Many candidates have told me they don't receive useful information alongside an interview invite. I'm sharing my experience of what to expect when interviewing at a startup so you are well prepared.
I'll walk through a typical process and then provide some overall thoughts.
The first phone interview
Typically the first interview is a 20-30 minute phone call with the recruiting team. In my experience they are trying to answer four questions:
1 - Do you have the qualities needed to work for a startup? I've written an article about 8 qualities that startups are looking for. Expect a few questions like "Talk me through an example when you’ve had too many tasks on your plate at work" or "What do you believe is the best way to get your ideas implemented at work?" to assess if you have these qualities.
2 - Is your experience in line with what is needed? Given the length of the interview, there isn't much time to understand your experience. At this stage you should be prepared to talk about your top achievements in recent jobs.
3 - Are you excited about the company? The candidates that stand out are the ones who've researched the business and thought carefully about why it could be a great fit. It's really obvious when you haven't done enough preparation. I've written about 6 areas to research before an interview, where you can research for 30-60 minutes to come across as a sharp candidate. Expect a few questions like "Why are you excited to join us?" or "Why do you want to join a startup?"
4 - Are your salary expectations suitable? Startups ask about salary at this stage of the process to understand if they're going to waste your time. It's not a negotiation at this stage, so I recommend giving a range.
Hiring manager interviews
If you're successful after the initial phone call, you'll be invited to interview with the hiring manager (e.g. Marketing Lead, Head of Commercial, Engineering Manager, etc).
This stage is hard to cover as it depends a lot on the role. In general there are three approaches. An interview may cover one of these, or all three!
1 - Questions about your past experience. You should be prepared to talk about your experiences in depth and reflect clearly on: decisions made, achievements and learnings. Look through the requirements in the job description and think about where your strengths are. Expect questions like "What has been your biggest user research project?" or "Talk me through a challenging legal case you handled."
2 - Questions to test your skills. At this stage of the interview, the hiring manager needs to know you can perform at the level required. Expect questions like "If you were launching this product in a new city, what would you consider?" or "What is your approach to performance management?" or "How would you go about launching a new Facebook campaign?"
3 - Tasks to test your skills. For many roles, practical tasks are a strong way to assess your qualities. These either take the form of solo time (e.g. 1 hour to do the work, and 15 minutes to present) or a live session with current team members.
For example, engineers may do a pair programming session. Customer service candidates may be asked to role play a conversation. Designers may run a design sprint. Product managers may run a prioritisation session. Strategy analysts may be asked to analyse data and propose a recommendation.
Senior leader interviews
Most startups will schedule an interview with a senior leader such as the Head of People, CEO or VP Commercial. The smaller the business, the more likely you are to meet the CEO or one of the co-founders.
This is often the final stage and so they are trying to answer two questions:
1 - Will you be a good addition for the company? Startups typically have strong cultures, and whilst there's not a need to "fit in" there's certainly an aspect of not disrupting what's there already. Everyone has a different approach to sussing this out! Be prepared to talk again about why you're excited about the company. I quite like to ask candidates about their motivations (e.g. "Where do you want to be in 2 years time?") as it says a lot about their character. Many candidates have told me they are asked about their hobbies outside of work.
2 - Are you a strong enough candidate? The CEO will have a good feel for the quality of employees across the business, and so they'll want to check you're up to scratch. But don't worry too much about this, they're not trying to catch you out. If you've got this far, everyone you've met at the company believes you're great. Expect a few questions about challenges you would face in the role if you joined, and what you've achieved in your past roles.
Interviewers are often inexperienced. Startups grow so fast that often employees without much experience or training are asked to interview candidates . This inexperience means you shouldn't always expect a polished set of questions, or to be asked follow-up questions (which generally help you show your strengths).
To handle this it's useful to think for a few seconds about "How can I ensure I display my strengths in this answer?" before answering. With practice you'll become used to providing the right level of detail to put your best foot forward.
Startups don't always run a meticulous process. You may not know an expected timeline or what each interview will cover. My advice is to simply ask the question if you're missing useful information. Their intention isn't to be unhelpful!
This thinking also applies to feedback, where you may not hear enough (or any!) detail about why you were rejected. After any interview I feel you deserve a few sentences of feedback. If you don't press a startup for feedback, they'll quickly move on and forget.
Ideally the company will provide you with all the information you need! If not, I hope this gives a good overview of what to expect when interviewing at a startup.
If you're looking for more ways to stand out, I recommend reading my article on how the best 10% of candidates are preparing.