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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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Guidelines For Interviewing At A Startup

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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!

I Don’t Hate Marketing

Comments (256)

One of the jokes in my little universe is that “every time I hear the word ‘marketing’ I throw up a little in my mouth.” I’ve been joking about this long enough that it’s become conventional wisdom that I hate marketing. Yet, if you look at many of our successful investments, they are extraordinarily good at marketing and some people suggest we (Foundry Group, me) are also good at marketing.

Thirty minutes ago, Chris Moody - a long time friend and COO of Gnip – sent me an extremely thoughtful email titled “Food For Thought”. I read it, thought it was 100% correct, and asked if I could reblog it verbatim both as (a) an explanation of how I actually should / do think about marketing and (b) an example of how I learn through direct feedback.

Chris – thanks for taking the time to write this. You nailed it. The way I articulate how I think about marketing will be permanently different going forward.

At this point I’ve probably heard/read most of your basic philosophical points on the various aspects of building a successful business. I agree with most of them of course. However, there is one area where I’ve consistently felt that you have under represented your true feelings and it feels like your general input on the topic has been mostly nonconstructive. I’d like to try to help change that for the good of the broader entrepreneur community (and to make you look even smarter).

The topic is marketing. I have no doubt missed some brillant thoughts you’ve offered to the community and I’m sure you’ve provided countless pieces of good advice to individual entrepreneurs in one-on-one situations. But, the sound bite version I’ve heard from you on a few occasions goes something like this “I hate traditional marketing. Focus on building a great product or all the marketing in the world won’t matter.” When I think about the first time entrepreneur, this response feels particularly unhelpful. And, the second part of the quote could be applied to almost all aspects of a startup business including sales, finance, etc. If you don’t have a great product, none of the other shit matters.

And yet, when I see how Foundry Group approaches marketing and when I look across your portfolio companies, I see a very common thread around how you guys approach marketing. I would characterize the theme as “marketing through thought leadership.” In more basic terms it is expressing marketing ideas via “this is why we are doing what we are doing and why it is important” instead of “hey, look at me.” Have a new product feature? Sure blog about the feature, but spend way more time on why the feature is important to your overall purpose and beliefs.

To illustrate the point, I’ve recently talked to/interviewed a few current/former people from Rally and ReturnPath. When I ask them “what is the most significant thing you did from a marketing perspective to accelerate the business” the answer across the board has been “we focused on being a thought leader in our space.” As you well know that is the same approach we are taking at Gnip and I see it in many of your other portfolio companies too. Not sure it is always a conscience effort by the companies, but it seems to be pretty consistent across the portfolio..

When I think about FG itself I see tons of “marketing activity” but most of it could also be just be labeled: thought leadership. You sponsor conferences around topics that you care about. Your blog post are rich with “here’s why did it and why it matters” instead of “here’s what we did”. In fact, your whole theme based approach is really about thought leadership focused in a few areas. Foundry Group clearly believes that startups have the power to change the world. You guys spend countless time and effort expressing your opinions on this topic. You write books to support your beliefs. If you only talked about what you do with your startups “we invested in x, we sold y”, the conversation would be short and have a limited audience. Instead, you talk about what you believe and why startups matter. As a result, you have built a real following around people that care about the topic.

If I were going to create the Brad Feld sound bite for Marketing it would go something like this “Don’t do marketing. Focus on becoming a thought leader in your space. Talk everyday with your customers, perspective customers, partners, and the world about why you do what you do and why you think it is important. The reality is you can only talk about what you do one or two times before people think ‘got it’ and stop listening. But, if you talk about what you believe and point to countless examples that exemplify your beliefs , you can build real engagement with people who care/believe the same things.”

Not trying to put words in your mouth. Just saying that the actions that I see don’t match the words that I hear and I think there is easy opportunity to change that for the better.

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