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Interview with a start up? What they really need to hear if you want the job

interview with a start up

Have a truck? Drive long distances and bait your own hook?

So you want to interview with a start up

I know why someone would want to make the switch from corporate to startup.  I worked for the first 10 years of my career in a Fortune finance company that required a white shirt, matching the suit and leather soled shoes.  For the past 10 years, I have been working in a startup, and as much as I wear a pressed button-down shirt (with no tie), today I am wearing flip-flops and a t-shirt.  Trust me, it’s not just the flip-flops.  It’s about the opportunity.  In this day and age, the best way to ensure your long-term financial success is not to rely on equity, not to rely on a single company, but to rely on your network and the strength of your skill set/resume.  Start-ups are pushing the envelope when it comes to “getting shit done” and when you “get shit done”, you have something worthy of putting on your resume.  This is why you want to interview with a startup.

For those of you who are not going to interview with a start-up, keep reading.  Although tips on “how to interview with corporate” will NOT necessarily apply when you interview with a startup, this insight WILL apply to any corporate interview.

Start-ups are trying to disrupt an industry or do something new.  They are creating entirely new ways of thinking about brand new ideas.  Regardless of what you may have thought about the  “idea” or “product” behind Instagram or Facebook when these companies first launched these companies provide real resume building opportunity.   These businesses don’t just need butts in seats, what they really need are people who can be effective when the chips are down.  Anyone can be cheerful when times are good, deals are being signed, and the money flowing.  Start-ups want candidates that can take the heat when the chips are down and those candidates usually have a passion for what they do.

Start-ups are looking for self-starters who take ownership of projects, require little direction, wears many hats, and can take on projects understaffed, with little or no budget and deliver them in time and under budget.  Most start-ups also care about the culture of their company, so not only do you need to be able to produce, you cannot be a “stick in the mud”.

Start-ups are interested in solving big problems that most would say are impossible when a big budget is available.  Start-ups take the impossible and bootstrap it.  We are looking for people who have a proven track record of getting shit done against impossible odds.  If you need direction, want to leave the office at 5, and need to say you work at a big brand, you might want to think twice about start-up

If this role sounds like my first dating ad (impossible to fill) than start-up isn’t for you:

Looking for a HWP woman that has a paid off 4 X 4 truck with a 5th wheel, allows cigar smoking in the trailer, likes driving long hours, will fish in the snow and ice, not have to go to the bathroom for 8 hours at a time, can dig worms, clean fish, and will bait your own hook.  Needs to look fantastic in a “lil black dress”.

Fortunately, there are a lot more candidates passionate about their craft and disrupting industries then cigar smoking, fishing women that can bait their own hooks

If you feel you have what it takes then remember this as you prepare for your interview:

You “hoo doo” what we do.  To us it’s not doo doo.

You are not only passionate about what you do but are also passionate about what our company does.  This means that you are fascinated with some facet of what we do as a company.  During the interview process for my current gig, I gave examples of how our company technology has effected, could affect and is affecting HR.  I was sincerely excited about these examples.  Be prepared to convey your passion by weaving in stories about how you combine your skill set with what we do.

We like each other, we hang out with each other after hours which also means we look out for each other.   This doesn’t mean we all vote for the same president, it doesn’t mean we all look-alike or are all the same age.  We are all very different with different levels of experience.  A smile, humble self-deprecating sense of humor, and an expertise in a discipline will transcend all demographics.  Don’t be a dick.

What to think about before you head into your interview with a startup:

  • Don’t worry about long-term stability or your retirement plan.  Don’t worry about the company 10 or 20 years from now.  That is a distraction and it is not realistic in this economy for a company of ANY size.  You are interviewing with a dedicated group of individuals and we believe in what we are doing, having fun doing it, and building our skill sets along the way.  If we could predict the stability of ANY company, large or small 10-20 years, we wouldn’t be working in technology companies we would be investing in them.
  • Shift your thinking to “MVP”.  This isn’t Most Valuable Player, this is Minimum Viable Product.    We are not looking for ideas that require a 6 to 12-month life cycle.  That is too long a bet for our limited funds.  If we find we are wrong after working on a project that takes 6-12 months we are probably done.  We are looking to test theories in the shortest timeframe and to build on that theory.  We do not have large budgets and teams to throw at a project.  We have one person to throw at multiple projects, and that person is YOU.
  • Prove you are scrappy.  If you are going to interview with a startup, give us examples of how you went to school and worked a couple of jobs to make ends meet.  Give us an example of a project you got off the ground against the odds.  The one person on a project mentioned in the above bullet is you and we want to have some confidence that you can pull it off.
  • Prove you have a passion for your craft.  Do you practice your craft working on side projects, after hours and weekends?  We won’t hire “just anyone and we don’t look at our day job as “work”.  We are passionate about our craft and when we aren’t working, we are still thinking in our discipline.  I am paid to practice HR during the day, but I work on this blog in the evenings and on the weekend volunteer my time to coach candidates on how to get through the interview process.  I practice my craft “for fun”.  Scary huh???
  • Have an online presence beyond Facebook and LinkedIn.  If you do not have a LinkedIn profile and some sort of online presences, you might as well wear a tie and a 3-piece suit to the interview.   Blogs are great, especially in our industry or your discipline.  Twitter, Pinterest, GitHub, Quora all reinforce that you are thinking about current events after hours.

Start-ups are finicky breed, and what worked in your traditional corporate interview probably won’t be enough.  Re-evaluate your interview messaging and give us examples of your passion for your craft.

See you at the after party,


nasty: an unreal maneuver of incredible technique, something that is ridiculously good, tricky and manipulative but with a result that can’t help but be admired, a phrase used to describe someone who is good at something. “He has a nasty forkball”.

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  • This article really resonates with me.  I really like the advice you give people who would interview at startups.  In particular your advice would help an interviewee focus on coming across as committed.  I recently wrote an article that talks about two different orientations for people (toward competence OR toward commitment), which largely dictates how they judge who to trust, and also how they communicate with others to show they they are trustworthy.  I talk about how this plays out in interviews, including in start-ups.  I would appreciate your thoughts, comments, and sharing of it.

    • Rich,Thanks for stopping by and thanks for sharing your theory of competence and or commitment.  I think you are absolutely right.  When we are interviewing folks, we can boil down what most people are looking for to three things.  Can you do the job, Can I work with you, and will you love the job.  Can you do the job is the competence and will you love the job is commitment.  We need to demonstrate these three things if we want a shot.  But more importantly, to your point, we need to decipher the questions being asked of us and answer appropriately.  Are they asking for competence or commitment?  Just demonstrating the above 3 isn’t enough.  Your questions about “do you have many customers” can be answered many ways and proving commitment when they are really looking for competence is the real trick.  Great article!