia from college, but we don't know her that well and don't feel comfortable reaching out to ask for an intro. That's okay because we can still mention that we know her and reach out to Isabella directly.
Since it's likely we won't have Isabella's contact information, we can send her a request on LinkedIn and include the following message in our request.
"Hey, Isabella - I came across your profile on LinkedIn and saw we're both connected to Sophia Williams.
I'm currently a [role] at [company name], and I've been thinking about a career change. I'd love to ask you a few questions about your experience at OpenAI.
Any chance you'd be available for a 15-minute call this week?
The response rate for cold outreach like this will be lower than your other forms of outreach, but mentioning a mutual contact or shared connection will increase the odds that the person responds.
If you don’t hear back from your contact after your initial outreach or after an initial conversation, don’t be afraid to follow up with a quick check-in. Many times people who want to help will simply get busy, and a quick check-in can prompt them to follow through with your referral.
Once the referral is made, you should let your contact know when you’ve submitted your application. They may be able to provide some insider information on the process or fill you in on anything you should be looking out for during the interview process.
We hope this post provides you with some fuel to get started finding referrals at your dream startup.
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