How to Interview at a Startup

No two companies are the same, and similarly every interview you encounter will be unique. There are definite differences between big corporations, startup companies, and even industry-specific interview standards. Depending on your path, you should prepare differently for each interview experience.

There are the obvious stereotypes that we’re familiar with. Startups favor a more casual attire, so, save the skirt-suit and blazer for the large, more established organizations. Bigger companies typically take a more cookie-cutter approach to hierarchy, versus a startup where you and your CEO may be in such close proximity that you know what his or her favorite food is (for breakfast, lunch, AND dinner). Startups want employees that can get a lot done quickly, with very few resources or guidance. These teams are made up of people who are multi-talented, aren’t afraid of a challenge, and can wear multiple hats throughout the day. Above all, startups are looking for people who are passionate about the company, and who know their unique talents can contribute to the team's success.

Your personality and preferred work environment may fit one type of company over the other. If you think you’ve got what it takes to be part of a startup, here are some tips to ace the interview process and get hired:

1. Research Research Research

Preparation is key for all interviews, but specifically with a startup you need to show that you’ve done your homework. Small companies want to see that you’ve researched their industry, know the key players (and the competition), and have an understanding why the company you’re looking into is disrupting the space. They want to see that you know the skills of the current team, and also why your previous experience sets you above any other candidate.

2. Be Prepared for BOLD, Direct, and Weird Questions

Startups are looking for employees who can handle an honest and efficient conversation, and who can think on their feet. Still in the process of building a brand and a business, each member of the team needs to know exactly how they are adding value, and with only so many hours in the day, they often need to provide this value in a straightforward way. Often times interview questions focus on being able to multitask, examples of both leadership and compromise, and you will be asked to elaborate on times when you overcame controversy. Remember to show that you are passionate about the position and company. Use as many specific and memorable examples as possible. Also take into account that when joining a small team, it’s important to get along with your colleagues (as you will likely be sharing long hours in a small space with few people). Interviewees should be prepared for some odd-ball questions, these tactics are used to gauge whether you’ll get along with the team in a less formal, less corporate, non 9-5 environment.

3. Show Ownership

Startups are looking for employees who can take minimal direction, and run with it. As part of a small team you will have to figure out many things out on your own, so express your enthusiasm for flexibility, problem-solving, and your ability to thrive in a learn-by-doing environment. 

4. Be Flexible With Timing

Depending on the stage of the company, there are situations where a company needed to fill a position a week ago. In this case, the hiring process will be immediate. Then, there are instances when hiring is on the general to-do list but the role is not an immediate priority. The range of timing varies. The interview process could take a week to a couple of months, and showing flexibility and a willingness to accommodate a timeline that works best for the company will be appreciated.

Interviewing at a startup is an eye-opening experience in itself, and just as this company is trying to get to know interviewees on a more personal level, you will also get a sense of company culture and office interactions in this initial meeting. You can use this insight to consider what type of work environment suits you best, and whether you could thrive in this position and with the team.

Image Source: Openview Leadership Lab

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