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Advice / Job Search / Interviewing

4 Must-Dos When You're Interviewing With a Start-up

Interviewing for any position is a two-way street: The interviewer is trying to figure out if you’re right for the job, and you’re trying to figure out if you want to spend 40+ hours each week working for the company.

This is true for any interview, but it’s extra important when meeting with a start-up. Your interviewer wants to know how much you can contribute in two days, two months, and two years. He or she also wants to know how you’re going to fit in with a small staff and whether the current team members are going to want to sit next to you every day.

On your end, you need to figure out whether you’re going to enjoy working there enough to want to put in long hours for a likely under-market salary. You also need to gauge how likely you think the company is to succeed. Will your options be worth millions in five years, or will you be job hunting in five months?

It’s quite the balancing act, but there are four steps you can take that will help you simultaneously present yourself as the right candidate and make sure you actually want the job.

1. Use the Product

No matter what role you’re interviewing for—engineering, sales, marketing—you should always use the product before your first interview (and ideally, a few times). If hired, your goal will be to create value for the people who use that product, and being a user yourself is the first step. Doing this will also help you determine whether you can be passionate about the company and product as well as convey that passion to your interviewer.

Not in the target demographic? Just because you’re a childless 25-year-old interviewing at a site designed for parents doesn’t mean you can’t play the part. At InstaEDU, our target customers are students, but some of our best candidates have grabbed homework questions off the internet and pretended to be back in college.

If you really can’t use the product (e.g., it’s built for large corporations or costs several hundred dollars), you can make up for that by doing your research. Go through any available materials on the website, read news articles and reviews, and talk to anyone you know who has used it. And definitely understand who the company’s competitors are and why its product is superior.

2. Bring Your Ideas

Now that you’re familiar with the product, be ready with ideas for how you’d like to improve it in your role. What new features would you be most excited to build? How would you engage users (or re-engage existing ones)? How could the company increase conversions? How could customer service be improved?

You don’t need to have the company’s four-year strategy figured out, but you can share your thoughts, and more importantly, show how your interests and expertise would lend themselves to the job. Knowing what you’ve done in previous positions is helpful, but remember that the interviewer is trying to determine what you will do and how your skills will apply at his or her company. Start-ups are looking for people who can dive right in.

On your end, this will help you gut check that the day-to-day activities involved with the role interest you. You may love social media marketing, but find in your exercise that the company would benefit most from direct sales—and that’s definitely something to consider.

3. Be Ready to Interview Back

Most interviewers will save time at the end of your meeting to let you ask questions. And by all means, do! If you’re interviewing with a founder, ask about his or her vision for the company, how the company defines success, and how it plans to get there. Don’t be afraid to ask about the company’s business plan, funding situation, and potential roadblocks as well. If you’re talking with someone who will be your peer, ask about his or her favorite parts of the company, the biggest challenges he or she has faced, and what it’s like working with the team.

These conversations will not only give you helpful information to consider if you get an offer, they’ll show the interviewer that you’re seriously evaluating the company yourself (and not just trying to get the first start-up job that lands on your plate).

4. Follow Up

This advice is as old as the interview process itself, but many candidates still fail to follow it, especially in the casual world of tech start-ups: Send a thank-you note. Sending an email later that day shows that you’re polite, that you follow through on things, and that you’re actually interested in the job.

It also opens up an opportunity to strengthen an interview area that you felt was weak. Ever been stumped in an interview then realized what you should have said the moment you left? Or thought of a great marketing strategy on the drive home from the interview? Feel free to add a quick paragraph mentioning your new ideas.

When you’re interviewing with a start-up, you goal is to ensure that the job is a great fit for you, and to convey that to your interviewer as well. When you do, you’ll be in a better position to negotiate your offer and get started once you accept it—full of ideas on ways to hit the ground running.

Photo of start-up interview courtesy of Shutterstock.