I recently took the lead on hiring a new team member at Jimdo, the startup where I work. I posted a job listing, sifted through hundreds of applicants, found the top tier and performed initial interviews. I then invited the very best to come in for a half-day trial and meet the boss.
Startups are looking for talented, versatile people and that affects the hiring process. In a small office, everyone participates in many kinds of projects -- all hands on deck is an everyday practice. So not only will a startup be looking for someone with a varied skillset, but also someone who can be a team player. In a small office, you certainly get to know everyone well, and you need to learn to work with everyone quickly.
Seeing the entire hiring process allowed me to gain a new perspective on what startup companies are really looking for in their applicants. Here are the eight things I learned that every startup applicant should know before an interview:
1. Know the company’s product. During our first round of interviews, several people came in who claimed that they hadn’t had time to try out our website builder. It takes less than one minute to get up and running with our (free) product, and anyone who has used a website builder before can create something quick and dirty within 10 minutes. That’s 11 minutes.
As you can probably guess, the applicants who didn’t take 11 minutes out of their day to test our product didn’t get hired.
“I had no time” is a very poor excuse. It tells the company that you don’t really care about their product, or that you were too busy to thoroughly prepare for the interview. Or, even worse, you are interviewing so haphazardly that you have no idea what the company is about.
If you want to work for a company that sells a physical product or a piece of software, you’ll need to know it like the back of your hand, so get started early and spend as much time as you can familiarizing yourself with it.
2. Learn about the company's culture. The company culture is going to affect how you prepare for your interview, and whether you even want to apply in the first place. Should you wear a suit to the interview, or are there photos of the team wearing T-shirts all over the company’s website? Is there a never-ending supply of beer in the fridge, or are you expected to be professional in the office at all times?
Get a feel for the company where you are applying -- you won’t be a good fit for every company, and not every company is a good fit for you. If you can’t find information on the company’s official website, check out its Facebook or LinkedIn pages, read reviews on websites such as GlassDoor.com or Salary.com, or try to contact someone who has worked at the company.
Many startups have interesting origin stories, and knowing how a company got started and what it’s like today allows you to position yourself as a great fit for the office. At our company, for instance, you might find out that every employee gets to take an annual trip to the headquarters in Germany, so you can talk about how you studied German in high school, or mention that you’ve always been dying to travel to Europe.
Surprise your interviewers with how much you already know about the company culture and in how many ways you’ll be a perfect fit, rather than having surprises thrown at you. Having to dodge a “why should we hire you?” question without any prior knowledge of the company culture can lead to some awkward silences.
3. Know the industry and the competitors. The startup world is, by nature, very competitive. Because every company starts from scratch, they have to work their way up to gain market share and attain success. Thus, a huge part of working for a startup is knowing the industry and the company’s competitors.
Imagine if you walked into Google for a job interview and didn’t know what a search engine was or that Yahoo! and Bing are its competitors. If you were interviewing for Twitter, they would expect you to know what social media is and that other platforms on the market include apps such as Instagram, Facebook and Tumblr. Smaller startups also expect you to understand their industry before you come in for the interview.
Knowing the competitors and the niche market is one of the main keys of success for every startup, so understandably it should also be the focus of the employees (and applicants). We had a few applicants come in who had never built a website, never heard of Jimdo prior to the job opening, and had no clue what we did or who our main competitors were.
It became really obvious within the first five minutes of the interview that they weren’t interested in our company -- they just saw an ad on Craigslist and figured they’d swing by and give it a go. Do some heavy research on the market you’re applying to if you want to be taken seriously.
4. Have an online presence. If you're going to interview with a tech startup, having a developed online presence is an important way to prove that you are a valuable candidate. While sending a resume and a cover letter is usually enough, also including a complete LinkedIn profile and a website exhibiting your portfolio, resume or hobby makes you stand out from the crowd of applicants and backs up your claims that you would be a valuable asset to the company.
When I was sorting through hundreds of applications, I would often skip the resume and jump straight into the LinkedIn profile. A resume can make a lot of promises, but a full LinkedIn profile can back them up by allowing others to endorse your skills and showing what professional connections you’ve made so far in your career.
If you are a designer or visual artist, it’s important to have a portfolio online if you are applying for jobs. Attaching a few images to an application to show your work doesn’t even come close to the professionalism of a well thought out and visually exciting online portfolio.
Many startups are themselves deeply involved in social media -- it’s how to get the company name out there in this day and age. Thus, they are much more likely to hire employees who are already online and familiar with social media. Of course, public social-media presence should remain professional -- hundreds of college party photos on Facebook does not make you a better candidate.
It’s never too late to start having an online presence. Even though it can feel overwhelming, there are a lot of resources to help you get started. Up first should be building a strong LinkedIn profile and creating a personal website. Some (extremely talented) individuals have even created a website or infographic that is their resume.
Check out more exceptionally creative resumes in this Business Insider list.
5. Show your individuality, but don't treat the application as a joke. One of the questions always included in our company’s application is “What makes you unique?” While most people write something generic like “I love cats” or “I’m enthusiastic and love to work hard,” I was flabbergasted at how inappropriate and outright weird some of the responses we received were.
One applicant responded with what sounded like an excerpt out of an erotic novel, another wrote a random combination of letters as if their head hit the keyboard and they didn’t care to erase what came out. Many people skipped the question altogether.
Here’s a hint: if a company asks what makes you unique, skipping the question or giving an inappropriate response is the quickest way to be thrown out of the prospect pool. Being asked this kind of question is a huge opportunity and should be taken seriously. This is your chance to talk about you outside of work, and it suggests that the company you are interviewing with actually cares about hiring interesting people.
There are a lot of great ways to answer this question. Have you done karate since you were 7 years old? Are you from a different country? Do you crochet dog sweaters and sell them on Etsy? All of us have a history filled with hobbies, interests and idiosyncrasies. Pick something about yourself that isn’t common, but that is interesting for potential colleagues to know.
While it’s true that you can often be more relaxed about what you say in an application or at an interview with a startup versus what you should say to a large corporation, startups are still businesses and you should treat the interviewer with the respect of someone who may be writing your next paycheck.
6. Remember to remain curious. Although you are interviewing the company just as much as they are interviewing you, it is important to be respectful. Make sure you ask questions, rather than making assumptions that you expect the interviewers to disprove.
We had one candidate come in with the belief that startups lie about their culture. We felt like she put us on the spot to disprove an assumption that she came into the interview with, rather than having an interest in finding out what our startup culture is actually like.
If a previous employer left you disgruntled, it doesn’t mean that the company where you are applying will do the same. Keep a list of company-culture red flags, and if you see enough of them at an interview or practice day, you’ll know that you shouldn’t work there.
Taking out your unsettled anger on a new potential employer will only backfire and make you look unprofessional. Read the available company literature beforehand and give the interviewers the benefit of the doubt.
7. Always send a thank you email after the interview. You may think it’s old fashioned or unnecessary to send a thank you note, but it actually makes you stand out. A short thank you email (you don’t even have to send a letter!) will show the employer that you are thoughtful and respectful, and that you acknowledge and appreciate the opportunity to interview with their company.
Someone just took an hour out of their day to meet you because they believed in you. The least you can do is take a minute to send a simple “thank you.”
8. Don’t be bitter if you don’t get the job. There are a million reasons why a company might choose someone else over you for the open position. Maybe you didn’t have the right skillset or maybe you were overqualified for the job. Perhaps another candidate smiled just a bit more, or happened to tell a joke that resonated with the founder.
Sometimes it’s merit-based and sometimes just a gut feeling of who will be a better fit -- but it’s never personal, so don’t burn any bridges.
It’s common practice for startups to hire in waves, and often companies will keep resumes from a previous wave and go back to those applicants first when it’s time to hire for a similar position (we certainly do!). Keep this in mind when you respond to a rejection letter. You may get a call in a few months asking if you’re available to come in for another interview, or maybe you’ll run into your interviewer at a tech meetup and they’ll introduce you to your next boss.
The startup world can feel very small sometimes, and you never know who could be your ally, so be graceful about rejection. Even if nothing ever comes of it, at least you can rest assured that a “Thank you for your consideration” will leave the interviewer with a much better memory of you than “I knew you weren’t going to hire me 10 minutes into the interview, so why did you even have me come in?” That’s an actual response we received, by the way.
You can also always ask for feedback if you’re curious about what it was that made you lose out on the job. Just make sure you do it nicely!
And finally… The most important thing in any interview is to be true to yourself and to the employer. The fit has to be right in both directions, so don’t pretend to be someone you’re not -- sooner or later, either you’ll be unhappy or they’ll catch on to you.
Now get out there, be a wonderful candidate, and land that job!
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