A cracking cover letter

Writing an interesting and unique cover letter is not easy, and as a graduate the temptation is to just tweak a generic letter you have gradually developed. When applying for so many jobs this can feel like the only option, but simply changing the company name on each letter will lead nowhere. Unlike a CV which will usually need less tailoring, with a cover letter you should start from scratch. The blinking cursor and the blank Word document can often be intimidating, but once you ask yourself some questions, it should come more naturally.

Below are some starting points to get you thinking, which should produce quite different results according to the company or role you are applying for:

What sort of people are they looking for?

Don’t be afraid to copy and paste the keywords from the advert or the company website for your own reference – you are looking for attitudinal traits (e.g. highly motivated) rather than skills (e.g. aptitude for data analysis). Use this to decide which of your own characteristics will appeal to them, but don’t risk parroting the advert back to them.

What skills can I offer them?

First write down your top strengths. Then rule out those that are least relevant to the role and to the company. What does the company stand for? What does it strive to achieve? Describe what interests you about their business aims, and how you think you can assist in achieving them. For example, many start-ups are trying to shake up the industries they are entering and take on the big boys (such as Airbnb in the hotels industry, and SoundCloud in the music industry). Could you show you are ready to join a challenge like this?

What experience do I have?

Write down your work experience in short descriptive sentences rather than the format on your CV, then only highlight what might intrigue them. Your stint at a call centre as a penniless graduate probably won’t cut it, unless the vacancy or the business has customer service right at the heart of it.

Why would I like to work for this company?

If you have not already made it clear to them why you appreciate their work, you need to first make it clear in your own head. If you are only applying because you need the money, find another reason fast, otherwise no passion will come across. Dig around to find out what makes them different in a way that you admire (i.e. not simply winning awards) and draw attention to this.

Do I have a critical viewpoint of this company and the industry it sits in?

Don’t be afraid to have an opinion. Can you make any suggestions for their business? For their marketing, for the way their website works, for the way they handle customer enquiries? Show them you have engaged with their product and brand; that you admire it and can think of it from a critical viewpoint too. After all, every business can always improve.

Why should they hire me?

Do this last: try writing out why they should hire you in 20 words or less. It will be tricky but it should define the tone and content of the whole letter, and will probably make you feel more confident.

By now you should have about twice as many words as you need; a much better position to be in compared to “I’m writing to apply for…” at the top of a blank page. Now all you need to do is trim it down to make it punchy. Once that’s done, ask someone else to proofread it and cut it further. If this all goes to plan, your application should be given the attention it deserves, and who knows, it might just lead to that all-important interview.

Lauren Ingram graduated from Sussex University in 2011. She studied linguistics and is now pursuing a marketing career in Berlin.

Cutting through the noise: attracting investors to your startup

On Wednesday, Lauren went to her first talk at Google Campus in London’s Silicon Roundabout to learn how startups should attract investors, and of course to network.

With several hundred startups in London, and many of them clustered around the Old Street roundabout, it can be hard to get your startup noticed by investors and by potential users of your product. The aim of the evening, hosted by the award-winning financial and corporate PR agency Citigate Dewe Rogerson, was to share knowledge on making yourself heard and getting your investment pitch right.

The first panellist was Oscar Jazdowski of Silicon Valley Bank UK, whose top tip for the evening was when meeting with investors, you are not looking for money. You are looking for your next meeting with them. Unlike Dragon’s Den, they won’t be parting with wads of cash straightaway; they want to hear your progress (particularly true of institutional investors), so keep them up to date and keep your promise of meeting them a few months later. For now, engage them with your story, tell them what makes your idea unique and exciting, and get them enthused about it. Angel investors are more interested in this core idea and the team behind it, and you should therefore approach them in early rounds of funding.

Keep it snappy

You need to be able to explain your whole idea in less than 60 seconds. Investors often find themselves five minutes into a pitch wondering what the product is – it’s easy to accidentally omit details because you know your own brand so well. City Meets Tech, an initiative to link up the financial district in London with Silicon Roundabout, runs events where startups only have three minutes to pitch to angel investors. CMT co-founder Steve Karmeinsky told us that most startups make the mistake of preparing 10 text-filled slides (10 is the maximum allowed), which is a slide every 18 seconds!

You also absolutely need to know how you will monetise your product, as investors aim to make 5-10 times their money back in 3-5 years. However, bringing in sums early on won’t be necessary – they’ll know you’re just making it up. Just be prepared to explain how you will generate shareholder value, and how costly your customer acquisition is likely to be.

Fail small, fail fast

It’s something you will have heard many times already, but this is only because it’s true. Oscar Jazdowski believes that California is better at killing companies early on, which he sees as immensely beneficial. Many investors in the UK can see the eventual failure a mile off, but choose to keep a company alive with more money – in these cases, it would be better to kill it early so the team behind it can create something new instead.

Don’t underestimate the power of PR

Georgia Hanias from the Technology Team at Citigate Dewe Rogerson explained how to generate buzz around your brand when you can’t afford to use an agency, so that you appeal to investors and potential customers. Her number one tip was to observe your competitors and who is following them: build up a picture of which publications and journalists would be interested in your own product. Make a habit of ‘issue hijacking’: comment on news stories; blog about news in your industry; build up a following with the aim of becoming a spokesperson for your industry. You should also attend networking events, and any angel investors that you do meet, get them to introduce you to other angels.

Jane Ni Dhulchaointigh, founder and CEO of Sugru the self-setting rubber, found that once her product started gaining press coverage, investors began to approach her directly. The company had been sending out Sugru samples to bloggers and tech geeks who got very excited about it and started making noise online. Indeed, a lot of the website’s content is still community-generated, which then also serves to sell the brand to Sugru virgins. How will you get people talking about your product?

Competition is stiff, but there are many investors out there. The evening’s advice in short: fail fast, develop your brand story, and never be afraid to network.