Interview Process at a Startup

Interview processes may vary at different startups but that's not a reason to go in blind.

It goes without saying that interview processes differ from startup to startup. But this article should help you to prepare for the more typical and overlapping elements of most startup interviews and clue you in on what you can expect.

The structure and the process

Compared to a corporate setting, you often will interview with the CEO or founder of a startup. For one, it's because the company hasn't established a proper HR department yet and secondly, they want to see for themselves if you are a good cultural fit. If your first interview is with your immediate supervisor/department head, you should expect to also be interviewed by the founders and the rest of the team. Essentially, because the team sizes are small in most startups, a good cultural fit is vital. Furthermore, it's possible that you might be contacted by the founders. 

Every interview is unique, so there's no real structure. But you can expect that the interviewer will ask more questions about your personality than your capabilities. It's easier to teach someone the necessary skills for a particular role but almost impossible to teach someone motivation and drive.

Furthermore, you should be flexible about the interview process at its whole and your starting date. Sometimes the company would have had to fill the position last week, and as such, might need you to start right away. Additionally, most founders jump from one meeting to another, so it's possible that they ask you to come in for an interview the very next afternoon or day because one meeting got canceled. So be open to flexibility on a whole other level.

Important topics 

1. Culture 

And this is a big one! Both parties only benefit from a working relationship if the cultural fit is right. In cases when the department head conducts the first interview with you and moves you on to the next round, the founders will likely schedule an interview with you as well. In such a small, close-knit group of coworkers, working with someone you trust and are comfortable with is crucial.

2. Hustle and Commitment 

Be ready to be grilled about your work mentality and commitment. In a startup, you're expected to deliver results and meet deadlines. Therefore, they need someone who can step up and roll up their sleeves when the time comes. Problems can arise anytime, and you should be able dedicated to fixing them. 

3. Ownership 

By ownership, we mean taking responsibility for your work, whether it's good or bad. As teams and colleagues are interdependent on each other, you should be able to own up to your own mistakes and learn from them. Playing the blame game or worse, trying to cover it up can be detrimental to the overall productivity of the team and company. On the other hand, as your work will have a high impact on the company's success, you will more likely be given credit for a job well done and can take pride in it as well.

4. Mission and Vision 

Lastly, you should be able to identify yourself with the company's mission and vision. It's not only important for the company but also for your own motivation. You wouldn't want to work for a company which you think might not exist next year. We mentioned taking pride in the work you do, and you should also take pride in the company you work for. Best-case scenario: You're the company's brand ambassador, championing the work and culture.

Common Interview questions 

  • Why do you think you're a good fit for the company? 
  • Describe yourself in one word. 
  • Tell me about the last project you worked on - what worked and what didn't? 
  • What's the best advice you've recently received? 
  • Where do you see this industry headed?

Do's & Don'ts 

Do's: 

  • If you want to apply for a startup, look for someone in your network who can introduce you to someone on the team, or better yet, the founders. An introduction from a mutual acquaintance goes a long way (bonus points if it comes with a recommendation), and as startups are constantly under time pressure, they're more likely to invite someone for an interview who came through an introduction than through the traditional application channels.
  • Do your research about the company and its products. This also includes knowing the current trends of the industry and competitors. Try the products out - as your task would probably be to optimize it later on. You'd then be able to not only bring in fresh take but a more user-centric perspective, which could be very valuable to the team. 
  • Ask questions during the interview. Especially, if you interview with the founder, you can ask for them for their own motivation behind starting the company and the problems they are currently facing.

 Don'ts: 

  • Don't agree with their answers for the sake of impressing them. They want someone who has their own opinion and defends it. 
  • Don't bad mouth your previous employer. If they ask why you left the company or what would you'd improve at your previous workplace, be honest but tactful. It's just a bad sight of character if someone talks badly behind someone's back.
Jason Reich
Co-Founder | TalentSpace

Jason is a co-founder of TalentSpace, where he keeps himself up at night thinking of new and innovative ways to make recruiting an enjoyable and fruitful experience for everyone. He's worked on the international expansion of US-startups, Casper and HotelTonight (acquired by Airbnb), and was also on the Value Creation team of Google Chairman Eric Schmidt's VC, Innovation Endeavors. He graduated from Bocconi University.

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