A year ago, I was ready for a change at work. A re-organization at my old company meant that I was spending about 6 hours per day in meetings, which drained me. In the wake of COVID, it was high time to heed my own advice:
Now is a great time to get a new job. With the labor market now untethered from your geographic locale, you can enjoy your current lifestyle while locking in the salary of a much higher cost-of-living city. The key is to do this soon – before companies start adjusting salaries for the cost of living where a given employee is located.
I drew up a list of what I'd like to accomplish in my next role:
- Have a large impact; solve important, complicated problems.
- Grow my technical skill set; spend time on heads-down execution, rather than in meetings and on process updates.
- Learn from incredibly smart coworkers. Specifically, learn how to scale a company from the seed stage (~$0 ARR) to $10M+ ARR and beyond, with the end goal of launching my own company 2-5 years down the line.
Let's Talk Tactics
If I were to look for a job in the blockchain space today, I'd learn Solidity, launch a few dApps of my own, and join crypto project Discord servers as a way to dip my toes into the industry.
But last year I didn't limit my job search to the crypto space. At the time, I didn't even realize I could work in the crypto space! So here are a few tactics I used to find companies and jobs in the tech industry more broadly:
Ignore public job postings. Well, don't actually ignore them. But they should be viewed as an indication that the company is hiring, rather than a comprehensive list of the roles it actually needs. Many early-stage companies find smart people and then write a job description for them, rather than publicly posting a job description for every open role. Similarly, you should view job requirements (particularly regarding work experience) as a mere suggestion. With 5 years of work experience, I could regularly get interviews for roles that "required" 7+ years.
Warm intros. I reached out to folks in my personal network for personal introductions to companies. Your university's fellow alumni as well as first- and second-degree connections on LinkedIn are often happy to help.
Cold emails to founders. When the company is Series A or smaller (< ~25 people), the founders can be surprisingly responsive. To send a good cold email, you should:
- Find the right person. This is a decision-maker (i.e., someone who can actually hire you) in your area. At a company of this size, this will likely be the CTO for engineers and the CEO for everyone else.
- Keep it short. The person you're emailing is busy. They don't need your life story; a five-sentence email will suffice.
- Do your homework. Say something unique that draws you to the company. If you could send this email to several different companies, it's not differentiated enough.
- Focus on the value that you'll add. 90% of people who send these emails focus on themselves: their past experience, how much they'd learn at the company, etc. You want to highlight why the company needs you. In what ways are you uniquely qualified to help the company?
Early-stage startup boards. I found companies that were hiring on AngelList. Many startups don't actively check their AngelList profiles, so it's best to reach out directly once you find companies you're interested in. Similarly, Work at a Startup, Y Combinator's job board, is a great resource.
Through Work at a Startup, I ran across TRM Labs. On a whim, I shot off a note saying I'd be interested in a Data Science role. Here's the exact message that I sent TRM to get an interview:
Hey TRM Labs team! Reaching out because I've spent the past couple of years immersed in healthcare data – I'm drawn to working on a smaller team and getting closer to my academic roots in finance. Would love to chat!
Enter TRM Labs
Let's take a step back. What is TRM Labs?
We are a blockchain intelligence company. We analyze blockchain data to help financial institutions and government entities detect financial crime and fight fraud in cryptocurrency transactions.
Our mission is to build a safer financial system for billions of people. We believe that:
- Crypto is poised for explosive growth.
- Risk management infrastructure is essential for that growth to occur.
I had played around with crypto on and off since 2013, but never thought that I could make it my career. So I was happy to hear that TRM attracts a motley crew:
- Brilliant data scientists and engineers – with or without a crypto background. We work with huge, complex datasets, and our data is the lifeblood of our product.
- Former law enforcement agents who specialize in investigating financial crimes.
- Folks in the financial compliance space.
- Cryptocurrency enthusiasts who have been in working on decentralized projects for years.
- Anyone who is humble, smart, and driven, who wants to solve big problems and build the future of finance.
But when I reached out, I didn't know any of this. At the time, all that I knew was that TRM was a small startup with some good investors (YC, PayPal, Initialized Capital, etc.) operating in the crypto space.
My process started with a standard 30 minute phone screen with our CEO, Esteban. He gave me an overview of TRM, dug into my background, and asked what types of problems I'd like to solve in my next role.
From there, he sent me an "AoR" (Areas of Responsibility) document. This was a list of all of the potential workflows that were open areas of need at TRM. I indicated my level of ability and interest for each workflow, then got on a follow-up call with Esteban to discuss. I respected how thoughtful Esteban was about building not only a great product, but a great company, as well as his emphasis on finding a good role for me, given my skills and interests.
We mutually agreed that TRM would be a potential fit, so I was given a take-home challenge involving SQL, writing, and project planning/project management. This was extremely open-ended. I then had a 3-hour virtual onsite to discuss the results of my take-home challenge, as well as some additional technical and cultural interviews.
It was tough to get a read on my performance during the virtual onsite. I think that this is a function of not being in the same room as others and being able to read non-verbal cues. Frankly, I thought that I had bombed the Python portion of the interview. I don't have a degree in CS – I'm self-taught technically and don't code well under pressure.
Being on the other side of interviews now, I realize that at TRM we intentionally hire for strengths, as opposed to lack of weaknesses. So the other facets of the interview may have made up for my relative weak performance on the Python portion. (E.g., I was able to send across some writing samples from this very blog.)
My final-round interview was on a Friday. Esteban called me and gave a verbal offer first thing on Monday morning. I was impressed by the quick turnaround; as a candidate, this made me a lot more excited about the company and the role. I also appreciated that they offered an Amazon gift card as a token of appreciation for completing the take-home challenge. These take-home challenges can be a substantial time investment for candidates, so the fact that TRM recognized this exemplified that this is a company that cares about its people.
After getting an offer from TRM, I had some follow-up questions to ensure that the company and role would be a good fit for me. I knew that joining as one of the first 15 employees of a seed-stage, remote startup meant that culture would be extremely important.
Esteban lined up some follow-up casual one-on-one meetings with various team members for me so that I could get a sense of what working at TRM would look like. He also got on the phone with me for about an hour to discuss all of the questions that I had.
Beyond that, two things in particular pushed me over the edge:
- The cocktail party test. If you were at a cocktail party, how excited would you be to discuss your current job? In my former role, if I was looking to get out of a conversation, I'd say that I was working for an "insurance company", and if I wanted to continue the conversation, I'd say that I worked at a "healthcare startup". With a job at TRM, I could tell people that I worked in crypto at a blockchain analytics company. That's something that I'd be excited to talk about!
- Backchannel references. I reached out on LinkedIn to a few former employees of TRM, to chat about their experience at the company and why they left. I thought this would give me a more honest assessment of the company, compared to the point of view of current employees who were actively trying to recruit me. One of the people I reached out to was effusive in his praise of TRM. I'll quote him directly:
WOW this is an excellent strategy that I'm going to do for all my next jobs (reaching out to former employees). So, in short, TRM is a one in a million startup. The biggest names in crypto and fintech as clients, an incredible CEO, and a world class technical team. The primary reason I left was because I got an opportunity to more or less found a startup with a really good friend of mine that I've known for years. Even on my way out, everyone in the company wished me well and even got me a going away gift.
At that point, my decision was made. I negotiated my offer with Esteban and signed on to start working at TRM two weeks later.
One Year Later
Almost a year into my time at TRM, I can say that this was a great decision for me.
The crypto space is extremely exciting right now, and TRM is capitalizing on the trend of institutional adoption of crypto. We ship new product features extremely quickly and are growing our customer base.
I joined DoorDash as employee ~200 in 2016. The explosive growth that we're experiencing at TRM is reminiscent of my time at DoorDash. Over the past year, we've gone from a dozen to over 40 employees. By this time next year, we'll have over 100. Each new hire raises the bar for us as a company. In general, I rarely walk away from a conversation thinking "Wow, that person is really smart." That happens to me regularly at TRM. I know that I need to bring my A-game every day at work.
We have employees all over the world and have embraced the remote work model. Long-term, we'll likely have some offices in hub cities, with the opportunity to work from the office or remotely, depending on employee preference. We'll also conduct off-sites a few times per year to get together in person and collaborate.
Because of this remote culture, we place a large emphasis on written communication. We document our thoughts and processes, and challenge each others' thinking asynchronously, meaning I spend on average just 5 hours per week in meetings.
This remote environment has also given me a great deal of flexibility, given TRM is an early-stage startup. I largely set my own calendar and have been able to do things like go to the gym in the middle of the day. That's not to say that we don't work hard – the other side of the coin is that I've been on calls at 3 a.m. when we need to push out a new feature or report for our customers.
My day-to-day consists of varied tasks, as you'd expect at a startup. Some examples:
- Analyzing illicit activity in the cryptocurrency ecosystem, then delivering the results of this analysis to regulatory agencies.
- Building internal tools that help scale the work of Blockchain Intelligence Analysts and the Machine Learning team.
- Defining the methodology for calculating the exposure to a given counterparty on UTXO blockchains.
- Standing up or modifying an Airflow pipeline.
- Meeting with clients; implementing custom reports for them based on datasets and on-chain data.
- Extracting insights from our data to inform our product strategy.
- Jumping into a sales meeting to highlight TRM's analytic capabilities.
- Designing a Data Science interview process to grow our team.
- Writing this blog post.
I've encountered a ton of autonomy at TRM. There is more than enough work to go around, so it is up to you to prioritize your work to make the maximum impact. We are a flat organization that places a lot of emphasis on being a "humble master of your craft". We ship surprisingly quickly, communicate openly, and take full ownership of outcomes – whether a presentation to a regulatory agency or a last-minute client request.
I started this post by saying that one of my goals was to find a role where I could learn how to scale a company, before starting my own. I think I've found a great place to do that. I'm optimistic that TRM will be the last job that I ever have – but there's a lot of work to do here first.
Interested in solving hard problems with us to make the financial system safer? Join us!
I don't follow all of my advice regarding cold emails here...this wasn't the ideal message, but it got the job done. ↩︎