How to prep for an interview with a startup

How to prep for an interview with a startup

It’s finally happening: you applied for a dream job at a top Canadian startup and you’ve just received word they want an interview. Give yourself an A.I.-enabled pat on the back. Now here comes the heavy lift.

While there are certain rules that apply to any job interview — show up on time, dress the part, be yourself, etc. — startups expect potential employees to go above and beyond. (After all, if you wanted a traditional interview, you should have applied for a traditional gig.) While many workplaces are still remote due to pandemic restrictions, remember there are some upsides to having your interview over Zoom, such as having handy access to your notes and resource material.

We sat down with HR expert Erin Ashton for tips and tricks on how to prepare for a startup interview. Here’s what she had to say.


Know the product

A successful startup can only survive on the strength of its product. Ashton advises learning absolutely everything about the company. “There’s a good chance your interviewer will ask you to pitch them their product, so testing it beforehand is a great exercise, even if you’re not in sales,” she says. And if there’s something you don’t like about it, be able to articulate why. Startup folk aren’t jealous guardians — they crave any and all feedback if it will help improve their innovations.

Takeaway: If you can’t sell a product to your peers, how can they expect you to sell it to anyone else?


Seriously, do your research

Startups are very personal workplaces, not simply because they’re small and nimble, but also because their stories are synonymous with the journeys of their founders. In fact, there’s a good chance a founder will be in your interview. “You need to understand how far the company has come and empathize with the hard work that fuelled its success,” Ashton says. Be both knowledgeable and curious — ask the founder about their anticipated challenges, and invite them to share bits of their story that may remain untold in the media.

Takeaway: Find the person behind the product; the story behind the startup.


Don’t be surprised if a robot shows up to ask you questions

Sometimes startups can be weird in a good way — it’s what distinguishes them from the pack and fosters unconventional thinking. And sometimes that manifests as a robot interviewer that scans your face to judge for culture fit. It’s not uncommon for recruiters in the tech sector to bring, well, tech to the interview. Strange as the experience may be, Ashton insists to not sweat it: “Always speak to the people in the room, not the computer, or whatever shows up. These are your potential co-workers and they want you to be as natural as possible.”

Takeaway: Even machine learning companies understand that a good man or woman is hard to find.


Take your time, but don’t waste their time

Unlike their corporate cousins, HR people at startups often take on multiple additional positions (COO, marketing manager, scrum master, what have you). That means that they have a lot to do and less time to do it. Read the room and be mindful of the time allotted to your interview. Having said that, if your interviewers seem hurried, don’t feel pressured to sprint through the meeting. “You’re interviewing them as much as they’re interviewing you,” Ashton insists. Remember, too, that interview style is an expression of work culture, so if you don’t feel comfortable throughout, you may want to rethink your future with that company.

Takeaway: While all startups are fast-paced, truly great employers put a premium on their workers’ time.


Not all questions are created equal

Ashton has two questions she loves to hear from job candidates:

  • “How do I know that I’m being successful in my first three months?”
  • “What is a typical career path for someone in this role?”

Asking these questions demonstrates a lot of positive qualities on your part: curiosity, eagerness, drive, empathy and more. It also suggests that, should you earn the position, that you’re interested in helping the company longer term in tandem with personal and professional development.

Takeaway: Asking the right question is as important (to both parties) as providing the perfect answer.


Follow up

No surprises here — following up with a simple email (even if the interview went badly) shows gratitude and professionalism. It’s also a chance to prove you were, in fact, listening to what was said. Ashton’s rules are simple: keep it short; thank the team for its time; summarize what you learned and enjoyed from the conversation; and make it clear you’re excited to hear their decision. If you forgot to mention something during the interview, do not express it in the email. Be confident in your performance and don’t take up any more of the startup’s time.

Takeaway: Everyone likes a keener but no one like a lingerer.


So, you got the job — it doesn’t mean you have to take it

There’s no point in joining a company if you don’t love the culture. If you’re offered the gig on the spot, take a step back and think about. Your interviewees won’t mind. And if you decide to pass on an offer, send the startup a respectful and honest email with your reasoning. “Never burn any bridges,” says Ashton. “And when you do find that special workplace, remember that every past interview, successful or not, is a valuable learning experience.”

This story was originally published in January 2020 and has been updated. 

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