You’re preparing for a job interview with a startup, and you’ve followed all of the standard advice to get yourself ready. But, even with all of that groundwork under your belt, you still have one big question looming over your head: What on earth are they going to ask you in that interview?
We connected with startup founders and other hiring professionals to get the lowdown on what you can expect. Here are eight startup interview questions that will help you ace your next interview.
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1. Why do you think you’re a good fit for this company?
One of the many intentions of a job interview at a startup is to get a better understanding of who you are as a person—and how that translates into you being a good cultural fit for that company.
But, when a startup founder really wants to dive in and assess your understanding of the organization’s work environment and goals, he or she will present a question that looks like this one to get a grasp of why you’re deserving of that open role.
In fact, this is a favorite interview question of Krister Haav, CEO of Toggl. In addition to asking candidates why they think they’re a good fit for the company, he’ll also reverse the question to discover why they believe the company is a good fit for them.
Hiring and recruitment is a two-way street. So, it’s important for employers to ensure that both they and the applicant feel confident that the relationship will be mutually beneficial and successful.
2. What can you actually do for us?
Here’s something that’s important to remember when you’re interviewing: the employer doesn’t care so much about what they can do for you. The fact that landing this position would push your career forward doesn’t carry much weight for them.
It sounds selfish, but it’s true. Companies care more about what you can do for them—they’re eager to know how you can contribute to help them meet their objectives. This is especially true in startups, where the focus is on constantly scaling and evolving.
That’s why a straightforward question like this one can be so helpful when startups are hiring, as suggested by Bjoern Lindner, Managing Director of Melchers in Hong Kong. This question cuts through the clutter and asks you to pinpoint exactly what you bring to the table and how those skills and experiences will push the organization toward their goals.
3. In one word, describe yourself.
Startup founders will ask all sorts of questions in attempts to ascertain whether or not you’ll be a seamless fit for that open position. But, very few get to the core of the matter as well as this one does.
"This goes to the heart of who they are as a person,” explains Sloan Gaon, CEO of PulsePoint, in an article for Inc., “If they respond that they are a visionary and they are an accountant, you may have the wrong candidate. If they say accountable and they are in ops, you have a winner."
Amy Volas, Chieftain at Avenue Talent Partners, adds:
I'm all about understanding a person’s why to see how that ties back with the task at hand. Taking the time to truly understand what makes a person tick and what’s important to them is a key foundational element to my interview process.
You need to answer this question (and all others) honestly, of course. But, prior to your interview, take the time to think of a few adjectives that not only describe you but also fit with the requirements and tasks related to that job. That way, you’ll be armed and ready with the perfect descriptor if this question crops up.
4. Tell me about your last project - what worked and what didn’t?
For any startup interview, you should be prepared to answer behavioral interview questions. What exactly are those? They’re the ones that typically start with “Tell me about a time when…” and require you to use an anecdote or experience from your past to illustrate how you handle specific situations. Tito Bohrt, founder and CEO of AltiSales notes, “while there is no silver bullet question, behavioral interviewing is key to successful hiring.”
Martyn Reeves, VP of Strategy and Corporate Development at Yellowfin, provides a great example for sales or other professions that require negotiating. "Tell me about the biggest deal you didn’t close,” he explains, can stump some interviewees.
Yes, as a candidate, these sorts of questions can be tricky to answer. However, they’re particularly enlightening and revealing for employers.
“I like open-ended questions,” says David Heinemeier Hansson, Co-Founder and CTO of Basecamp, about why he always asks this project-related question in particular, “I really just want to hear a candidate speak in their own words and on topics of their choice.”
By focusing specifically on the successes and failures of a recent project, interviewers are able to understand how you deal with unexpected circumstances and then learn from those in order to improve moving forward—which is particularly important in a fast-moving startup where both flops and triumphs will be a norm.
5. What are some of the new ideas you would implement in this position?
Tying back to the idea that you need to prove how you can provide significant value as an employee, startups also want to know that you’ll be able to hit the ground running and jump right in with driving business success. Most startups aren’t just looking for someone who can keep things on track—they want someone who will innovate.
For that reason, a startup interview question like this one is fairly commonplace.
Stephanie Kaplan Lewis, Co-founder, CEO, and Editor-in-Chief of Her Campus Media, explains:
We want to know that you’re well-versed in what our company does first of all, but also that you’ll be able to bring thoughtful, strategic, creative ideas to the table and really contribute here.
Merrill Cook, operating manager for Nosferdatum, suggests the following to further establish a candidate’s self direction and ability to learn independently. “Test an applicant's knowledge of a subject verbally. Tell them you'll have some follow-up questions in a few days (not necessarily about that topic). Send them more advanced resources about the topic and ask questions based on that a few days later.”
6. What’s the best advice you’ve recently received?
As much as you’ll need to fearlessly innovate and experiment in a startup environment, you also need to be willing to receive advice, guidance, and constructive criticism.
So, don’t be surprised if a startup founder asks you to share some of the best advice you’ve heard lately. It’s a great way for them to gauge how receptive you are to input, and what messages actually stick with you and make an impact.
This question is “particularly good to ask if you are getting a sense that the candidate has an ego,” adds Craig Letham, Managing Director of Luminoso, a marketing, advertising, and digital recruitment firm.
7. Can you tell me about something [totally irrelevant]?
Particularly in early-stage startups, you’ll be required to wear a lot of different hats—which means tackling things that may not be super pertinent to your job description or even your skillset.
It’s part of what makes a startup atmosphere so exciting, but it can also be challenging if you aren’t willing to put yourself out there and step out of your comfort zone in that kind of way.
In order to understand how willing you are to roll with the punches, an interviewer might just ask you a question about something that seems totally irrelevant.
Employers do this to applicants in order to “see how they handle the situation and what kind of response they come up with,” shares Manas A. Datta, Co-Founder at eQuiera.
8. What will you do if you are unsuccessful in securing this opportunity?
When you’re in the middle of an interview, it might seem discouraging to imagine what you’ll do if that opportunity falls through. But, when rejection, disappointment, and setbacks are so common in a startup, interviewers may pose this sort of disheartening question.
Louise Woodcroft-Letham, Human Resources Advisor at Amadeus IT Pacific explains:
It gives me insight into the resilience of a person and their ability to think into the future, and to a degree, their practicality when it comes to risks.
She adds, "If a candidate can show me that they have thought about alternate next steps, and have an idea of other developmental activities or strategies to reach their desired goal—whether it be the role they are interviewing for or a more senior role they are working towards—then it is more likely they will adopt similar approaches in a workplace."
Ready to ace that startup interview?
Preparing for a job interview at a startup can be anxiety-inducing at best. But, you can remove a few nerves from the situation if you have at least a vague idea of what you’ll be asked.
Ready to ace your interview?
When you’re getting yourself ready for an interview with a startup, in particular, make sure you’re prepared to answer the above eight questions with a concise, impactful, and impressive answer. Do that, and you’ll be well on your way to the next stage of the hiring process—and maybe even landing that job. Good luck!
If you’re looking for an extra edge, brush up on your public speaking, body language or leadership skills with our soft skills courses before your interview.
Eager to prepare even more for that upcoming interview of yours? Check out our other helpful resources for specific industries. They’re no crystal ball, but we like to think they’re the next best thing:
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