FORTUNE — My first time jumping into the startup world was as a freshly minted Harvard MBA in 1995. As my classmates were rushing off to high-paying, high-powered jobs on Wall Street, I joined a Series A startup with 30 employees as a product manager, making $65,000 per year – lower than my pre-MBA salary at management consultancy The Boston Consulting Group. Since then I’ve had a terrific ride, but I often think of that fateful decision when I get asked, repeatedly, by other freshly minted MBAs: “How do I get a job in a startup?” Or, more generally, “How do I even begin to find and assess startup job opportunities – I don’t even know where to start?”
The startup universe is a large one and can seem overwhelming and impenetrable to the uninitiated. In order to narrow things down, I recommend following a simple, four-step heuristic. Here’s the advice I give:
- Pick a Domain. First, figure out your passion in terms of domain. Are you more of a B2C type or a B2B type? What blogs are you reading? What articles in Techcrunch or the Wall Street Journal capture your attention? What companies are your dream companies to work for? Answering these questions will help narrow down a set of domains that you are excited about. It can be more than one, but it shouldn’t be more than, say, three.
- Pick a City. Next, figure out where you want to live. Again, there may be multiple options, but ideally one or two favorites. Each startup community has its own plusses and minuses, quirks and idiosyncracies. I find that once young people choose a particular startup community, they stay there. It’s a natural phenomenon – they build relationships over time that lead to one opportunity after the next. Your co-workers in one startup become your co-founders in another. Thus, young professionals should be thoughtful about choosing a city early in their career because of this “settling in” phenomenon.
- Pick a Stage. Next, determine what stage company you prefer to work in. Do you want a company that is still in the jungle phase (hacking through and trying to establish a path to success), the dirt road phase (established initial product-market fit and now trying to execute and scale in a relatively clear direction) or the highway phase (optimizing and scaling along a well-trod path)? This decision should be made somewhat based on risk appetite and somewhat on personal makeup and preferences. If you are a risk-taker and enjoy the challenges and roller-coaster ride, then the jungle phase is for you and you should bias towards seed funded or recently Series A funded companies that are pre-revenue. If you are more conservative, want a good salary and prefer to pick a “safe” winner, then a highway phase company that is pre-IPO or recently IPO’ed is the right choice.
- Pick a Winner. Now that you have your target domain, geography and stage, focus on picking out a few winners – the hot companies that everyone thinks have great momentum and potential. After all, why would you want to work for anyone other than the absolute hottest company in a given category? How does an outsider figure out who the winners are in a given domain, market and stage? Ask a handful of insiders. Find the top 3 VCs, angels, tech lawyers and headhunters in your target geographical market and ask them for the two or three hottest companies that match the domain and stage you are interested in. Compile this list, pressure test it, and see what patterns you find. The firms who get the most mentions with the most compelling underlying evidence will naturally rise to the top.
Below is a sample chart that I put together answering the question for someone interested in either e-commerce, mobile or SaaS companies in SF/SV, NYC or Boston. The first company listed is an earlier stage company (either jungle or dirt road) and the second company is a later stage company (either dirt road or highway). This list is illustrative – just to make the point – not in any way attempting to be comprehensive.
(full disclosure: tracx, 10gen and Savingstar are Flybridge portfolio companies)
Once this heuristic is complete, you now have your target list. The next step is to get warm introductions to the target. This is easier than you would think. LinkedIn is an incredibly powerful tool, as are the various alumni databases. VCs are often happy to pass along your resume and background to their portfolio companies – after all, they are doing them a favor by sending them highly qualified talent.
In general, the startup community is so incredibly generous with its time and has such a strong “pay it forward” culture, that with tenacity and time, you can get to almost anyone. In fact, I recommended you aim high. Use this heuristic to narrow down your search and then list out the 10 people that would be your absolute top choices to sit down for 30 minutes with face to face. Then, go after those 10 people in any way you can (without stalking them or being a nudge!). These networking meetings will help you establish valuable relationships, even if the job fit isn’t there.
In short, be organized, focused and tenacious. Aim high, seek out the incremental networking meetings and pick yourself out a winner. Things may not work out, but at least you’re putting yourself in a position for a little positive serendipity.
Jeff Bussgang is general partner at venture capital firm Flybridge Capital Partners. You can follow him on Twitter @bussgang