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Recruiter Q&A: Scoring an Entry-Level Startup Job

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Instacart, the innovative delivery startup that brings groceries to your door in as little as one hour, is expecting to hire 300 people this year, many of whom will be recent grads or young professionals.

As part of our Recruiter Q&A series, we sat down with Mathew Caldwell, Instacart’s head of talent, to talk about what the company looks for in entry-level hires, how to make an impression on its interviewers and the realities of working for a startup (hint: It’s not all parties and free food).

NerdScholar: Instacart is blowing up right now — you were just valued at $2 billion and raised $220 million in venture cap. How can a student or recent grad get in on the action?

Caldwell: We’re expecting to grow from around 100 employees today to 400 by the end of the year. Around 100 new hires will be engineers or in the technology arena, like data scientists, product managers and designers.

In the past, we’ve focused more on hiring very senior individuals because we wanted people that had a lot of personal horsepower. But as we grow, we’re going to need to bring on younger, newer people that have different thoughts on how to do things.

How will you begin to narrow down the pool of interested recent grads?

We’re going to look at people who have done great internships at marquee companies. Also, what have they done while getting their education? What type of pet projects do they work on outside of school? Are they true geeks? Are they in love with engineering?

With finance jobs, emphasis is going to be more on the schools they went to and why they’re interested in this space. For sales, we’re going to be looking at people who have a business mindset, and maybe have taken some classes and have majored within business. It’s great if they’ve done some internships or sales work that get their heads into the inner workings of the company. That shows a creativity and a passion — a curiosity about how a company works.

What is the best way to make an impression during an entry-level interview?

One really important thing is presentation skills, such as how engaging they are. Maintain eye contact and have confidence in what you’re talking about when it comes to the role.

It’s really hard for someone sitting across the table to be able to see if someone’s excited if they don’t have any physical manifestations of that, whether it’s their facial expressions, the way they talk or just their body language.

Outside of those professional opportunities, it seems like becoming an Instacart Shopper could be a useful stopgap between graduating and finding one’s first job, or a way to make extra money while in school.

The shopper role here is not an employee — they’re independent contractors like they’d be if they drove for Uber or Lyft. The pros of an independent contractor role, especially for students whose schedules might be different every day, is that they can work on Monday for five hours, on Wednesday for one hour and so forth. They get some experience, earn some money and learn about how the business works.

I heard Instacart had a pretty sweet ’80s holiday party. Because of all the fun perks like that, a lot of students have a romanticized notion of what life at a startup is like. What do you think are the true benefits and drawbacks of startup life?

In two or three years at a startup, you’ll get 10 times as much experience as you will in a few years at a big company like Google or Microsoft. At those companies, there are very well-defined roles and there’s not a lot of opportunity to get exposure to broad areas of the organization.

And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But at a startup, we need to try and accomplish all of those things that 10,000 people accomplish at a big company with a hundred people. A new grad that comes in is going to get insight into the inner workings of a whole company and they’re going to get to touch all sorts of different parts of the company. It’s a cool opportunity to get this exposure when you’re fresh out of college and you don’t know what you want to do.

On the flip side, what should students be aware of when taking a startup job?

With all of the opportunity for exposure within a startup, it’s very easy to get distracted from your “day job,” the thing that you were hired and brought on to do. Knowing when to say no and how to say it is extremely important.

There is also this perception that when you go to a startup you can be employee No. 20 or whatever, and when the company becomes 300 you’re going to automatically become some senior executive. And that’s not necessarily the case. It does happen, but what you don’t hear about is the 300 other people that it didn’t happen to. There is likely greater opportunity for growth at a startup than a big company, but it’s not at the leaps and bounds that you might hear about in the media.

Why is it important for young professionals to “earn their stripes”?

There seems to be a shift in mindset in the last five years where many people expect advancement a little earlier. And while it’s good to be very optimistic, and be very hungry, very aggressive, people don’t always understand that while there is an extremely high value in intellect and in passion and drive, scars are also valuable too. And if you don’t have those scars yet, you might not be the right person for certain roles.

What’s the nerdiest thing about Instacart?

Everyone gets geeked out about technology problems. We’re definitely nerdy when it comes to that.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Image via iStock.