My graduate school adviser hated me. I complained that I couldn’t get a job at a startup, and she was sick of students complaining. Every student thought they were special and were befuddled why companies didn’t agree.
Her advice to me? Get lunch with Tristan Walker, a CEO and founder. So I did, and it changed how I apply for jobs. Here’s how:
Tristan wanted to work at the hottest startup in Silicon Valley—Foursquare (it was 2009). He applied on Foursquare’s website. No response. He found the CEO’s email address on the website and sent him a note. No response. He emailed him again. No response. He emailed him again. No response. He emailed him again.
I have chutzpah, but I would have stopped at the fourth email. Tristan didn’t, and so he emailed him again. No response.
He emailed him three more times. No response.
So what did Tristan do? He started working for them.
He wanted a job in business development, so he started doing business development. He called up companies, told them he was a student working on a project, and asked if they would be interested in advertising on Foursquare. (Remember: Tristan did not actually work for Foursquare.) He had to explain what Foursquare was, but, miraculously, a few companies actually said yes.
Tristan then emailed the Foursquare CEO a ninth time and told them he’d lined up a few advertisers for them.
This time, the CEO replied. They met the next day. Tristan went on to run business development at Foursquare.
Why This Actually Works
This strategy works because it makes you stand out. We (myself included) forget that top companies get inundated with application after application, and honestly don’t know (or have the time to know) how special you are.
By just doing the work, you make yourself stand out, you show you actually really want to work at the company, and you give the company a sample of what you can actually do.
After all, if you were hiring someone, would you be more excited to talk to the person who applied via the website, or already closed two deals for you?
Quick warning before you run out and do this: Make it clear if you’re talking to users or potential clients that you don’t actually work for the company or represent them—you never want to risk hurting the company’s reputation (and yours in the process).
Sometimes, it’s hard to think of ways to show how special you are. Here are some ideas that I’ve seen work:
1. Prove Yourself in the Areas Where You’ll Be Perceived as Weak
Before I applied to IDEO, the product design consultancy, I asked a former IDEO employee, Emily Ma, what the company would perceive as my biggest weakness.
Her answer: Are you actually creative?
I didn’t have a portfolio, and I came from supply chain. So, instead of filling out the company’s application, I decided to make a book. I spent 10 hours in four different airport baggage claims, interviewed 23 people, and put together a book on Snapfish about how I would improve baggage claims. Long story short, I got the internship.
2. Do Work That You’d Actually Do if You Were Working for Them
After graduate school, I wanted to work in product management, and I was super impressed by Evernote.
I decided to show them what I could do, and so I focused on the new user onboarding experience. I interviewed 23 users about it, came up with a few ideas, and wrote 10 slides about my discoveries. I then emailed those to the CEO. He emailed me back in 30 minutes and asked me to come in for an interview.
3. Do Work They Need Help On
A friend of mine wanted to work at a popular online dating company. This friend knew from talking to employees that its biggest problem was getting women to join the site (combined with a really low LTV), so he created and optimized Facebook ads that targeted women, aiming for a $2 conversion.
He created over 50 ads and sent the CEO the top performing ones. Did the CEO respond? Of course!
This approach isn’t foolproof. In fact, once it didn’t work for me. I did sample work and emailed it to a hiring manager and never heard back. I started doing more work and still never heard back. I actually called Tristan and asked for ideas.
His advice: If you’re doing work for someone and they don’t have the courtesy to respond, you probably don’t want to work for that person anyway—I agree.
This article was originally published on Medium. It has been republished here with permission.
Photo of job interview courtesy of Eric Audras/Getty Images.