Just imagine if you were the tenth employee at Facebook. Your professional and financial growth would of course be remarkable. Some early employees at unicorn companies, startups worth more than $1 billion, spend years rising through the ranks at a successful company. Others parlay their good fortune into leverage to find more senior roles at less well-known organizations.
Either way, finding a job at the next unicorn tech company can be a career-defining move that sets you up for long-term success. So, how can you identify a unicorn in the making? Here are a few signs to look at for while interviewing with tech startups.
Is the founder uniquely gifted?
It doesn’t take a business expert to realize that the world’s most successful tech companies were blessed with gifted founders or co-founders capable of seeing the future and understanding how to get there.
Jobs, Zuckerberg, Gates, Musk, Thiel — the list goes on and on. All are or were incredibly smart, adventurous, and tenacious business people capable of building an empire from scratch. If history is to serve as any indication, you’re more likely to find yourself at a unicorn company if you join an organization with uniquely talented leadership.
I’m not just talking about finding a company with a charismatic CEO who talks a good game. I’m talking about finding a company with a leader who is so plainly intelligent that you are intimidated having a simple conversation with them.
Is the company operating in an uncontested market?
In Zero to One, a book about entrepreneurship by Peter Thiel, he notes that most unicorn companies are category creating enterprises. Thiel writes, “the best problems to work on are often the ones nobody else even tries to solve.”
Look for companies that are operating in markets without other direct competitors. Before Airbnb, there was no other company working on the problem of matching travelers to homeowners with spare rooms. Before Uber, there was no other company working on the problem of matching drivers with black cars.
One could argue that real-estate agents and taxi companies were competing with Airbnb and Uber, but the operative word here is “direct” competitors.
Startups working on market-defining products are often intimidating to potential employees or investors because of the huge problems they’re trying to solve. Don’t let that scare you off though. In fact, take it as a good sign that the company has an opportunity to grow quickly.
Are the employees remarkably intelligent?
The best companies attract and retain the best talent. They operate not as a surrogate family, but as a kind of elite sports team in which the founder or co-founders are constantly on the lookout for the next all-star hire.
During the interview process, your job is to interview the interviewer. If the employees you meet don’t seem remarkable, then the company probably hasn’t found the talent they’ll need in order to build a category-defining product.
Launching Slack, PayPal, or Lyft wasn’t easy. It only may have looked easy because those organizations were able to attract amazing employees who were motivated by the company’s mission of changing the world in meaningful ways.
Is the company well capitalized?
All successful unicorn companies need capital in order to scale quickly. It’s fair to ask interviewers about the company’s plans to raise funds. If they don’t have a good answer, it shouldn’t automatically be a deal breaker, but it should give you pause.
As part of your due diligence, use tools like Crunchbase to see if companies with a similar business model operating in other markets have been able to raise meaningful amounts of capital.
The world of venture capital is influenced by trends just like any other industry. If certain marketplaces are overheated then a startup building a marketplace in a new category may have an easier time raising funds as a result.
Does the role genuinely excite you?
In order for the company in question to find success, all early employees, including you, will need to be willing to contribute meaningful amounts of time and effort in building the organization. If the role in question doesn’t truly excite you, then it’s less likely you’ll be able to meaningfully contribute to the success of the company.
Furthermore, most leaders at unicorn companies have understandably high standards. If you want to find success at a fledgling unicorn, you’ll need to earn your keep with what may seem like an excess of hard word. Be ready.
Becoming an early employee at a unicorn company is one of the best things an ambitious professional can do for their career. It unlocks opportunities that might never come otherwise. So much of the tech world is, after all, based on who you know.
To find the next category-defining unicorn, look for an organization with an extraordinary founder or co-founder who is focused on solving a unique problem, and who has already retained gifted employees. If you think the company will be able to raise capital, and if the mission excites you, then you may have found a winner.