If you’re in the market for a job at a start-up, you probably already know the hiring process is a little bit different: You can submit a video in lieu of a cover letter, wear jeans to your interview, and even (if you’re brave) follow up on social media.
Same goes for informational interviews. While I was job hunting over the past year, I spent a huge portion of my time setting up (and perfecting my strategy for) coffee meetings with founders and employees of start-ups. And I quickly realized that the across-the-board tips for these interviews (do your research beforehand, come with a prepared list of questions) don’t cover everything you need to know. Yes, some of the usual advice was helpful, but making the most out of a start-up informational interview also involves some unique strategies.
Whether you’re trying to land a job or you just want to learn more about what it’s like to work in the start-up world, here are five tips I picked up that will help you ace your next meeting.
1. Bring Your Enthusiasm
Regardless of who you're interviewing with—a founder, engineer, recruiter, or customer service rep—you can assume that they’re underpaid and overworked, but incredibly excited by what they do. And that they want to see that same sort of enthusiasm from future employees.
So right from the start (after you introduce yourself, of course), make sure to fully explain your interest in the company and its mission. For example, if you’ve used the company’s product or service before, talk about the experience you had and what you loved about it. If you’ve only read about the company, share what you discovered in your research and why it really clicked with you. By showing your enthusiasm early on, you’ll connect with your new contact and set an engaging and lively tone for your conversation.
2. Come With Suggestions
In addition to explaining why you’re particularly excited about this business concept, try to work a few suggestions on ways to improve the company into your conversation. For example, maybe you think the customer service department would really benefit from a live chat feature on its website, or you have a potential partnership in mind that would really boost the company’s marketing.
While you don’t want to come across like you’re trying to “fix” the company, when it’s phrased constructively and respectfully (“Have you ever considered creating an online forum for your customers, where they could post questions and help others troubleshoot?”), giving a suggestion can spark a back-and-forth about the way the business works. This kind of conversation will help you learn more about the behind-the-scenes of the company and will show your new contact that you’ve given significant thought to moving the business forward. Plus, you’ll prove just how beneficial you could be to the company as a new employee.
3. Ask Questions About Company Culture—a Lot of Them
Because the nature of start-up work typically requires employees to wear a lot of hats, these companies aren't necessarily looking for a specific set of skills in potential employees. Instead, they’re often looking for someone who will be a good fit with the team overall, both professionally and socially.
So, make sure to ask a lot of questions about the character and habits of the employees who work there. Ask questions like, “What drives your employees to provide such great customer service?” Or, on the more casual side, “Does the team spend time together outside of work?” These kind of questions will help you understand what the start-up is looking for in its next employee, and just as importantly, will help you decide whether or not its culture is right for you.
4. Know Your Ideal Role
While it’s possible that start-ups will have written job descriptions or online job postings to advertise available positions, that’s not always the case—and you may not always find an opening that exactly fits your expertise. But, with the flexibility of a start-up company, that’s not always a problem: The best jobs are the ones that you design yourself based on what you can bring to the company and in what areas the company needs help.
So, keep this in mind when you answer the question “What kind of role are you looking for?” I used to think answering this question broadly would help increase my chances of landing a gig, since I could potentially fit in a variety of roles. But instead, I learned that it’s more effective to explain your ideal role in the company, or how you would be an asset to specific teams or projects. Even if the role you describe is not currently available, once they’re hiring for that position (or something close to it), they’ll have the perfect person in mind—you.
5. Play the Long Game
Even after your informational interview, it’s important to keep in touch with your new contact. Roles at start-ups often open up quickly and unexpectedly, and unless you’re still fresh in your contact’s mind, the opportunity could easily slip by.
To keep the lines of communication open, provide periodic updates about your accomplishments and new ideas, or congratulate your contacts on company milestones you’ve read about recently. Or, if you feel comfortable, ask to meet with employees from other teams to learn more about the company culture from different perspectives.
You can even get your foot in the door by pitching an interesting idea or proposing to take on a small side project. Relationships in the start-up world develop organically and over time, so keep your contacts engaged with ongoing communication, great follow-up, and a proactive approach.
Start-up informational interviews may be different than what you’re used to, but don’t let them catch you off guard. Approach your meeting with enthusiasm, confidence, and a true desire to learn about the company, and you’ll make a lasting impression—one that might just land you a new job!