Find the perfect job listing at an awesome start-up? Check. Apply with a killer resume? Check. Schedule the interview? Check.

Nail the interview and land the job? Well, that’s the other half of the battle—but it’s within your reach, if you know how to impress your interviewers.

Now, start-ups are known for their insanely tough and slightly off-the-wall interview questions, so I won’t bother trying to cover how to script answers for every inquiry. Instead—and more importantly—I want to discuss the intangible qualities that start-ups are looking for that can give you a leg up on the competition. Because if you haven’t already figured it out, these companies don’t just want someone who fits the bulleted list of requirements from the job description—they want someone who fits the company.

To find out exactly what makes a candidate stand out, I sat down with a few entrepreneurial executives to talk about the qualities they’re looking for in applicants—and how you can apply that insider info to nail your start-up interviews.

Embody the Company Culture

I’ve never heard an entrepreneur say he or she hired someone who wasn’t a cultural fit because the candidate had the right skills. In fact, most start-up CEOs would argue quite the opposite: The #1 reason an applicant is hired by a start-up is because he or she clicks with the company’s objectives, mission, values, and, obviously, culture.

Dharmesh Shah, Co-Founder and CTO of Hubspot, wrote an article about this issue: He discusses the negative impact of hiring an employee who doesn’t “fit” a company’s culture and stresses that culture can completely make or break a company’s success. As a result, start-ups can’t (and don’t) take it lightly during the interview process. In fact, you can expect that about half of your interview evaluation will most likely be based on cultural match.

So, how do you prove that you’re a great fit? Well, if you’re applying to Hubspot, gauging the culture is easy—the company has compiled an entire culture code and made it public, so you can read up pre-interview. But if your start-up of choice hasn’t gone to that extent, you’ll have to dig a little deeper.

Casey Gustus, COO at Consumer United, suggests starting with networking: “Today, it’s easy to connect with just about anyone via social media and professional networks. There’s only about two or three degrees of separation between you and any company or person you want to know.” With that in mind, he suggests tracking down a contact at the start-up and directly reaching out to him or her. “It’s very helpful when a candidate asks cultural questions pre-interview to a company contact,” Gustus adds. “It shows true engagement and interest in the company, which will aid in the interview.” Plus, having that extra insider knowledge of how to “walk the company walk” during your interview will give you an easy advantage over another candidate.

If you can’t track down a direct contact, there are plenty of other things you can do. Start by reading the company’s blog and Twitter and Facebook pages—the tone of the company’s content on these sites will speak volumes. Or, try reading individual employees’ blogs to figure out what type of people work (and excel) there. And, of course, Google recent articles about the company to see what pops up.

With the Internet at your fingertips, you should be able to get an idea of “who” the company is and how to embody a similar personality during your interview.

Remember Passion Trumps Skills

Besides fitting in with the overall culture of the company, start-ups look for genuine passion. It may sound cliché, but it’s been a recurring theme in every one of my conversations with these entrepreneurs. And this goes beyond passion for the company’s specific mission—start-ups are also looking for an overall appreciation for hard work and innovation and a get-it-done attitude.

Why? “It's easier to teach skills than it is to instill passion,” Gustus said. Shah whole-heartedly agreed, explaining that he can train people on certain skills, but can’t train internal drive: “You can teach someone to program, but you can't teach them passion.”

Of course, having the right skills will help, but your resume has already proven your qualifications. So if you have that fire—and you can sell it in your interview—you’ll go a long way. Be engaging, maintain strong eye contact, and make sure your answers convey your enthusiasm for the role, the company, and its mission and vision.

Be Resourceful

Finally, start-ups tend to move quickly—which means they don’t usually have time to hold your hand while you adjust to the job. So during the interview, your interviewer wants be able to clearly see that if you’re left alone, you can figure out how to get things done—even if you go days without seeing your boss.

To prove this during your interview, be prepared with a few examples of past projects you’ve led on your own without much supervision.

Also, be careful about using the word “we”—instead, try “I.” I know—you’re constantly told “there’s no ‘I’ in team”—but in a start-up, you won’t always have a “we” to lean on. In fact, a complaint I hear from hiring entrepreneurs is that candidates use the term “we” when they discuss their experience. It may seem like a minor detail—but that tiny word can make your interviewer think that you’re not capable of working without constant supervision.

If you’ve made it to the interview, you can rest assured that you have the right skills and qualifications for the job. But now, it’s important that you focus on showing the start-up that you’re a great fit for the company culture, that you have a deep-rooted internal passion, and that you can handle whatever gets thrown your way. If you can prove those three things, you'll be in a great position to land the gig.

Photo of woman working courtesy of Shutterstock.

Updated 6/19/2020