So you’re taking the plunge! Jumping into the large and varied pool of early-stage startups, that is. Congratulations. Deciding to gun for a startup job can be a big decision but often the risk is worth the reward. It could be a fat pay out and awesome years of experience when the company sells, or personal growth and cultural immersion condensed into eight months when it tanks. You might even land a hire at the next Unicorn company.
As a pseudo hiring manager/recruiter for a tech startup (along with my actual 9-5 responsibilities), there are some pieces of advice I’ve collected after reviewing hundreds of applications over the course of the past six months.
Do your homework
Seriously, this is so important in the startup world. Your interviewer is going to throw out other startup names and industry jargon (bootstrapped-what?), and various obscure but borderline biblical startup tools.
It’s crucial to read everything you can about the company and its founders (think, some heavy Instagram stalking). Be sure to familiarize yourself with the startup world specific to their city, as well as the big fish from Silicon Valley.
For startup interviews, you’ll need to not only read everything that’s publicly available online about the company but also it’s founders and the team members and the startup world specific to their city and the. It’s great to have mapped out the opportunities and challenges for the particular startup, and if you’ve already done contact referrals and tested the market, that’s even better!
Try the damn website!
Whether it’s a dating app (and no, no one cares if you’re not single), or a demo for their SaaS B2B accounts payable software (see the jargon-use there?), you should try it out online. The free version of whatever they offer is just fine.
Someone has poured their heart and soul into this and they’re expecting a team that is just as excited as they are about the product or mission. So get on board before the interview and convey your excitement during it. It’s especially helpful to have some user-insights and feedback.
And if you decide during your demo you just can’t get on board with this product, then it’s better to know early so you can respectfully decline an interview.
I know, why is this even on here? But a lot of times early-stage and smaller startup interviews are done by someone who is not a designated HR professional. Interviews can therefore feel awkward or choppy. Be gracious and allow for some ramp up in small talk. Most importantly, be respectful.
Your interviewer, especially in initial rounds, could be much younger than you or non-technical. Be wary of condescending tones and preachy run-offs. These professionals will make recommendations throughout your interview process and a sour taste or bad first impression, no matter how cool you think your previous five startups and education degrees make you, can leave a lasting impression.
It might get weird
Startups are highly unconventional environments. Garages, apartments, co-working spaces or even coffee shops are likely places for interviews and even the company’s day-to-day operations (especially when they’re really early stage or small startups). Be prepared for the unexpected and roll with the flow.
Startup interviews can feel really casual since a large part of a decision involves whether or not everyone gets along. Be wary of your level of comfort and aim to find a balance between professional and bar chatter. New and strange environments can throw candidates off their game, but nervousness shows so it’s best to enter your interview without expectations.
Ask the right questions
Venturing into a startup can be risky, so definitely ask all the questions you want about funding, future plans, hiring numbers and market competition. Bonus points if you’ve already done the research here and are just looking for updates; sites like crunchbase and AngelList are perfect platforms as a starting point.
While probing questions are natural for a startup, be sure you’re asking the right person. The initial interviewer, unless they’re also the founder, won’t likely feel comfortable sharing with you a ton of the company’s intimate details, particularly not on the first call. Facts and figures are fine, but questions like “Are you selling?” and “What’s the company’s valuation and how much will my equity be worth in 5 years?” are better saved for later.
Many of the specifics, including exact salary and benefits should be discussed in the contract negotiation. Don’t forget, many early stage startups pay below-market rate due to the equity opportunities. It’s best to decide early if that’s something you can do financially. If the company’s success isn’t something you believe in, it’s best to move along.
Step into the future
Applying for a startup requires a certain level of forethought: what is it you want to be doing in five years? No, really. Do you want to work like crazy at below-market rate and then get an awesome equity cut since you were the third hire? Seems like a venture-backed startup could be for you. Do you want to change the world and eat ramen until you end up contracting your product to the government and moving to K street? Get in on the social justice or non-profit startups early. Are you looking to be the next COO of a Fortune 500 tech company? Then look for an awesome product you believe in and work super hard to better yourself and the company.
Whatever it is you’re looking for, working for a startup means buckling down and looking ahead. So the office is a two-bedroom apartment with a TV on the ground? Think of what it will be eventually and get excited about the prospect of helping it get there. Startups are built on dreams and ideas, and that includes the anticipation for growth and change, so be prepared to be flexible and move quickly.
Interviewing for an early-stage startup is a unique, and often undefined, process. If you know you’re meant for the startup world, or you’re interested in finding out, start looking for the ones near (or far) from you. Chances are there are garages and home-offices all over the world on the brink of something great.