If you’re interviewing at an early-stage startup, you’ll likely have the chance to meet with not only your future boss, but the company’s CEO or other senior leadership. And while most job candidates know they should prepare to answer tough questions at this stage in the process, many fewer prepare to ask them.
But you should! This is a crucial chance for you to learn about the company, its plans, and its potential in ways you couldn’t from TechCrunch articles or LinkedIn. At my company, InstaEDU, I meet with every candidate who makes it to a final interview stage, and I always give people an opportunity to ask me questions. Your goal when meeting with a CEO or founder should be to understand the overall values, goals, and trajectory of the company, so that should you get an offer, you know whether it’s a company you want to be part of.
Here are four questions every startup interviewee should ask.
1. What Does Success Look Like for the Company?
At a growing company, there are endless decisions to be made that will affect the course of the company and its eventual outcome. While you’ll never be able to get a crystal clear glimpse into the future, understanding the general direction the founders want to take the startup will help you decide whether it’s a company you think you’re going to want to work for right now, a year from now, and in five years.
For example, would they rather get acquired as soon as possible or build a big stand-alone company? If the former, it’s helpful to understand why they want to be acquired—is the market size not big enough? Do they think they’ll run out of funding before becoming profitable? If the latter, what’s the mission for the company? What big problems will it solve that it isn’t solving today?
2. What is the Biggest Risk to the Company?
Startup CEOs believe in their companies, but they also are keenly aware of the obstacles that exist on the path to success. And getting an understanding of what the company believes its biggest risks are can help you evaluate how certain or uncertain a company’s future may be.
Risks come in all shapes and sizes, but knowing if a company believes money, product execution, or competitors are the biggest impediments to success can give you insight into how the CEO is thinking about the future. For example, if the company sees money as the biggest risk, the CEO will likely be hyper-focused on revenue numbers and fundraising. On the other hand, if product execution is the key risk, you’ll probably discover a company culture built around the product team. Either way, it’s good to know what you’re getting into, and this question can help you get a sense of what’s going on behind the scenes.
3. What’s the Current Runway, and What Are Future Funding Plans?
This question is rarely asked, but it’s so important. As a potential new employee, there’s a different level of risk between a startup that has a couple years of cash in the bank versus a startup that’s near the end of its funding and needs to raise more soon to continue operating.
The longer the company runway when you join, the greater your job security (generally). On the flip side, joining during a more pivotal time (e.g., when the pressure is on for the next raise) can help increase your equity stake—but you also risk that the company won’t be able to raise, and you’ll be back on the job market with valueless stock options in a few months.
4. What is Current Growth Like?
If you join a startup team, you should receive stock options, and those options are an investment on your behalf. Just as an investor wouldn’t put in money without understanding a company’s trajectory, you shouldn’t put in your time (and potentially take a pay cut) without evaluating a company’s potential.
There are a lot of things that factor in to this (e.g., the experience and potential of the management team, the current and projected market size, the team’s customer acquisition strategy), but the company’s growth rate will give you a sneak peak at one of the core questions any business must answer: Is this something that people actually want to use?
At some point in your interview, the founders should ask if you have any questions. And having these four ready to go will show you’ve done your homework—and are already thinking about the metrics and trends that are most important to your new company.