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Interviewing at a Startup – How is it Different?

Startups are exciting, often cutting edge and have much to offer creatively and intellectually - but they aren’t for everyone. Most of the companies I consult with to help grow their engineering teams value prior start-up experience almost as highly as technical competency – and there’s a reason. Startups are a different animal. They are unlike large organizations and small-to-medium sized businesses. The demands and expectations on what it takes to be successful are worlds apart. Given that, the ways early stage companies vet their talent requires a unique approach.  As a candidate, it’s crucial to start with a self-evaluation to determine if a startup environment is right for you. If the answer is yes, the next step is understanding the best ways to present yourself during the interview process. 

Below are some of the top attributes of successful startup employees. Does your personality and work style match? 

Flexibility

In an early stage company, one of the few constants is change. Chances are, the job you first accept may look very different at the six-month mark. In software companies, this change could be as significant as the technologies being used to build the core product. Adaptability and openness to change are critical. When answering questions about your preferred work style, technology stack, or process, it's OK to speak to what you are most comfortable with and excited about, but be mindful of not coming across as dogmatic. If any of your answers project a fear of or reluctance to change, it can be perceived as a major red flag.

Passion

In many startup environments, the work week stretches much further than 40 hours. For the all-in employees, this is the norm because it isn't only work - it is a life pursuit. Startup teams are passionate about their work - the product, the mission and the service - and they want to be surrounded by like-minded individuals. Excited about the company’s mission? Bring that enthusiasm to the interview! If you're asked to speak about past projects, choose examples you found most enjoyable - even if they aren't necessarily the most impressive. Your passion for your work will come out organically as you share more, and it will be felt by all in the room. 

Beyond the Job Description

In all professional settings, it's taboo to voice the words "that's not in my job description." Nowhere is that truer than in a startup. It's an all-in mentality, and you will likely find yourself doing things outside of your core competencies and typical work responsibilities. It's important to express that you have a 'do whatever it takes' approach. As you think about professional testimonials you'd like to share in the interview, make mention of one that demonstrates an example of when you've gone above and beyond for your employer and team.

Professional Fortitude

Tomorrow is never a guarantee at a startup.  As your company moves from initial concept through finished product, you’ll face the volatility of funding rounds, new and different competitors, product testing fails, leadership changes and more.  Blocking out the noise of uncertainty is essential for individual and company success. While it's acceptable (and expected) in your interview to ask questions about funding, runway and growth, avoid belaboring these topics as you’ll risk coming across as skittish. 

Honesty/Transparency

Considering the challenges of working in a startup, the teams that thrive work cohesively. A higher level of trust is required; trust that you can count on colleagues to commit equally to the cause and to be completely open about the current situation and obstacles ahead. Any unwillingness or hesitation to share details about your professional self during the interview can raise concerns about your ability to be candid with the team when you are an employee. 

Thick Skin

Startups are always looking for creative solutions to challenging problems. It takes a certain level of confidence to share your ideas with a larger group, as well as a level of humility when they are shot down. To gauge this, startup interview panels may openly question the professional decisions the applicant has made. Keep a level head and remember that just because your solution is a good one, it doesn't mean there can't be better ones out there and that it's always worth exploring. 

If your personality and approach to work matches what’s needed in a startup, keep these traits in mind and showcase them throughout the interview process.

 

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