How I got hired at a Y Combinator start-up without the necessary credentials

Two years ago, I was looking for part-time work. I was especially interested in working at a start-up but I didn’t really have perfect credentials for it. First off, I lived in Dallas and couldn’t move (my dad was sick). Second, I could only work part-time because I had to help at home. Third, I didn’t know how to program and had only had a couple of other jobs before, a few years in retail and waiting tables (neither of which are big selling points to the tech world). I knew my chances of getting hired at a hot start-up were slim to none.

But then a friend of mine recommended a site called oDesk, where contractors can meet clients, and I was checking the site for work. One day, I came across an interesting post from HireArt, a Y Combinator funded start-up:

“We are looking for a personal assistant who will help us with multiple types of tasks, including answering emails to our clients.”

This sounded like the kind of work I was looking for. I’m a pretty sociable person, and my activities involve chatting up a lot of strangers, so I knew that I had the skillset to be an assistant and to take emails and calls from clients. But I had limited direct customer service experience, so I was worried my credentials would pale in comparison to other applicants.

The post continued with the following:

We’d like to test you before we begin.

Please complete the following task so that we can pick the best personal admin.

You are working for a website that helps clients store and manage their client’s contact info. You get the following email from an angry client. The rest of the team is already off for the night and you can’t reach anyone. Please reply to this email you get from an angry client right away:

“Hi,

I tried to log in again today and the log-in still doesn’t work. Nobody is answering your supposedly 24/7 support line and I am getting incredibly frustrated. I stored all of my client’s phone numbers on your annoying website and now that I can’t access it, I can’t get in touch with my own clients! This is ridiculous and is killing my business. Do you realize how poor your service is? I have been calling for 3 days and still can’t get anyone to fix this for me.

Please get me out of this site but give me back my client’s contact info first!
-Mike”

I was intrigued. Most clients on oDesk ask for a list of credentials, skills, experience, education, etc; that makes it hard, if not impossible, to stand out in a crowd of other qualified people. But my sociable nature meant that responding to this e-mail would be a breeze. It also seemed easier than writing a standard cover letter, so I gave it a shot:

“Hi Mike,
I’m very sorry you’re having trouble accessing the website. I know that your clients are important to you, and I’m going to make sure this problem is resolved as soon as possible.
Unfortunately, the members of my team who have access to your information aren’t available right now, however, I’m going to do everything I can to get your client’s info back to you quickly. Again, I sincerely apologize for the inconvenience, and we’ll be contacting you soon.
Dylan Shumway”

A few days later, I was contacted by HireArt and a month later, I was brought onboard to the team permanently. For the last 1.5 years I’ve been managing customer service at HireArt: I am in charge of our support calls, I respond to all support emails and I help the team with any other administrative tasks they have, from finding leads to emailing potential partners. It’s exactly the job I always wanted. I work remotely but I’m in touch with the team via HipChat almost all day.

I’ve since talked to Elli, our Co-founder who was in charge of my hire about why she decided to contact me. She explained that the work had spoken for itself. I had followed the instructions in the post, and had used proper spelling and grammar. Once she contacted me, I replied promptly, and was agreeable to integrating myself into the team’s workflow.

The way this decision was made was hugely beneficial and simple. Elli and HireArt were able to see me, not as a list of past experiences, skill buzzwords, and credentials, but for the quality of my work and how I could integrate into their day to day. I got the same benefit, as I got to see exactly what kind of work I could expect and how this work would fit into my life.

Since then I’ve had a chance to see how HireArt helps its clients follow the same type of process. HireArt works with a range of companies in Silicon Valley and beyond. We create “challenges” that mimic what an applicant would do on the job and ask applicants to do similar work. For example, people applying for a sales job might have to record a video pitching a sale. Candidates applying for a marketing role might have to explain how they’d run a particular campaign.

Personally, I know I wouldn’t have landed this job if HireArt had been hiring using exclusively resumes. Work samples can be used for a range of other positions and I think they are generally just as good of an indication, if not better, than prior experience. A work sample also has the advantage of communicating effectively to the applicant what they will likely be doing on a day to day basis. I have a great job with a great company, despite a laughable resume, because I was able to use a work sample to effectively demonstrate my value.

7 Comments

  1. Martin Seehase said:

    Hi Dylan,

    Great Story. Stories like this give me back my faith in humanity. 🙂 Often Companies are looking for the 20 year old senior with 10 year experience in the same job, they are applying for.
    However in the startup world the hiring process you experienced at hireart is very common. Most startups don’t have a HR team to do all the personnel stuff. The CEOs and “techies” decide who is joining the company and they are focused on your skillset. Can that applicant deal with our everyday problems? Which of course makes sense; they don’t necessarily need a senior or principle. They need someone who can get the job done.
    I’m happy for you and wish you best of luck doing the job you’ve always wanted.

    Regards,
    Martin

    September 11, 2013
    Reply
  2. said:

    I think that this is the direction hiring will go in the future. Rather than know what you have done, employers increasingly are interested in what you can do.

    There is a section of William Whyte’s Organization Man where he discusses a liberal arts guy who ends up getting an engineering job in a similar way to what you described.

    Thanks for the post.

    September 11, 2013
    Reply
  3. adam said:

    You know your response wasn’t technically proper grammar? “Unfortunately, the members of my team who have access to your information aren’t available right now, however, I’m going to do everything I can to get your client’s info back to you quickly. ” is a run on sentence. Try using a period after “right now” instead of the comma.

    September 11, 2013
    Reply
  4. said:

    Awesome. Congrats. I believe in work samples as well. How is your father doing? Is his health better?

    September 12, 2013
    Reply
  5. PHloubouytin said:

    You are dreaming dude. Your post is customer support. ODesk is used to hire low priced workforce. In other words, you don’t go to ODesk to get Harvard graduates. They were just looking for someone who had common sense and decent grammar/spelling skills. You were the target!

    September 14, 2013
    Reply
  6. Ben Comer said:

    Thanks for sharing your story Dylan! Talk about a cool journey. Way to work hard yet be there for your family at the same time.

    I’m actually a non-technical startup aficionado who worked for a YC startup 2 years so I can totally resonate. Keep up the good work!

    September 18, 2013
    Reply
  7. So good. Congrats Dylan! CVs are only paper. Skills (along with EQ) are the person. We always accept URLs over CVs at Startup Institute and we’re better off for it.

    September 22, 2013
    Reply

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