This article on landing a remote job is a guest post from Tim Metz. Tim is the co-founder of Saent, a hardware and software device that blocks digital distractions and helps you be more productive. Saent is crowdfunding its initial production run on Indiegogo now. Before Saent, Tim worked in mobile gaming and electronic music, amongst other things. Tim lives and works from Beijing (China) and starts each day writing, usually about productivity on the Saent blog. You can follow him on Twitter & LinkedIn.
When I lost my job at a mobile gaming company in August of last year, I soul-searched hard to figure out what I really wanted to do. I realized my ideal position would involve my passion and knowledge of productivity. I set my sights on landing a job Evernote, which is one of the few companies truly trying to build a great brand and community around productivity. To my amazement, they also had a vacancy at that time that I thought would perfectly suit me: Marketing Producer. I sent off a cover letter and CV.
And that was it. I never heard back from them.
At first I was puzzled, and a bit crushed. Then I started reviewing myself more critically. I’d done a lot of things wrong: I didn’t really highlight my passion for productivity, I didn’t talk about what I could do for Evernote, and I didn’t even showcase my relevant productivity experience. In retrospect, everything sounded a bit generic.
Fast forward 12 months and I’ve launched my own company to manufacture a productivity device and hired a globally distributed team operating under Teal organizational principles. Most recently, I’ve been going through the over 400 applications we received for our remote librarian position, and unfortunately, many applicants made a lot of the same mistakes I did. Though the Evernote job wasn’t a remote role, many of the concept translate — and at times are amplified by the nature of remote work.
So, based on my own failed attempt to land a job at Evernote and the experience hiring a remote team at Saent, here are nine tips about how to apply for a remote job.
1. You have a few seconds
I want you to pause for a moment and imagine you are in my shoes.
You have tons of other stuff to do, yet you have 400+ applications to sift through. You know there will be some gems in that pile and this role is important for your company. Yet there’s no way you can spend several days on this, even if you wanted to. What’s going to happen?
You, the applicant, will have half a minute at most to catch my attention, no second chances. You’re not physically in a room with me where you have at least ten minutes of my time. Some of the other tips in this piece will help you how to catch my eye quickly, but keep this in mind at all times: it’s all in your writing and what it brings across to me at a glance. Tough and harsh, but that’s the reality.
And for a remote company, where often so much communication is written, the first impression you give in your cover letter or CV is perhaps even more vital.
2. Do your homework
Hundreds of people applied for our open position as a librarian, part of which involves doing lots of research. Nevertheless only a handful of people showed in their cover letter they had done their homework. Even fewer people tailored their CV to the position and company.
At any small startup, it’s likely the founder who will be going through the applications. Usually, you can find at least some info about him or her online. Especially at remote companies, where clear communication between colleagues is paramount, there tends to be a lot of emphasis on transparency, meaning there’s often tons of material to read up on. In our case, we’re documenting our journey in a Medium publication called En Route to Saenthood, so it’s easy to be fully up to date on what’s going on at our company and its culture.
Even at larger startups or more established companies, LinkedIn and Twitter make it relatively easy to take an educated guess about who in the department you’re applying to will likely be doing the hiring. There’s no excuse not to poke around a bit and learn about the people you’re hoping to work with.
Whether you’re up against only four people or 400, the one who puts in the effort to understand who they’re talking to and adjusts what he or she sends in accordingly, has a higher chance of landing the job.
3. Write a proper introduction of yourself or don’t bother
There are three ways to properly introduce yourself when applying for a position, whether remote or in an office:
You just send in a CV, because it’s so amazing it will definitely blow me away (highly unlikely).
You write a short (two sentence) email which grabs my attention and leads me to your cover letter and CV, which you’ve included as attachments*.
You write your introduction in a well-formatted email and attach your CV. In this case, you don’t have to add your cover letter as a separate attachment (but it probably doesn’t hurt).
Your cover letter should always be personalized. I can notice in a split second whether it’s just a generic letter you’re sending out to everyone or something that was written specifically for this role. Nine out of ten times, a template text means we’re done.
Remote positions require you to be much more self-motivated, have excellent writing skills (I can’t stress this one enough) and be able to stand the loneliness of working all by yourself. This should all be reflected in your cover letter.
* While we’re at it: I suggest including a PDF and a Word version of every document you attach. The PDF layout always stays in tact and looks good, while the Word copy allows people to make adjustments and notes.
4. What value will you bring me?
This is perhaps the most pressing point, as a large majority of applicants to every job I’ve ever hired for seem to do this wrong, even the good ones.
Emphasizing your past experience and what you’ve learned is great; it gives me some reassurance you can get stuff done. But in the end, it’s not about the past, it’s about your future. More specifically, your future at our company.
How will you apply that past experience to your role here? Have you already spotted things you would do differently at our company? Do you see opportunities where you can add value? Is there something we can learn from you? And again, very important, do you have any prior experience working as part of a remote team? If not, why do you think that environment is for you?
Anyone who starts off their cover letter with what they can do for Saent immediately has my attention. Hopefully they can then later back up those claims with past experience, but even if they can’t, I’d go with someone who spots problems and is proactive any day. It immediately shows you did your homework and can think creatively.
5. Make it compelling
Human beings are wired for good stories, yet few applicants seem to realize this. Most of what gets sent in is a dry statement of facts or, worse, a collection of vague nothingness.
“I’m a proven goal-oriented overachiever who under promises and over delivers,” tells me very little. And if you have “demonstrated experience in doing the impossible,” explain me how and why you did that instead of just telling me that you can.
“Show, don’t tell” also applies in writing cover letters and CVs. This is even more true in a distributed team, where you ability to tell a good story will help you connect with colleagues and bring your point across, even when your teammates are thousands of miles away. It’s not easy, but putting in the time to compose a story around your past and value-add for the company will definitely pay off.
Bonus tip: add highlights in bold to emphasize the most important aspects of your story. For someone skimming through hundreds of applications, this will surely catch my eye and ensure I don’t overlook you were Mark Zuckerberg’s dorm roommate and a co-founder of Facebook, for example.
6. Be concise
Or, as they tell keynote speakers: “finish speaking before your audience stops listening.”
No matter what you’ve done, it hardly ever warrants a cover letter of more than one page. Great communication skills are especially when you’re applying for a remote role. Your ability to get your point across concisely and persuasively is an indicator that you can handle the unique circumstance of working spread apart from your teammates. That’s nearly as important as whether you can do the job itself. On the other hand, if it takes you pages and pages to get to the point in your cover letter, is that really a quality I want to introduce to a team that communicates primarily through writing?
This also applies to your CV. I’m not in a particular camp when it comes to one-page versus two-page CVs, but it should really not be longer than two pages. Again, this is a matter of customizing your CV to the position you’re applying for and highlighting those areas which are relevant to the particular job you’re trying to land.
7. Grandeur and negativity
Action speaks louder than words, at least in my opinion. There might be others who are impressed with overly self-confident candidates proclaiming they’re the best of the best, but for me it’s a total turn-off.
If you’re really that great, I should be able to conclude that from your CV and cover letter myself. Yet don’t swing to the other side of the spectrum and open up completely about how terrible your current situation is. Remember, this is your one shot to make a good first impression and you won’t get a second chance to explain yourself. Cockiness can look especially bad when you put this kind of stuff in writing, so skip it from the get go.
While it can always be helpful to talk to another human being about your problems, a cover letter for a job application is not the place to do it. What boss will bring on board a team member who’s already complaining and radiating negativity before they’ve even started? I don’t know of any.
8. Details matter, A LOT
How is your CV laid out? Have you formatted text in your cover letter? Did you put a lot of work into your LinkedIn profile? What kind of words did you pick to tell a story? Can I easily find the information that matters (for example, company names and job titles)? These details are highly reflective on my impression of you during the remote hiring process. How you present yourself online is extremely important to the impression a hiring manager or committee will form of you. It’s the equivalent to how you dress for a regular, in-person job interview.
Time and again, good candidates are the ones who have spent time on the details. This doesn’t mean you have to turn it into a work of art, but do pay attention to the little things:
Highlighting important information in bold.
Proper use of punctuation and line-spacing.
Adding some relevant pictures or slides to your LinkedIn profile.
Spelling and grammar.
Making sure links and attachments work.
Spelling my name and the name of our company properly.
Especially when you’re applying for a remote position where most communication will be written, these things become even more important. Oh, and if you have 6 followers and one Tweet dating back to 2009, maybe it’s better not to include your Twitter handle at all.
9. Motivation and passion for a remote job
I understand you’re not only going to work because you love what we’re doing. You also need to pay for stuff, so you expect to get money in return for work. But don’t write that you’re actually “just looking for a job because you’re broke.”
Perhaps that works with some other companies (“this guy will definitely work hard since he desperately needs the money!”), but if you had done your homework, you’d realize we’re a passionate bunch, not only in it for the money. Moreover, this happens to be the case for most startup companies and especially remote ones, which tend to work even harder on building culture because everyone’s not in the same room all the time. Bonding is more difficult over distance, so distributed teams tend to put a premium on people who want to be there and really believe in what they’re building.
Showing passion and articulating a great and burning desire for why you’d like to work at a company is definitely an important component for making a good impression with your cover letter.
All is not lost; try to learn from it
If all of the above sounds like a lot of work just to apply for a job, perhaps it isn’t the right position for you to begin with. You can’t expect to land a dream job by spending only a few minutes on a generic application you also sent to twenty other companies.
But if you really believe this is perfect for you, you do put a lot of effort into your application, but still get rejected, what kind of experience would you need to land this gig? Figure that out and work backwards from there. Start gaining the experience you need and take the initiative on yourself (start a blog, build a portfolio, found a company) to build a track record that shows people you are a perfect fit for the role. Remember, you might eventually never even apply for that dream job in the end, that’s how I ended up starting Saent!