Interviewing at a startup – Two techniques to help you succeed

Startups are great at many things. Unfortunately for the startup job seeker, interviewing candidates is often not one of them. :)

In an ideal interview scenario, a startup would have you speak with a variety of people on the team, ensuring each interviewer had a specific, relevant theme to explore with you.

They’d dive deep to get an understanding of how you handled difficult situations.

They would draw out your most substantial accomplishments.  And everyone on the interview team would have a clear definition of the roles and responsibilities of the position for which you’re interviewing.

In practice, these 4 things rarely happen.

In fact, you are lucky if you run into a company that does one or even two of these things well. (By the way: If they do three or all four of these things well, it is a sign of a startup who really has their act together, at least on the recruiting front.)

So what does that mean for you, the startup job seeker?

You need to go deep when interviewing at a startup and move away from high level questioning as quickly as possible.

Sure, it’s definitely less stressful to keep things high level, especially when you get questions like “Tell me about yourself” or “Walk me through your résumé.”  But if you stay at that high level, you’ll never get a chance to answer the two unspoken questions that every startup interviewer should be asking you: “Where can you add immediate value to our startup?  Why would you be a great fit for our team?”

Also, consider when interviewing at a startup that your interviews often won’t run on schedule.  If you spent 20 minutes of a 30 minute interview (that was cut short after just 25 minutes!) walking through your résumé, your (probably) ill-prepared and overworked interviewer will be at a loss to articulate why the company should hire you.

Now that you know the pitfalls of not going deep, here are a couple of techniques you can use to go deep quickly in a startup interview:

1) When interviewing at a startup, ask the interviewer to identify a current challenge in their functional area.

Bonus points if you can identify a challenge they have ahead of the interview (e.g. by doing homework on the company and learning about what target buyers think of their product).  Then, you can talk through how you might be able to help them solve that problem, or share past work experiences where you solved a similar problem.

For example, if you are interviewing for a sales position, ask the VP of Sales or CEO about the common sales objections that they hear from customers.  Then, go deep on how you handled that type of objection successfully in a past sales role, or make some suggestions about how they might address them.

2) When interviewing at a startup, spend no more than a minute walking through your resume.

 
Use that initial walkthrough as a jumping off point to dive deep on a specific strength that you believe could help the startup.  After you spend 30-60 seconds doing the walkthrough, see if you can seed a deeper discussion on an experience that would highlight your unique strengths.  For example: “In any case, that’s a brief summary of my experience.  Would it be helpful for me to dive deeper on my time at ACME Corp, where I was in a similar position to what you’re hiring for here?”

What other techniques have you found work well to “go deep” in a startup interview?

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John Gannon
I have over 15 years of experience working in the trenches at successful startups, high growth companies, and VC firms. During that time, I've managed, interviewed, and coached hundreds of people -- and I've worked in almost every business functional role, including marketing, product management, and business development.
John Gannon
John Gannon
John Gannon

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