Guidelines For Interviewing At A Startup

My long time friend Chris Moody, president and COO of Gnip, has offered to write some guest posts on management – we’ll call the series Moody on Management. In addition to being an outstanding early stage / high growth executive, Chris has made a study of management in startups and is extremely thoughtful about what does and doesn’t work.

His first post is aimed at anyone looking to get a job in a startup and talks about how to be effective at interviewing for a job. Feel free to weigh in if you have other “Stop, Don’t, Nevers” or “Pleases”

I love interviewing people to work at Gnip.  Unless I’m having a really crappy day, I enter each interview full of hope and optimism.  I’ve done countless interviews in the last 20+ years and I can easily slip into autopilot mode if I’m not careful.  In order to avoid this trap, I mentally prepare by reminding myself “today could be the day I’ll meet the next great team member.” I’ve found this mental pep talk helps remind me that there is no better use of my time than investing in the interviewing process.  In other words, the next interview could be a company game changer and I need to be 100% engaged.

Most interviews don’t directly lead to someone joining our company.  Often the person doesn’t have the right skills or experience.  There are plenty of cases where it becomes clear to the candidate that we can’t provide them an opportunity that meets their interest/needs.  Both of these outcomes are normal and healthy.  Unfortunately, I often find another outcome can occur which is frustrating and deflating.  This situation occurs all too often when a person is so poor at interviewing that we’re unable to determine if there is a potential match.  I’ll invest up to an hour in an interview trying to peel back the layers.   However, I’m frequently unable to get to a substantive layer of discussion that will help both parties determine if there is a potential match.   I’ll leave these interviews thinking, “Maybe that person was great, I’ll never know”.   Over time, I’ve started to referring to these as the “who knows?” interviews.

The good news is that I think job candidates can follow some simple guidelines when interviewing at a startup that will help avoid the “who knows?”

Stop, Don’t, Never

  • Stop selling and start engaging.  In order for this to work, we both have to determine if there is a match.   The best way for us to determine the match is to have a thoughtful/engaging discussion.   If the interview process only involves me asking questions and you giving answers that you think will impress me, we’re going to waste a perfectly good hour.
  • Don’t talk in sound bites and buzz words.  You might think they make you sound smart, but they don’t because they lack substance.  We need to have a real discussion.   If you find yourself rehearsing answers before the interview even starts, we’re almost certainly going to have an unproductive meeting.  Speak from your heart and your experience not from a script.
  • Don’t agree with everything I say. I’m wrong… A LOT.  I once went on an all beer and water diet for a week.   Challenge me.   Startups thrive when each person hired is smarter than the person hiring them.  If you agree with everything I say in the interview, I’m left wondering how are you going to contribute when we are working together trying to solve tough problems.
  • Avoid talking about past individual results.  I know this sounds unconventional, but as the interviewer is often very hard to contextualize how these results might translate to our business.  I’m much more interested in discovering what you learned in your last job that we might leverage at our company.  For example, telling me you increased sales by 300% isn’t that helpful.  Telling me how you learned to handle customer objections around price could prove to be very useful.

Please

  • Be honest
  • Ask lots of questions about stuff that matters to you.  Reviewing a company’s web site before the interview will give you some reasonable background. But, I can assure you that no company web site answers all the questions about a business.    It is often the case that an interviewer can learn more about the way someone thinks from the questions they ask than from the answers they give.
  • Ask tough questions.  You are considering investing a huge portion of your waking hours at our company.   Think about the risks and the downsides of the company or the role and freely express any concerns.
  • Figure out if our company is a good culture and values fit for you by asking tough situational questions based upon your past experiences.  Questions like “Can you give me an example of how the company handled a situation where a customer had a bad experience with the product?” can be very revealing about how the company acts/thinks.

Ask CEOs of successful startups about their biggest challenge and they’ll often cite the inability to hire great people.  My theory is there are plenty of great people, but many are just terrible at interviewing.  Hopefully these few tips help lead to more great matches down the road.  By the way, Gnip is hiring!