Understanding the culture of a startup reveals effective ways a freelancer can best sell themselves and get quality work with a growing startup.

“Does anybody have a freelancer friend who’s looking for a job and want to work with a growing startup?” – says every bootstrapped startup trying to keep up with growth.

Growing businesses are keen for talented people with relevant skills they have yet to acquired. For that reason, it can be difficult for a startup to filter through prospects. A great example of this poor execution is when a team I was working with was in need of a developer. We posted a localized ‘We’re Hiring’ Facebook post, then screened potential developers by hovering over them as they fixed a glitch on our website, all the while vibing out if they’d jive in our environment. Interviewing and hiring are skills that most startups don’t have experience with as they would prefer to spend that precious energy on the draining demands of steering their newly launched vessel—all hands on deck!

Finding the Gig

In working with half a dozen startups within a year, I’ve noticed better ways than others to getting an initial interview. Here are the two most successful methods I’ve experienced in getting my foot in the door:

1. Put yourself out there.

A strong reference from a friend will forever precede an impressive portfolio and polished resume. Start by letting friends know you’re looking for work and would appreciate any references they think would be fitting. It’s common for references to transfer from person-to-person until it finds an appropriate match.

But first, clean up that LinkedIn profile! It’s the go-to source startups use to pre-vet potential hires. Tailoring your profile and portfolio to be more attractive to the companies you’re applying for can be a massive shortcut to getting an initial interview. Don’t forget to give any listed references a heads-up so they’re not caught off guard when contacted. You can fake a quality resume, but you can’t fake an authentic recommendation.

2. A staffing agency.

Not long after moving to San Fransisco I quickly found myself working with four startups at once all thanks to the same staffing agency.

Being that a staffing agency’s mission is to match the best talent with the best company, they’re the next best thing after a friend’s recommendation. Startups trust staffing agencies because of they have a well-practiced screening process and can fill job openings with the most suitable individual from their large pool of vetted talent. For this reason, a freelancer can trust a staffing agency to match them with job opportunities that align with the information provided (e.g. skills, availability, aspirations, etc.). So be intentionally about positioning yourself to staffing agencies based on the startup role you’d prefer.

Negotiating your rate:

A successful negotiation leaves both parties happy. It is your responsibility as an independent contractor to define what rates you’re willing to work for.

1. Determine your rate range ahead of time.

Being unsure about your worth gives you zero leverage to negotiation with. Meaning your rate will ultimately be determine for you. Even if you’re not confident about what to charge for a particular project, at least speak with poise to establish credibility that you respect your value. One good method I used fresh into San Fransisco was I emailed other SF-based designers asking for a quote on a project, compared my portfolio to theirs, and voila!

2. Don’t be the first to talk.

Let them be the first to name a price and negotiate from there. My first staffing agency gig had a ‘budget’ at $40/hour; I countered with $55/hour and we settled at $50. The next gig was upped to $60, and the following to $65.

3. Lead with what makes you unique.

How can you contribute to the team or project in ways other potential hires can not? Use whatever that is to justify your counter offer. Ask questions about the project and listen closely for the needs you can most reliably deliver on (e.g. speed, quality, flexibility, diverse skills, advanced focused skill, etc).

4. Hang up the phone (politely).

Don’t feel obligated to lock-in your rate during the first conversation. In fact, it’s better if you don’t. It shows you care about the project and need further research to decide if it’s the right fit for your skills and desired rate.

The downside of a staffing agency.

They get a cut of your hard work, as they should by doing all the backend admin work and pairing you with ideal gigs. Once during a gig, it was revealed to me that a company was paying $90/hr to work with me, which was a shock because I only saw $60/hour of it. Meaning the staffing agency was pocketing 33% of my actual hourly rate—a figure they’d prefer to not share. Rightfully so, as I’ve seen creative folk take advantage of this system by first finding employment through a staffing agency, then ending the contract shortly after only to skirt around the staffing agency and do the same work as an independent contractor for an in-between rate. Meaning less money out of the company’s pocket and more in yours. Win-win! Though a total stab to the staffing agency—to each is their own.

Getting the Gig

I spoke with my amazing SF-based staffing agent, Gloriane the Lead Wizard at Vitamin T, to get an better understanding of what a freelancer can do, and not do, to get quality work with a startup through a creative staffing agency:

What is the biggest benefit freelancers have in getting work through a creative staffing agency like Vitamin T?

The biggest benefit? There are so many! The way that Vitamin T works with freelancers, we make it easy for them to find work and focus on doing the fun stuff, which is design. Freelancing can be tough–it’s like owning your own business–but when you work with Vitamin T, we bring clients to you and when you’re working on projects, we act as your back office, doing payroll and providing benefits (medical, dental, vision, FLEX spending, even 401K!). You don’t have to worry about invoices and when you’re going to see a paycheck; you get paid on a weekly basis when you’re on an assignment with us!

What could a freelancer do ahead of time to be best prepared to get quality gigs with a creative staffing agency?

This is an easy one–update your online portfolio. Make sure it contains the latest and greatest pieces you’ve worked on. Also fine tune your portfolio so that it represents the type of job you want to keep working on. Sometimes I see portfolios with a lot of extraneous “noise”; for example if a Graphic Designer wanted to do more digital but there’s a lot of older  class projects involving package design, it would skew my impression of them. You are what you showcase, perception is reality, etc. It always helps to have a fresh pair of eyes, so ask someone who doesn’t have a lot of bias for an honest opinion.

What are the most common mistake(s) you see freelancers make that prevent them from getting a job?

Not doing homework before an interview. If a client wants to speak with you, it’s because they did their homework, reviewed your resume and portfolio and found something(s) that sparked their interest. It’s up to you to do the same, gain an understanding about the company, the business and what their design needs are–there’s never an excuse to not have any questions.

Any other bits of wisdom, precautions, or insights for potential talent?

Don’t be afraid to tell stories through your portfolio. Instead of merely showing images of the final output, give some context. What was the main challenge you were brought in for? How did you address the problems and come up with solutions? What did you enjoy most about the project? Also keep honing your skills and adding new ones. For example, if you can both design an email and code it, you’re a magical unicorn in the eyes of the client and they will want to work with you over other freelancers who can only do one or the other.

Juicy advice, thanks Gloriane!

Looking for design work in SF? Shoot me an email and I’ll connect you with Gloriane from Vitamin T.

Keeping the Gig

From freelance, to salary, to equity; it’s common for startups to hire freelancers with the intention of offering a longer term position (if the boot fits). Knowing this, treat each freelance gig as a screening process in itself, knowing there’s a potential to evolve into a salary and equity-based position if you so desire.

From a team of two, to twenty, to two hundred—I’ve seen how startups can evolve as they grow (or shrink). I’ve seen founders get muscled out of their own business and watched others rise to the occasion. Amidst this rollercoaster, I’ve come to recognize common qualities in people who withstand the ride for the long-haul.

1. Become irreplaceable.

Your skills can be replaced, your unique self cannot. The fact that everyone is different gives anybody an opportunity to become an invaluable asset to the team. Be yourself and look for ways to leverage your uniqueness in a manner that contribute to the team and shared mission. Being your vulnerable self shows others you’re trustworthy and can provide value beyond your immediate skill set.

2. Run with the Wolfpack.

Culture is the backbone of every startup (and every business for that matter). The best ideas will fail if they’re implemented by a team who neglect to communicate and have fun together. Small teams understand this well and are often opposed to those who can’t roll with the crew. That said, let your skills get you the interview and let your personality keep you the job. Share your quirky personality and other’s will feel comfortable to express their quirky self too. You’ll be surprised to find how many quirky common interests you have with your new ping-pong table desk mate.

3. Ask forgiveness over permission.

In reviewing the values of every startup I have worked with, this is the one that is the most common. It might as well be the Silicon Valley’s tagline. In an environment where nobody wants to babysit you, this is a highly sought after quality, regardless of the industry. Be responsive when recognizing an opportunity and own your actions so you can responsible for the outcome. Regardless of results, owning the outcome empowers you to follow up with an appropriate response. This shows your team you can be trusted to make decisions without permission and you’ll be viewed as less of a burden and more of a blessing.

4. Go with the flow.

The ability to adapt quickly in a volatile market is what gives smaller businesses an advantage over bigger and less adaptable businesses. Successful startups who understand this are notorious for pivoting their direction and tossing anyone overboard who doesn’t support the new destination. So if you’re in the long haul, hold tight to the main brace and be ready to not only adapt, but thrive when there’s a change in winds.

smarcuts to getting work with a startup

Have any tips or stories in working with a startup?

So long is the age of big business, startups appear to be the new Wild West and your experience can help shape the rules (or lack of). Feel free to comment below, I’d love to hear your thoughts!