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Tesla recruiter gives GMIC SV ten tips to identify the next unicorn

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Unicorn is the buzzword right now, but suddenly $1 billion-plus startups are becoming more common than the mythical horse. As of summer 2015, there are 84 unicorn companies in America alone, up 115% from 2014. During GMIC SV The Edge talks, Tesla Motors Senior Recruiter Tom Zhang gave us serious insight into how you can spot and get involved with the next one in How Can a Job Seeker Catch the Next Unicorn Bus.

“There are a lot of unicorns, but once you know they are unicorns, it is very difficult to get in,” Zhang said, who has worked for three unicorns: Google, Tencent and, now, Tesla. “There are ten tips for finding the next one early.”

He shared some intense, controversial advice:

  1. Don’t trust the media
  2. Don’t trust VCs
  3. Don’t trust the winner of Demo Day
  4. Don’t follow trends
  5. Use first principles thinking
  6. Try the product yourself
  7. Follow good engineers, not executives
  8. Stay away from “old” startups
  9. Stay away from bad founders
  10. Accept a lower salary

The first four points came down to one observation: The public, even the educated public, is often wrong. Zhang noted that Google, Facebook and Uber were respected early on, but no mainstream voices believed they would evolve into unicorn and super-unicorn ($100 billion-plus) companies.

Zhang also quoted heavily from his boss, Elon Musk, for using first principles thinking. In short, use the facts and the science, not your past experiences, to choose the best course.

Using and actually loving the product is also a unicorn indicator for job seekers. “I’ve asked colleagues why they ended up leaving Google for Facebook or Twitter?” Zhang said. “They told me they like the product.”

Seemingly stagnant startups and founders with questionable ethics should be avoided as well.

Finally, he recommended following where the good engineers are going, as they have the most choices between companies, and be willing to take a smaller salary to get onboard a rising company. “Dozens of people decline rare offers because the salary doesn’t meet their requirement by a few thousand dollars,” Zhang shared. “They miss the unicorn bus, even though they had a ticket!”

The GMIC Edge series will go through Wednesday and feature future-forward talks on big data, diversity and virtual reality.

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