What Makes a Great Startup Institute Candidate?

At Startup Institute we accept, on average, 18% of candidates who apply to our program. So, how can you know if you’ve got what it takes? Our Admissions Guide provides a lot of insights on the admissions process and what we're looking for, but there’s a lot more to it.

I sat down with our VP of Admissions, Katie Bickford, to learn more about the qualities that her team looks for when evaluating applicants. Read on to learn more about what they’re looking for, why, and how they do it. [bctt tweet="Find out what makes a great #candidate for @StartupInst > Interview with @bickfordkatie" via="no"]

Q: What makes a great candidate for our full-time program?

A: It’s somebody who wants more because they feel like they can contribute more. Traditionally, it’s a person who feels like they have done well and they wind up in a place that is “good,” or should be good, but for them it isn’t good. And I think there is dissonance.

One of the things these people have to unpack is the, I did everything right, and I got the outcome. Why isn’t the outcome working for me? This job and this title are something that my social circle and my family are really proud of me for. Why aren’t they giving me energy and making me feel fulfilled and excited about my life?

Great candidates want to be working with like-minded people and solving problems to make the world a better place. At the core of all of our students, that is a continuity. So, one of the other things that makes people good candidates for our class is that they do have a strong desire to change their careers and their lives. There are people who are unhappy and unfulfilled, but don’t feel like it is something that needs to be solved, or they haven’t gotten to the point where it’s uncomfortable enough that they feel like it’s time to take action. To do this program, you have to leave your job, and take this leap of faith. There are costs associated—both tuition and the living expenses during the duration of it. In order for someone to really be primed for the transformation that this program can bring about, they have to be wanting and ready for their life to change.[bctt tweet="Great @StartupInst candidates want more b/c they know they can contribute more, says @bickfordkatie" via="no"]

Q: You've touched on this already, but why is this important?

A: The reason that we look for this desire to change is related directly to the innovation community, and what this program is all about. It’s about transformation. It’s about doing. It’s about building. It’s about people who are going to be high-impact in their roles, and most of these roles are going to be in companies that are growing really quickly. There’s going to be uncertainty, excitement, and creativity.  

On paper, many of these people are thriving. The choice to take this path that isn’t clearly the easy road has to do with the community that is created here. The ultimate outcome is that these are going to be people who do amazing things, and help to change the trajectories and fates of companies. These qualities are all part of what we’re delivering to the innovation community, which is job candidates who our hiring partners, and the larger ecosystem, are eager to bring onboard.

Q: When you bring these people together who have chosen to do something a bit radical in pursuit of career fulfillment, does that create some sort of synergy? 

A: Yes. I do think that one of the things is the energetic component of people who have this burning desire to change. It’s part of the fire that makes this transformation possible. I think of a quote from web design instructor David Delmar in the video on our homepage

When you get people in a room together who share values and share passions, they can’t help but build awesome stuff.

It’s that energetic quotient of people who are really activated, and the result of this activation when you bring them all together—with all of their different backgrounds and perspectives—creates this emergent property, and outcomes that I don’t think we even knew could be be possible. They’re a result of different people in the cohort interacting in a way that could never be choreographed. These interactions that create amazing insights and connections, and the ability for people to take themselves to the next level.[bctt tweet="Get ppl in a room who share values + passions + they'll build awesome stuff - @delmarsenties"]

Q: How do you evaluate if someone has the right qualities?

A: The first thing I assess for is this thing I call Thinks Beyond Themselves. This relates to an individual’s desire to make an impact on something larger than just their own career. Part of what is driving them is a sense that, on some level, their ultimate potential is forcing them into discomfort. There is something greater for them to do.

This doesn’t come from ego-standpoint. When people say “I want my career to be XXX,” or “I want to go into tech because it’s cool,” it isn’t particularly compelling for us. We’re looking for that, “I have more to give.” It is a connection to mission and purpose. I look for a sense that the person that I’m talking to is pursuing this change because they want to make a bigger difference in the world.

Thinks Beyond Themselves is a great foundational quality because it's indicative of great leadership. People like to make leadership this complicated thing, but I think that, in many ways, leadership simply maps to an individual’s ability to make good decisions for a larger group of people beyond themselves. When an individual has the markings to be thinking like that as a collaborator in a group, and also as they consider how they want to manage their career, it also speaks to the kinds of leaders that we want in the world. We need people who lead by thinking about what’s best for the group and the organization of people. Thinks Beyond Themselves is a deep one to me.[bctt tweet="#Leadership is, simply, the ability to make good decisions for a group -@bickfordkatie"]

Q: Would you say that it isn't just about if this person would make a great addition to Startup Institute, but who can this person be at their next company?

A: Absolutely. Thinks Beyond Themselves, to me, is the most fundamental thing in what I look for. And it can come across in different notes, too. It doesn’t have to come across as “I want to cure world hunger;” it can be “I love to collaborate, and to be the person who makes the symphony come together.” At the end of the day, these people are team-builders. And this is why it’s such a high-impact thing to look for. It isn’t just about the person’s ability in the short-term. It’s about their potential in the long-term.[bctt tweet="The #1 thing that we look for is someone who thinks beyond themselves, says @bickfordkatie"]

The next big one is Likes to Solve Problems. I have this thing where I believe that, when a problem is presented, a line in the sand is drawn. On one side is the person who looks at the problem and says, “Challenge accepted!” And then there’s the other person who likes the problem, but for another reason—because it validates an idea that things aren’t possible, or that no more can be expected of them.

When a problem is presented, a line in the sand is drawn. I think that a lot of people are familiar with this kind of mentality. You’ll have these companies with clusters of people who feed-off of one another and keep each other believing that there’s no way that something can be done. These are the people who say, “This process is impossible! I’m going to go get another cup of coffee to kill the next 30 min.” It’s a quality that lends itself to people who are mid to low-level performers and who, culturally, don’t contribute to a sense of energy and building. They’re also people who approach their work hoping that something is going to go wrong, or that they’re going to have an obstacle to justify inaction.

We have a ton of great examples of people who love to solve problems. They’re the antithesis of That’s not my job. The Likes to Solve Problems people tend to say “Ill take that! I want to contribute! Give me more!”  We’ve had many students who had been working in roles that were administrative, or lower-level, and then they do something to optimize the work there and to make the processes better. In many cases, these people are then marginalized because they’ve upset the status quo of Just do your job, and get on with your life.[bctt tweet="When a problem is presented, a line in the sand is drawn, says @bickfordkatie"]

Q: Are people threatened by that?

A: Very often. I hear a lot of stories from Startup Institute candidates who say “I built out this process,” “I digitized something,” “I build a piece of software that completely cut-out this huge bureaucratic undertaking.” In one case, I had a guy who built a basic software that streamlined how the forms for a particular function were being processed. There had been so many people who had previously made the case that it could never be done—that it was a cross they had to bear. So, when he solved the problem, those people were triggered, and his supervisor took him aside to say, “You have a big future in this company, but you have to stop doing stuff like that.”

A lot of the people who end up being our ideal students have these jobs that are too easy for them. They say “I have four hours of work and an eight hour day, so why am I so tired? Why am I going home and watching Netflix instead of engaging with people and having fun?” This would be an interesting thing to investigate, but I think that part of this exhaustion has to do with being in an environment with people who don’t bring the right energetic factor, and having to fight that.

Q: Are there any other qualities that you screen for?

A: Yes. The three other pieces of our rubric are pretty simple.

One is SASH, which means self-aware, sincere, and humble. We’re looking for the types of people who are going to help to build trust in the cohort, and in a company, and who will engage with people in a way that’s meaningful.

Another one is Hustle. This program represents an incredible opportunity to do so much building—building skills, building personal awareness, building leverage points that will help you to be effective moving forward in your career, no matter what you do. You build out an incredible network, and you learn how to leverage it into a career that will be rewarding long-term.

That said, we don’t give a fish—we teach to fish. We need to get people in the door who have hustle;  who’ll say “You taught me how to fish. Now I’m casting my rod!” versus people who say, “You said that you were going to get me a job. Now, where’s my fish?” We need people who’ll say “You taught me how to fish. Now I’m casting my rod!” instead of “You said that you were going to get me a job. Now, where’s my fish?”

The last is Desire to Change, which we touched on earlier. This one is simple. I typically ask the question “On a scale of one to ten—one being ‘whatever’ and ten being, ‘I am on fire and I’m ready to jump out a window,’—how would you rate your desire to change?”

Sometimes people are like “Nine. I really want change but I don’t want to jump out a window,” and some people will be like “Twelve!” It’s this surge of inspiration from people who’ve been activated by experiencing being in the wrong career, and knowing how important it is to get themselves to the right one.

This process can be like winning the battle, but you have to go to battle. Desire to Change means you’re suiting up and ready to charge.[bctt tweet="This process is like winning a battle. But you have to go to battle, says @bickfordkatie #fighting"]

Q: Is there also a component in that, if you're not willing to change, you're not going to change?

A: If you’re not willing to change you’re not going to do the program. A person who isn’t ready for change won’t be happy with the experience that we facilitate, and they’re straight-up not what we need in the program. Lackadaisical people are not great in terms of the energetic quotient.

The people who do well and bring energy to the cohort have skin in the game. They’ve left jobs. They have options, but they’ve chosen to take this path because it is going to get them where they want to go and not just land them in another “good job.” That’s the energy that everyone in the cohort wants. They want to work hard and collaborate, and that’s how we build these classrooms—by finding the people who are going to contribute with this great sense of purpose and a burning desire. This is a critical aspect of why our program works. The people who do well and bring energy to the cohort have skin in the game.

Q: Can you define what you mean by "energy"? Are introverts less of a fit than extroverts?

A: That’s a great question. The important thing to remember is that energy isn’t necessarily high energy. It’s just positive energy, which is not defined by introversion or extroversion.

I’m actually an introvert. I think one of the things with introversion is it tends more toward introspection, thoughtfulness, and wanting to have conversations that are accomplishing something—non-small-talk. The qualities that we seek out are truly universal qualities: wanting to make a bigger impact, liking to solve problems, being self-aware, sincere, and humble, having hustle, having a desire to change.

Introversion tends toward introspection, thoughtfulness, and wanting to have conversations that are accomplishing something—non-small-talk.

At the core, these qualities don’t select anyone out except people who don’t have these qualities. In putting this rubric together, we were very careful about not selecting qualities like “confidence,” or things that have implications about skill level or professional aptitudes, work experience, degrees, or anything that relates to elements of a person that, at the end of the day, don’t particularly matter (the exception to this rule are the technical prerequisites in our web development track). A very quiet, introverted person can be incredibly driven and super impactful.[bctt tweet="#Introverts can be incredibly driven and impactful, says @bickfordkatie"]

Q: Good clarification. Any final words on what we're looking for in Startup Institute candidates?

A: Only that in our admissions process, we talk to anybody who submits a thoughtful application.

The reason for this is that we want to draw out the person and find these qualities. Sometimes they can be hard to find. The person may present themselves in a way that is a representation of them having been in the wrong environment for a long time. We''ll get people who are sad, or who may present as low-energy because they’ve been run-down.

Our admissions process is about taking the time for anyone who seriously wants to explore this, and figuring out if these qualities are there, and if they need an outlet for them. And then, the process becomes working with that person to explore if Startup Institute is the right place for them to do that.[bctt tweet="Our admissions process takes the time for anyone who wants to explore this, says @bickfordkatie"]


To recap, the qualities on our admissions rubric are:

  • Thinks Beyond Themselves
  • Likes to Solve Problems
  • SASH (self-aware, sincere, and humble)
  • Hustle
  • Desire to Change

Interested in learning more about the Startup Institute admissions process? Download our Admissions Guide, or schedule a call with Katie's team to explore the potential for your own career.