In the last month I spoke to 40+ candidates who recently had interviews at top startups to learn more about how they prepare and how we could help them.
I found out the best people are dedicating lots of time to preparing to make sure they stand out. I wanted to summarise some of the best preparation techniques, while also sharing my own advice. I hope this will give you plenty of inspiration for how you can put your best foot forward at interviews.
1 - Ask the company what the interviews will cover
Startups often have fluid hiring processes that are constantly changing. Therefore, it's common to receive an interview invite (either with HR, or the hiring manager) without any indication on what they're looking for. The best candidates ask "What will you be testing?" and often the company responds with useful insight that informs what to prepare for.
2 - Research the company in depth
I've written previously about 6 areas to research before interviewing at a startup, which I'd recommend reading as a starting point. The best candidates are taking this research to another level. Below are some examples that I thought were impactful.
The best candidates applying for a sales role prepare how they'd pitch the company. They look at the website, blogs and any marketing material to understand the right tone-of-voice and unique selling points. They look at reviews (such as Trustpilot) to see what customers think so they're ready for objection-handling.
The best candidates applying for a marketing role look on all channels to find recent advertising campaigns. They think through what the target audience is, and pull out the key marketing messages.
The best candidates applying for a product role trial the product and think through the opportunities for improvement. They look for public roadmaps or indications where the business is headed to ensure they can speak confidently about the priorities.
3 - Look into the team structure
The best candidates spend 10 minutes on LinkedIn to understand the current team structure. I like this approach as it provides you with useful information, and you can show an understanding of the team dynamic in an interview.
For example, suppose you find out you could be the 2nd salesperson to join the team. This is a big difference to being the 10th. You'll stand out by showing an understanding that an early salesperson will need to help shape best-practices.
For example, suppose you find out the manager has just taken on a dual role, so is now is the VP of Product and Technology. You'll stand out by pointing out that she is likely to have a lot of priorities, and so you can bring a lot to the role by being independent and owning decisions.
4 - Think through "would I fit in here?"
Startups often have strong cultures, and the way of operating can be quite different to corporates, government, charities, etc. The best candidates look for Glassdoor reviews, blogs and information on the careers page to understand how the company operates. Some candidates even seek out current/former employees to ask a few questions. This will give you more information to explain why you're a strong fit for the company.
5 - Assess your skills versus the job description
Startups have thought deeply about what they're looking for, so there are typically a lot of useful signals in a job description. The best candidates take a job description and go line-by-line to ensure they understand the requirements. They think about how their strengths align to what's needed. This preparation means you're ready to emphasise to the hiring manager that you will deliver value where it's needed.
I was impressed to hear some candidates also think about the challenges they'd face in the role (e.g. "I haven't led a team this big before"). This level of self-awareness can make you stand out. You aren't expected to be 100% perfect, but if you can identify challenging areas, you're already 2 steps ahead of most candidates.
6 - Prepare great questions
Startups like people who are inquisitive. The best candidates understand that asking a great question at the end of the interview will help them stand out as someone curious and able to challenge. Asking good questions can also show you are excited about the company.
I've written an article on how to ask interviewers great questions, which I'd recommend reading. My top-tips are: be ambitious, prepare follow-up thoughts, and use open-ended questions (Why..? How..? What if..?) This part of the interview definitely deserves preparation too.
7 - Think through what the interviewer may ask
The best candidates consider questions they may be asked, and write bullet point notes. When writing bullet points, they refresh their memory about previous experiences at work. It can often be useful to consider the impact of a project, the decisions made and the challenges faced. Imagine someone is probing you, so you write enough detail in your notes. (Why? What else? What was your thought process?)
I've written an article on 8 qualities that startups look for when hiring. It's likely you'll be asked some questions to understand if you have these qualities, so it's a good place to start.
Here are the types of questions the best candidates are preparing for:
- Motivations (e.g. "Why do you want to work for Spotify?" or "What gets you excited about a company of our size?")
- Previous experience (e.g. "Talk me through a time when you've solved a tricky problem")
- Beliefs (e.g. "What do you believe is the best way to build trust?")
- Feelings (e.g. "How do you feel when someone says one of your ideas isn't very good?")
- Skills-based (e.g. "We're about to walk into a sales pitch with a potential customer. How would you prepare?")
8 - Practise important skills that may be tested
Sometimes interviews require you to demonstrate your skills, rather than just talk about them. For example, a sales job may have an interview where you role-play a pitch. The best candidates practise skills important to their role, so they put their best foot forward during a pressured situation.
The best designers practise talking through their portfolio. The best strategy managers practise structuring a problem. The best product managers practise running a product prioritisation session. The best engineers practise coding exercises and talking through their work. The best customer-service people practise having phone conversations with customers.
9 - Evaluate your interview technique
The best candidates understand that an interview is about effective communication, and so they evaluate their interview technique. They either ask a friend to practise a few questions with, or record their answers and watch the videos to see where to improve.
I like this approach, as I believe interviewing is a skill. It's not something you do often, and it isn't natural for everyone to sell themselves. It may feel awkward at first to hear your voice and try to pick our improvements, but it could ensure you're close to being 10/10 on the interview day.
Think about whether your answers are structured, whether you're giving enough detail, if you're using filler-words (e.g. "umm" and "like") and whether your body language shows confidence and positivity.
10 - Reflect on your interview immediately after
The best candidates will reflect on the interview the same evening. They jot down the hard questions, areas where they gave unclear answers, or moments they were nervous. The next time they go for an interview, they spend more time on these areas to improve.
Unfortunately many companies still don't give useful feedback after an interview, so I think this is a great tactic to increase your learning on how to improve.
It's competitive to get a job at a startup, so I hope this article provides some ideas on how to elevate your preparation. If you're thinking "this will take lots of time", try and find the 2-3 things you can do in an hour that will be most effective. My advice is to "make fewer, better applications". This helps ensure you have the time and headspace to prepare for the jobs you really want, and stand out amongst many other candidates.