How to supercharge your gig-work résumé when applying to startups

How to justify short experiences when applying to startups

We’ve been told time and time again that short tenures of employment on our résumés are red flags and should be avoided at all costs. While this may be the case in the more traditional, corporate world, not everyone will automatically reject your application if all you’ve got to show are short stints like summer internships and little experience after graduation. If it took you a few years to figure out the kind of work you like to do, and you switched around a lot to find yourself, don’t fret! Short stints of employment are quite common and acceptable in some industries, such as creative jobs where freelancing is big, or even the tech industry where contracted projects are very common, not to mention the increasing popularity of the gig economy in our post-pandemic work lives. However, one ecosystem stands out among all the others when it comes to accepting short-lived employment: startups.

Companies in the startup phase can be found across many industries, so you’re bound to find one up your alley. The United States is the leading country by the number of startups - 71,153 to be exact at the beginning of 2022. The startup market has a lot of potential and companies are recruiting fast - and not only in California, the once renowned hotspot for startups. An increasing number of startup founders are leaving the Silicon Valley “bubble” and heading to the East Coast.

So, if you’re looking for a job at a startup, you don’t necessarily have to worry about the fact that you’ve spent the last three years job-hopping through a grand total of seven roles. We spoke with Lynn Berger, a career expert in New York City, and Melissa Bachman, an expert in HR specialist for tech startups, to learn how to explain and take charge of your short stints and make them an asset.

Honesty is the best policy

Whether you’re updating your résumé or in the middle of an interview, Berger and Bachman both agree that you should always be honest. Berger mentions that the world of work has shifted, even prior to the pandemic, to where people are changing jobs more frequently and the old mentality of staying with one employer for a long time is no longer the dominant practice. You’re not the only one moving around and seeing what’s out there, so there’s no reason not to be honest about your fleeting experience and its causes.

Berger suggests not to use the phrase I was fired,” but rather terms like “we parted ways,” or “we weren’t the right match.” There are many ways to spin your reasons for leaving. But as Bachman puts it, you should own your mistakes and failures.” She says many startups ask their candidates to tell me about a time you failed. Well, now is the best time to own it. You will have a chance to explain your failure in your own words and show what you learned from it. This will show both honesty in the interview and that you have confidence and perseverance in your ability to overcome.

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Highlight your added value

Berger defines a short stint as an experience of six months or shorter, but that doesn’t mean you didn’t learn anything from that job. What you take away from a role is what she calls added value: skills and expertise you have developed that are marketable and valuable for the company. She says, “this can be anything from a computer program to working with a specific demographic.” According to Berger, it is imperative to show this added value on both your résumé and during the interview. You must tailor your résumé and elevator pitch to each job description showing your added value from each short employment stint. She also suggests being specific with your skill, for example, “instead of saying ‘organized,’ explain that you created an Excel spreadsheet that helped move the project along quicker.”

Added value can take the form of both hard and soft skills. As Bachman points out, soft skills are essential for startups. She says, “they’re looking for somebody who can take charge, take ownership, and think critically. It is important to demonstrate how to get results and get things over the line. Startups don’t have time to babysit.” But the word she hears the most in the startup world is ‘grit.’ This grit comes when you can showcase not just your everyday work but how you solve roadblocks. She says it’s essential to demonstrate that you “have tried everything to solve [the problem] and you know how to find the right people to help you solve it.”

So even if it was short-lived, you should still justify what you learned from your role and how it will benefit your new position at the startup.

Tell your story

Berger and Bachman agree that the only way to convince a potential employer that your brief experiences were valid is to tell your story. Storytelling and personal branding are essential during the interview process because they allow you to explain your added value and present yourself as the best candidate for the job. Berger stresses that these stories must have a commonality between your narrative and the job description. Bachman also notes that it is vital to show results-based impact during your time at the company and that it is not only about storytelling but structured storytelling.

One way to achieve results-based storytelling is through the STAR method. This method will help you construct a beginning, middle, and end to your story. In other words, It will allow you to structure your story based on the professional situation, your role in the task, your actions, and the results you achieved. Remember, you can use this framework even for your “tell me about a failure” story. And while structured storytelling is essential, you shouldn’t forget about passion. Make sure your story shows that you were passionate about your work even if you failed or it was ephemeral.

Another critical tip Berger adds is to practice. You need to feel confident when telling your story, and confidence comes with practice. Find someone who can play the role of the interviewer and have them listen to you telling your story. After all, practice makes perfect!

Words of wisdom

Another tip Berger gives is to remember to continuously build your network, even after a short tenure. You can always connect with a colleague on LinkedIn and ask for LinkedIn recommendations. She says, platforms like LinkedIn expand your résumé and the story you want to tell, so keep building connections that will help you in the future.”

Whether your short stint of employment is a red flag or not, don’t forget you will always have the opportunity to explain and prove you have added value to the new role you are applying for. And if you decide that the startup ecosystem is not for you, don’t hesitate to change jobs again. It is easy to justify leaving a startup with phrases like, “my project was completed,” “they ran out of funds,” or “my expertise can now be used to help another startup succeed.” So don’t let short stints of employment stop you from applying to startups; own your story with confidence.

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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