I should preface this post by admitting I now know I want to always work at a startup. I want a small, engaging environment where I need to do meaningful work in creative ways. I want flexibility, discretion, smart people, cool culture, etc. etc.... Doesn't everybody? You find this type of place by getting out and making a personal connection. (period). Let me give some details...
If you are out looking for a job, where do you normally start? An online job search - finding a favorite company and seeing a sweet looking job, taking an hour to fill out the fields on the company website, and hearing nothing back? Monster and Careerbuilder is dead for real jobs, right?
I used to suggest giving your resume to a search agency or recruiting company and hoping they find a job for you. They get paid if they place you and they have open positions waiting for a match. The right agency might be able to give you some interviewing practice and some good leads. But overall - yuck. The countless recruiters cold calling me have turned me off - I get a negative feeling about the candidates before even seeing their resume.
Some small communities can lead you to great jobs. In New York, I'd say places like Startuply and NextNY are great (and free for all involved). I'd know I'd catch myself frequenting these sites.
However, I'd like to put my money on the old 'networking' ticket. It sounds so cliche. It's true, you hear it all the time - but that's because it works. References from current employees get an audience, and often hired, before the oceans of resume submissions. It's more likely folks doing the hiring will recall someone they've met, before digging in and posting and sorting resumes. The confidence and competence actual people portray, make a visceral connection that paper doesn't.
Pick your dream job, your niche industry, and dig deep for events and avenues for personal interaction. You are not going to pass out your resume. Rather, you are there to meet people, to contribute, to share your knowledge, and to be part of the community.
Without even looking for a job, the perfect candidate wandered into Bug Labs this way. The third paragraph of this BusinessWeek article mentions how it happened.
In the tech scene this might mean participating in install fests, Ignite style speaker showcases, becoming active in open source and user communities, attending (or speaking) at industry lectures, and doing cocktail mixers. Garysguide lists tons of networking events - daily in multiple cities. Meetups, like the New York Java Meetup, often have gainfully employed folks that know of jobs. I have talked with the recruiters hovering around the back of these meetings - they (like me) don't understand the meeting topic and technical jargon and have stiff shirts an obvious 'approachable' demeanor. In New York City there are more events than you can shake a stick at - you'll get plenty of ideas, often with a chance to drink beer.
Don't get me wrong. This approach is hard - you'll need lots of persistence and you'll have to talk to plenty of strange folks. Stay active and positive. Let people know what you do, let them discover you are a nice person, and maybe you can slip in the fact that you want every lead they have for any cool job that might be a good fit for you.
Especially in small companies and start ups, this happens all the time. Tell me your networking stories and good luck!