Interview at a Startup

Is getting a job at a startup easy? I’d say it’s as with any other job: if it’s too easy you’re either a total rockstar hire or the job isn’t worth it.

Finding startup gigs is, depending on the location, anything from easy to difficult. I’ll share how I ended up in two startups in another post.

Let’s assume you found one (if you’re a kick-ass developer or designer be sure that the job will find you:).
What can you expect from the initial talks/interviews besides all the normal stuff you already know about interviews?

Comic illustration by Canary Pete:

The obvious things first:

  • Looking for a safe job? Go back to start.
  • Aiming to get a higher salary then in your agency job? Double fail. Of course we all expect a fair compensation package. Should it be amongst your top 3 priorities? No.
  • Is it necessary to wear your finest suit to the interview? I can only imagine 2 situations where that’s the case: a) you join a suit customization startup; b) you’re interviewing for a Glengarry Glen Ross startup.

The less obvious stuff:
If they don’t ask you tough questions, if they don’t check up on you, if they don’t ask you for concrete examples of your work -> it’s either a newbie startup founder/CEO without a lot of experience, or they don’t put the focus on their most important resource: their team members. My humble opinion: you shouldn’t bother joining in that case.

I think there’s often also quite a difference between “business” and “tech” hires. At Podio, usually the whole development and product team would take turns to get to know the potential new team member. As a business hire, I only had talks with the CEO and two of the co-founders on the other hand.

The important stuff:
YOU gotta ask questions. You will influence this startup with your personality, your ideas & beliefs, so make sure it’s a great match. Make sure you get a picture of the DNA of the startup. Just read Steve Job’s biography to see how this DNA is shaped from the beginning and hardly changes. You want to understand, and more importantly share the vision. Be critical of course, but if you don’t believe in it, don’t just join because the founder is famous.

A few of the questions I asked:
How transparent do you communicate the product roadmap and financial situation (I had just read these extremely great insights about the early PayPal days)
What’s the vision – exit-orientated, long-term?
What’s your plans around VC funding? (they probably can’t tell you if they’re in talks other than yes we’re looking or no we’re fine)
Biggest challenge at the moment?

What I think is good to find out:

  • What comes first? User, product, revenue, thought leadership?
  • What’s the product development process? How do strategic, business, design, and development aspects play along?
  • Is there an open culture to actively influence the product?

Asking those kind of questions can give you a great sense of how the ship works that you’re onboarding. What the potential barriers to getting your work done might be, and also the support you can expect from the team. And, you might be able to spot if there’s any contradictions between the beliefs & values communicated in public on their website for example vs. behind the scenes.

After the interview:

As with anything else: follow-up and follow-through. Don’t just go home and sit and wait. Get your head spinning on how you can help the startup propel things ahead.

Follow-up. “I’ve set my mind: I want to join Podio” – that’s the subject line of an email I sent 3 days after the interview. And that’s exactly how I felt so I wanted to make sure to be clear about that. I guess it worked:)

What’s your experience with interviews at startups? What’s the main difference you see from other job interviews?


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