At bigger, established companies, great job candidates and outstanding employees don’t necessarily have to be familiar with the company’s product or service. At startups, and especially early stage ones, it’s more critical that everyone understand the product. As a job seeker, you don’t have to be an expert on the target market, but it makes a big difference if you can at least identify with the problem the company is scrambling to address. Whether you’re evaluating potential startups to apply to, or preparing your application, or prepping for an interview, you can learn a lot by quickly trying out the company from the lens of a customer or user.
Briefly putting yourself in the shoes of the company’s customer will help you better understand if you indeed want to work at the company. It will also help you understand the market and the world in which the company lives. And it will help you have enough context about their business to convey how your skills and experience can contribute to their mission when you are applying and interviewing.
How you go about test driving a startup’s product really depends on the company’s business model, revenue model, funding stage, and a lot of other variables. Sometimes you can easily become a customer yourself and simply try their product, other times you have to take a more indirect approach to approximate the customer experience, but if you want to stand out you should always spend a few minutes to test and explore whatever you can. Here’s a few examples of ways to test drive different types of startup products, starting with the most straightforward and going to ones that require a more indirect approach.
Example 1 - Calm
Calm is a Series B startup that has a B2C subscription product, which is a meditation, sleep and mental wellness app. You’ve probably heard of Calm, since they’re a consumer brand and their app is one of the most popular in its category. You might already be a user, but if not, you can simply download their app and start a free trial. For a popular consumer app with a broad use case and a free trial, it’s almost expected that a candidate has at least tried the product. Go beyond just trying it out, read their reviews in the app store to see what people rave or complain about, look at the recent updates in the version history to see what they’ve added recently. Reread the job description with this new context and it should help you better craft your pitch.
Example 2 - Longève Brands
Longève Brands is a Seed stage startup with a DTC fixed price product, which are vegan plant-based proteins made to replace items like ground beef and bread crumbs. Their products are sold in some grocery stores, on their own site and on Amazon. If you have a few days, you could actually order the product and try it out. Beyond the taste, check out their packaging, observe what other products are similar, read the suggested recipes. Think about how you or one of your vegan friends who cooks a lot might use their products. If you don’t have time to get your hands on the product, check out the Amazon reviews to see what people like about it and how they use it.
Example 3 - Arist
Arisy is a Seed stage startup with a B2B subscription service, which enables other organizations to offer SMS-based training to staff. Since Arist is a B2B company selling to HR teams & University educators, you can’t become a customer or user as easily as with the first two examples. Quickly browsing their site shows that they have free “courses” on their site, which can be easily demoed. You could try one of these demo courses to get a feel for how their product works from the end user perspective. They also have a free version of their course builder, so you could quickly sign up and see what the experience is like from the administrator and instructor perspective. If you sign up, pay attention to the emails the company sends you and how they communicate to their prospective customers.
Example 4 - Boatsetter
Boatsetter is a Series A startup with a B2C marketplace service, which let’s boat owners rent out their boats. They’re like AirBnB but for boats, so you can search for boats available in your area or browse by several categories. You can learn a lot about the business and their customers by going through the exercise of booking a trip, without actually renting a boat. You can also glean a lot from the reviews section, which like AirBnB and other marketplaces feature reviews by both boat owners and boat renters. Look at the positive and negative reviews to appreciate the unique challenges that a marketplace company needs to navigate.
Example 5 - Aetion
Aetion is a Series B startup with a B2B service, which provides data analytics solutions to pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies and organizations like the FDA. Test driving a service like Aetion is obviously much different from some earlier examples. Unless you have deep expertise in biopharma or data analytics, you probably wouldn’t be able to understand much of what an Aetion customer would see. But you can still indirectly see the company from the customer’s perspective. On their site, you can see selected publications that utilized their service. Scanning the titles gives you an idea of the areas of medicine where their customers work, and the research they are involved with. You can also search google news for Aetion and see articles about some research they enable. No matter if the roles you’re interested in are marketing or finance, having some basic awareness of how the company’s service is being used will help you stand out.
You don’t have to be the target customer or be deeply passionate about the product area to be a great candidate and a fulfilled employee. But you at least need to relate to the problem they are working to address. Even 10 minutes spent investigating and being curious about the company from its customers’ perspective will help you be better informed and more prepared.