“You will lose everything. Your money, your power, your fame, your success, perhaps even your memories. Your looks will go. Loved ones will die. Your body will fall apart. Everything that seems permanent is impermanent and will be smashed. Experience will gradually, or not so gradually, strip away everything that it can strip away. Waking up means facing this reality with open eyes and no longer turning away. But right now, we stand on sacred and holy ground, for that which will be lost has not yet been lost, and realising this is the key to unspeakable joy. Whoever or whatever is in your life right now has not yet been taken away from you. This may sound trivial, obvious, like nothing, but really it is the key to everything, the why and how and wherefore of existence. Impermanence has already rendered everything and everyone around you so deeply holy and significant and worthy of your heartbreaking gratitude. Loss has already transfigured your life into an altar.”—
Bat bombs were an experimental World War II weapon developed by the United States. The bomb consisted of a bomb-shaped casing with numerous compartments, each containing a Mexican Free-tailed Bat with a small timed incendiary bomb attached. Dropped from a bomber at dawn, the casings would deploy a parachute in mid-flight and open to release the bats which would then roost in eaves and attics. The incendiaries would start fires in inaccessible places in the largely wood and paper construction of the Japanese cities that were the weapon’s intended target.
(FYI: I’ve been desperately unemployed, so I’ve made a lot of these mistakes myself. And now I’m one of the people responsible for hiring at Aviary, so I see a lot of these mistakes every day.)
Startups are certainly becoming more common - especially in Silicon Valley, Silicon Alley, Silicon Prairie (I didn’t make that one up), and Silicon… Swamp (oh my god I made that one up but it’s real) - but that doesn’t mean they’ve lost what made them so magical in the first place. These companies have a ton of flexibility, and that changes the rules.
These companies don’t have an HR department, so there’s not a person in a suit reading your resume. Most of them probably don’t even have a dedicated hiring manager, so it’s likely that the person reading your resume isn’t looking for the traditional things you’ve been taught to say. And almost definitely, everyone in the company is (happily!) exhausted, swamped with terrible job applications, and looking for someone who stands out. That’s where you come in!
Step one: searching for the right job
I may not know you, but if you’re anything like every single one of my friends who have been looking for a job for the last 10 years, you are probably doing the following:
Searching job boards like Monster and Indeed (I hope you are not still attempting to use Craigslist) for general titles like “project manager” or “junior developer.”
Sending out a resume you haven’t really looked at in a year.
Sending out a cover letter which, the first time you wrote it, was really really genuine and passionate! But now is… not so much.
Feeling really bored and sorry for yourself, and complaining to everyone around you that the economy sucks and there are no jobs.
Feeling better? Cool. So here’s what you should be doing. First, please never search a generic job aggregation website ever again. You might get lucky enough to find some legit corporate job on there, but startups just don’t use them.
So if you can’t use those garbage websites, what option does that leave you? Well, the hard one. The one where you need to sit the hell down, with no distractions, and think about what you want to do. Wanting to work at a startup isn’t enough (and is too general to help point you in any one direction). Assume a startup’s a given. What problem do you want to solve? Which companies do you really respect? Which industry do you want to be in, long term?
Hopefully you can answer one or more of these questions and that’ll get you on the right track. If not, a website like Made in NYC (or your town’s equivalent) is a great place to get some inspiration. If that’s not an option - if you’re not lucky enough to live in Silicon Swamp - try thinking about which products you use on a daily basis that you love. And think about moving.
(Note: don’t be scared to reach out to your dream job. I know it seems like they’ll just say no, but you seriously have nothing to lose. And if they DO say no, ask what you can do to get there in a year. Ask if you can take the person who rejected you out for a coffee. If they’re unresponsive, find someone else in the industry - or me! - and ask them where you went wrong. Don’t give up!)
Step two: updating your resume
Ok, so I’m going to assume at this point you’ve found something (or multiple somethings!) you think you might someday be able to be passionate about. Now you have to do some actual work, but the good news is that you can make other people do most of it for you.
That’s right: show your resume to everyone you know. Show it to your mom and your sister and your best friend and that guy you went on a date with last year. If you’re too embarrassed to show it to them, think about why. This is the trick: if you can’t show your resume to the people who care about you, don’t you dare send it to a stranger.
Send it to all these people, and really listen to their feedback. Don’t get defensive. If they say it’s boring, jazz it up. If they say it looks ugly, use a template in Word (or ask a designer friend to spruce it up for you). If they say it seems like you’ve never done anything, or that they can’t tell what you’ve done, think about why and fix it.
Step three: choosing a job
You might think you already did this in step one. But this is exactly why people often get stuck at step one and give up. You’d love to work at Barkbox, but they don’t have any non-technical positions listed? Or worse, they have non-technical positions listed, but you’re not qualified for them? This is not where you sigh and give up. THIS IS WHERE YOU REMEMBER HOW AWESOME YOU ARE.
You just spent days or weeks revamping your resume to make yourself sound as incredible as possible. Even YOU should be completely convinced at this point. Yes, it’s good to research what positions are officially available at your dream company, but honestly? Don’t even worry about it, because:
No startup will pass up someone perfect.
This should be your mantra every day while you’re applying to jobs. Get it tattooed on your hand Memento-style if you have to. If you are smart, passionate, awesome, and in love with a startup, you can convince them to hire you. They will create a position for you. That’s one of the great things about startups!
So even if they don’t have your ideal job listed, write to them and tell them what your ideal job is. Convince them (in a charming, reasonable way, of course) that they just didn’t realize they needed you. Which brings me to…
Step four: writing your cover letter
I know what you’re thinking. I know that you want to just whip up a generic cover letter so you can send it out to as many companies as possible in the least amount of time. Great idea. How are you at math, hotshot? Because I’d love for you to tell me which of these is better:
Emailing 100 people and getting 0 jobs.
Emailing 1 person and getting 1 job.
We good? Okay. So cover letters seem daunting, but they’re actually the easiest part, because all you have to do is be yourself. Show your personality, and your passion. Explain why THIS ONE COMPANY is the one for you (because, remember, you’ve hand-picked it and you actually want to work there). Make a joke or use a silly pun. Nerd out and tell them that you love the dinosaur on their 404 page or whatever.
The goal of your cover letter is to prove that you can fit in.
Do not, under any circumstances, do the following:
Attach your cover letter as a document. Write it in the email like a normal person. (Similarly, send your resume as a PDF. Not a Word doc. A PDF. No exceptions.)
Start your cover letter with something formal. If I see “Dear Sir/Madam,” “Dear Hiring Manager,” “To Whom it May Concern,” or any of their relatives, I will not read further.
Bypass the application process outlined on the company’s website. If they tell you to email email@example.com, don’t email their CEO or designer directly. The ONLY exception to that rule is if you have a direct connection to that person. Otherwise you just look like you can’t follow directions.
List everything on your resume in your cover letter. It’s obviously good to give a quick overview, but remember that the point is to explain (show, don’t tell!) WHY you are a good fit. (Protip: prove that you are smart and get things done.) They’ll get the details from your resume if they want them.
Fill your cover letter with all the things you think you could do better than the company itself. It might seem like a good idea to point out flaws in the company’s website (typos, broken links, etc) but I promise you - the company knows about them. The company hates them as much as you. The company will project this hatred onto you.
TL;DR: you need to remember two things.
You have ONE chance to impress this company. Try your hardest, and mean it, and you’ll do well.
You are great, and you can be an important asset to their team. Convince yourself, and you’ll be able to convince them.
There’s a ton more material here, but this post is already dangerously long, so we’ll leave it at that for now. I hope this is a good start for you to help you get moving in the right direction.
And if you need a second pair of eyes on your resume or are paralyzed with fear, email me and I’ll remind you how awesome you are.
Rather than tell prospects how happy and amazing Amazon is, Jeff Bezos would tell them that “it’s not easy to work here.” Even in 1997, during the dot-com boom, Bezos’s anti-pitch was stark and to the point: “You can work long, hard, or smart, but at Amazon.com you can’t choose two out of three.”
Finding your value as a non-"skilled" startup employee
I’ve been working at Aviary for 3 years now. One of the things I’ve always struggled with, and keep hearing my friends fight through, is the vast discrepancy in perceived self-worth and “value” between different groups of startup employees.
GROUP 1: The highly “skilled.” (I’m sorry for all these quotations, but I can’t help it - these are the right words but also so silly and wrong that I can’t take them seriously.) This includes engineers and designers, who either have gone to school for years to learn a professional trade or who have spent their lives teaching themselves because they are talented geniuses.
GROUP 2: The highly experienced. This includes employees who join the company at Director-level and above. They could be in any department, but come at a higher default price and with some built-in respect because they’ve been doing their job, clearly successfully, at other companies for a while.
GROUP 3: The rest of us. An employee from group 3 might commonly be referred to as a “people person” or a “jack of all trades.” These titles are meant to give us some sort of imaginary soft skill to cling on to when we consider (and try to prove) our worth, but mostly just make us feel bad about ourselves because people in the first two groups don’t have to prove anything.
It’s a given that groups 1 and 2 have higher starting salaries - they bring more obvious contributions to the table initially - but no one ever talks about the other implications of this rift. (Well, more accurately, they talk about it, but only in frustrated whispers among members of group 3.)
When I first started at Aviary, I was brought in to do customer support and office management. These are (arguably) two of the “easiest” jobs to do in that they don’t require any specific skillset or previous experience; an employee in these roles just needs to be a “people person” who can “wear a lot of hats” and be generally nice and considerate. The reality, though, is that most people would (and do!) suck at these jobs.
Being good at customer support can make or break a company’s relationship with the people providing its revenue. Being a good office manager can mean the difference between employees staying or leaving. These are CRAZY IMPORTANT THINGS. Startups literally cannot function without these roles, which is why (sometimes confusingly) an office manager is often one of the first hires in any new, small company. The “skilled” employees can’t do their jobs if they’re answering support emails or building furniture all day.
Anyway, I was so excited when I started at Aviary (it was a fun place to work! all my coworkers were so smart! we were building things that people loved!) that I spent most of my time feeling incredibly humbled and grateful for the opportunity. This is definitely part of what made me so effective at my job, but I think it was also my first Big Mistake, which has stayed with me for the past few years. At times, it kept me from being happy, it kept me from pursuing new opportunities, and it made me way less productive than I could have been.
Not understanding your own value is a terrible problem, both for you and for your company.
I’ve come a long way in my career at Aviary. I’ve held more job titles and responsibilities than I can count, and by now I understand my value at the company and the fact that the “soft skills” I have to offer are JUST as important as the ones provided by my coworkers. But it took way too long. I spent a lot of time feeling resentful and, well, confused. Sometimes I struggled with feeling like I was the only one not “contributing” anything or building anything directly (for a long time I was the only non-“skilled” long-term employee we had on the team), which made me feel like I didn’t belong. I spent a lot of time (on weekends, of course) teaching myself a bit about programming, trying to learn Photoshop (miserable failure), reading books about startups - trying to find some way to convert myself into a “skilled” employee.
What I want to tell you (and I’m getting quite near the end, now) is that this doesn’t help. I mean it’s great if you actually want to do those things, but what I learned is that I *like* the things I do. I’m really good at the things I do (thank you to my coworkers for lecturing me about this endlessly until I believed it). There are very few people who could do the things I do, just as I can’t realistically do all the things my super talented team does. It does not help to try to turn yourself into a different kind of person.
So, here’s what can help:
1. Read everything you can find about successful people in your own specific line of work. For me, the biggest turning point was discovering Joel Spolsky and devouring every single thing he’s ever written. This was maybe 2011, and my title at the time was Program Manager. Joel was at one point a PM at Microsoft and wrote this amazing article about why PM’s are basically the best people in the world and no one can function without them. I’m paraphrasing (just barely), but it was the first thing that made me feel like what I was doing was an important contribution to the company. Other good examples:
Customer support: read the Uservoice blog. They will make you feel so awesome about your work. Remember that you’re not just answering bullshit repetitive questions; you have the ability to make someone’s day. That is a big deal.
HR: Um, hi, building a good team is the ONLY thing that matters. If you don’t have a team, you have nothing. Plus, hiring (and retaining) good technical people is pretty much becoming impossible these days because of all the competition, so you are some kind of unicorn if you can actually pull it off. This has never been my full-time job so I haven’t read a ton of stuff on it, but Lori Dorn is a great place to start.
QA: Read this killer piece by Spolsky. Oh man. That guy REALLY loves good QA people. (I can relate on this; ever since we hired our QA lead last year, the quality of all of our lives has improved exponentially.) (See what I did there?)
Office management: I don’t know of any good reading material, but I’m sure it’s out there. I could tell you some stories about office managers who’ve dramatically contributed to the success of their companies. Also, ours is a member of the Office Heroes League. You should join it.
Account management: This is my current job, so I feel you. Look, being super organized and keeping your paying clients happy is an incredibly important job. And no one else wants to do it! And it’s hard! I don’t know of any influential account managers off the top of my head, but I’ll talk you through it if you want.
Etc. Seriously, do some googling and find people who you can really identify with, and who can reassure you that you are awesome and important and valuable.
2. Be honest with your boss. It took me a while to open up about how I was feeling, but ever since I did I’ve been getting a pretty much constant stream of positive reinforcement from our executive team. And sometimes that’s what you need in this kind of gig - someone to acknowledge that you are building something important, too, even if it can’t be distributed through Testflight.
3. Find. A. Mentor. Just find one. Go to relevant meetups and ask people you respect to teach you. Ask your boss if she knows anyone. Send an email to someone you respect on the internet. Ask my OG mentor to help you out; he lists his services right on his tumblr. Speaking to someone who’s been through what you’ve been through is so invaluable. Having someone outside of your team (that part’s important) to talk to will make all the difference in your life. A bunch of us at team Aviary have stayed in touch with our former COO, who has talked us each through many panic attacks over the years.
Here’s a quick list of some of the skills that commonly go unmentioned, but are incredibly valuable at a startup and will totally get you a job, even if you don’t think you’re “qualified” to get one. It’s important to remember that these so-called “soft skills” are just as difficult to master and are crucial to the success of any business.
Empathy (seriously, this is a big one)
Awesome communication skills (both out loud and in writing)
Brevity (your awesome communication skills mean nothing if you’re sending 10-page emails) (I realize the irony of saying this in a crazy long blog post)
Willingness to help with anything
Eagerness to learn everything (often called “hunger” but I can’t bring myself to say that)
Confidence and humility (you need both)
Ability to talk to anyone, and ideally to make them smile
Basic understanding of the internet, social media, etc (you really can’t get out of this one)
I’ve always told people that getting my dream job at Aviary was a fluke. “I had zero skills,” I confide when they ask. “I only got the job because I already knew the founder. I just got lucky. It was just good timing.” I have a million excuses. But honestly? Recently I’ve come to terms with the fact that I got this job because I deserved it. My boss hired me because I had already proven to him that I had all of the above, and that outweighed the fact that I had no startup experience or technical skillz. And building that trust with him, becoming the kind of person who was a no-brainer to hire, THAT - not spending my time trying to morph into someone else - was exactly the right use of my time before my startup career began.
Don’t beat yourself up for not fitting into a cookie-cutter “skilled” job description. Make your own job description (more on this later). Go get your dream job because you deserve it.
I wanna say something special to you
I’ve been known to lie but this is all true
Just let me know if I’m being a creep
But I wanna take you in my arms and kiss you real deep
It ain’t poetic and it ain’t profound
If it doesn’t freak you out I hope you’ll stick around
For maybe another, and another after that
And hopefully you’ll be thinking “No one’s ever kissed me like that”
(In a good way)
You can tell people who’ve been around suicide before from those who haven’t.
Here’s some, well, not explanation, but context. Depression• is a top-five killer of pretty much every demographic from tweens to the very elderly. It’s especially common among people who are marginalized and lack social support, for example LGBT youth. After car accidents, it’s the leading killer of young men – above murder, above falls taken after saying “hold my beer a minute”, above testicular cancer, above congenital heart defects that no one knew about and he just keeled over, above accidentaly taking pills from the wrong bottle, above fire, above electrocution, above anything else people are scared of.
Aaron Swartz is gone now, and nothing we do can find him. One of the barbs of a suicide is that it takes away the one person we most want to explain it. We can only make guesses how to catch the next one like him.
Here’s a guess: don’t romanticize suicide.
Here’s a guess: don’t talk as if it comes from a person’s true self, because (1) it’s factually incorrect and (2) it teaches that it can’t be treated without losing identity.
Here’s a guess: don’t talk as if you know exactly what was in the mind of a victim. At least put disclaimers on your speculations about influences.
Here’s a guess: don’t suppose that because someone is very smart, they can think their way out of depression, or that because they are very kind, they can be kind enough to themselves.
Here’s a guess: don’t use suicide as a punchline, and put trigger warnings on things that might be unusually dangerous for a person dealing with it.
Here’s a guess: watch out for your friends and yourself.
My dad was a difficult person. No one would ever argue that fact. But that’s one of the things that I loved so much about him; I felt special because he loved me even though he had such a hard time connecting with anyone. Other important facts: he was brilliant, he was handsome, he was a proud Israeli, he laughed at almost everything, and he died this weekend.
I am writing something here because I want some humans to know who he was and to think about him for a few seconds. He was a real person who lived. He was hard for some people to understand, but I looked up to him, and I loved him so much, and I don’t want him to be remembered just for the way he died.
My dad never taught me Hebrew (his first language, and one of seven that he spoke), but I picked up some from a very young age just from being around him. I knew that “Motek” meant sweetheart, “Yalla” meant let’s go (that’s actually Arabic, but I just thought of it as a thing my dad said), “Zuz” meant get out of my way. He also taught me “the worst thing you can say to an enemy in Arabic”, but I won’t repeat that here. He told me it would get my tongue cut out if I said it to the wrong person. His middle name was אריה (“Arieh”), which means Lion. We always joked about that because he wasn’t much of a lion.
He had a strong Hebrew accent but didn’t know it (he really didn’t understand why we made fun of him). Our favorite dad-isms were “oranjuice” - why repeat syllables - and “gloves” (rhymes with stoves). When he and my mom bought me a cat when I was little, there’s a classic story about how the one we wanted came with its sibling and I heard my dad say to my mom “If we bought both it would be doubly expensive” and I said “Dobu Spensive?” and so those became the cats’ names.
When my parents got divorced (I was four), my dad finished packing up his stuff, carried me outside, sat me on the roof of his car, and said “Maya, I may never see you again.”
I did see him again, and he used to take me hiking. He always wanted sons (he never got any), and liked to pretend I was a son; he always said he was training me for the army (that being the Israeli Army). He would take me out for the day and say I couldn’t bring any food or water because that’s how the army really was. I was probably seven or eight; my mom would get so mad.
My dad was a sniper in the army, but he didn’t want to tell my sister that when she was little, so he told her he was a bagel slicer. My sister told people for years, proudly, that her dad was a bagel slicer in the army. She just found out what he really did a couple years ago (she’s 17 now).
When I was little, my dad and I would always listen to Achinoam Nini in the car. I loved her. Most of her songs were in hebrew so I didn’t understand what she was saying, but I memorized them just by sound and listened to her constantly. Once he even took me to a concert. It was amazing; she does all the percussion on her body with her hands. I just remember being so impressed by her and thinking she was the most beautiful person I’d ever seen.
More recently, on a trip to Israel a few years ago, my dad bought an Arik Einstein/Shalom Chanoch cd and we played it as we drove around the country. It’s so good (it’s called Shablool); it’s like the Beatles of the Middle East. I already knew about Arik Einstein but had only ever heard one of his songs. It’s called “Maya” and it’s the reason my dad chose my name (but he didn’t tell me that until I was a teenager). He explained to me what the song is about since I couldn’t understand it; it’s the song Arik wrote after his first daughter was born, and how much he loves her as soon as he meets her. One time my dad sang it to me when it came on in the car and I cried. He had a silly singing voice - very deep and scratchy - but I always loved when he sang.
In high school, my dad got me an internship at Mt Sinai Hospital in NYC (he was a research scientist there), and he was so proud to show me around and to introduce me to all the doctors there. While I was there, I got to sit in on a lecture he was giving to some med students and doctors (something about the brain; I couldn’t tell you). He didn’t know I was coming and he blushed bright red, mid sentence, when I walked in, and told everyone that his daughter was here and that he was nervous. He did a great job (I did fall asleep, though).
After I turned 18, my dad finally agreed to take me to Israel to meet his family. (He’d always been weird about it because my mom wasn’t Jewish; long story.) I will never forget the first time I experienced my dad in Israel. He was a totally different person. He seemed about 20 years younger the moment he stepped off the plane. He wanted to take us everywhere and show us everything. He pointed out landmarks and told us stories about the history that had happened there. He opened up about his childhood and his time in the army. He laughed like a hyena while he was joking around with his old friends. He introduced me to everyone and made me feel like I belonged.
When I was in college, my dad came to visit me at UC Santa Cruz. He loved it there so much. He said it smelled like Israel (he’s always missed home; he’s never liked living in New York), and we went on all kinds of adventures exploring the forests and the beach. I gave him a “UCSC Dad” shirt which he’s worn religiously to all important events since.
My dad loved - LOVED - my dog Oliver. He called him his grandson. He showed pictures of him to his coworkers. He emailed stories about Oliver to our relatives. We always joked that he and Oliver got along so well because Oliver thought he was another puppy. That’s really how he was - just a puppy. He just wanted to run around in the dirt and dig up trouble.
A year or two ago, my dad ran for the school board in my sister’s school district. He’s always been passionate about education and finally decided to try to do something about it. To everyone’s surprise, this weird foreign intellectual in a tiny Long Island town won against the years-long incumbent. He got to ride in a parade (in a convertible, driven by a blonde, which he couldn’t get over) and he looked so happy. He hit a lot of dead ends in politics - I think he was surprised by the bureaucracy, this straight-talking man who saw everything in black and white and felt like all the answers to the budget crisis were so obvious - but we were so proud of him for trying to do the right thing.
My dad and I were always close, even if we didn’t always get along (the teenage years were hard, like they are for anybody). We shared a passion for animals (dogs in particular; we watched Beethoven together probably 20 times), technology, linguistics, action movies (Bruce Willis was his god), and weapons. The first time I visited my dad’s apartment after he moved out of our house, he showed me a drawer full of knives and said “This is for when you get your first boyfriend”; I thought that was the coolest thing ever. He was so tough! He would defend me! I wasn’t scared of anything when I was around him.
Once in preschool, this kid named PJ shoved me or something and made me cry. My dad told him that if he ever touched me again he would break both his legs.
I just want to use this space to say, in case he has internet access wherever he is (God, that would make him so happy, to be able to read ha’aretz in the afterlife), that I needed him. He’s been my rock, my whole life. My smart brave handsome dad, who had an answer to everything. My demanding dad, who thought I could be the best and asked me “Why not an A+?” when I called him to tell him I got an A-. My funny dad, who made me laugh with his stupid laugh. My super-weird dad, who introduced me to anchovies and avocado sandwiches and blueberry coffee and marlboros. My anti-religious dad, who would grudgingly sit through Jewish holidays but joke to me quietly while everyone else was praying. My anti-social dad, who would bring me to corporate parties with him so we could hang out together in the corner and make fun of everyone else there. My protective dad, who told me I could get married when I was 45, but who supported every terrible life decision I ever made.
I love him so much. I miss him so much. I am so mad that he died. He could have done so much more for the world, and for me. He was a brilliant scientist who has been trying his whole life to do something about degenerative brain diseases. He didn’t want anyone to have to stop being themselves. He was terrified of old age.
Anyway. Stop complaining about your stupid problems. Tell your parents you love them. Do the best you can. And please never forget that people need you.
At twenty-seven, everything before you is clean and solid and everything behind you is a bottle of Strawberry Kiwi Snapple, stuffed with cigarette butts.
At twenty-seven, I am between youth and maturity, between wanting to save myself and wanting to destroy myself. I weep during lotion commercials and laugh when I skin a knee. I bike without a helmet and I have Cadillac health insurance. I smoke pot and teach college classes. This year, I slept with the ex I pined for; last month I slept with a clerk I met at a camping supply store. Saturday I went to a cocktail party with MBA students, then left for a bar called Grumpy’s. At one a.m., I ate tater tots. At two p.m., I went to yoga. I am no longer afraid of rejection. I am terrified of black bears.