Accepting a job at a startup means you agree to shape and impact a company in its earliest stages. Many startups operate on tight budgets and lean operations, so every hire is critical, and there is little room for error.
Because the stakes are higher, the startup interview process is a key time to showcase your skills and stand out.
We’ll walk through how candidates can tailor their experience and accomplishments to set them up to shine through each stage of the startup interview process: The application, interview, and follow-up.
1. The application stage: research, research, research
The worst thing you can do as an interested candidate is submit the same version of your cover letter and resume that you always use.
Unlike larger organizations where resumes are filtered through artificial intelligence (AI), startups typically have real people reviewing applications. These individuals are not just looking for a skill match. They are often looking for a culture fit, and a deep understanding of what their company does.
Related: After Talking to a Recruiter Take These Four Steps
Related: 7 Questions to Ask an Executive Recruiter
Here are a few tips to stand out during the application stage.
Whenever possible, network before you really want the job.
The great thing about the startup ecosystem is the plethora of corners of the internet it shows up in. LinkedIn, Slack channels, Facebook groups, and more are great places to familiarize yourself with startups that you really resonate with.
If you take the time to connect with founders and leaders who inspire you, you are more likely to have a leg up when your dream job becomes available. Follow the company’s events page or find out if there are any happy hours or networking opportunities where they will be in attendance, and you can introduce yourself.
Start forming those relationships early on, and your resume has a much better chance of rising to the top of the stack when the time comes to apply.
When in doubt, write a cover letter
Cover letters have become one of the most polarizing parts of the application process. Some hiring teams argue that they are thrown out or are often filled with fluff that simply regurgitates the same information they see on resumes.
Others argue it is a fantastic way to make your application more human, providing context to the web of experiences that led you to apply for the position.
In startups especially, a cover letter is not just a chance to weave together your experiences in a thoughtful way. It is your opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge of the startup where you want to work and explain why you’d be a good fit.
Hiring teams are often spread thin, and you can probably imagine how many stacks of resumes they look at for a coveted position. A well-constructed cover letter can jolt a hiring manager out of an over-stimulated stupor and draw more of their attention to your qualifications.
Use the STAR method
As early as the application phase, we recommend you use the STAR method to showcase your skills during the startup interview process.
Related: The 5 Soft Skills You Need to Succeed in a Startup Environment
If you are not familiar, the STAR method is a technique that helps you format your experiences:
- Situation: Set the scene and give the necessary details of your example.
- Task: Describe what your responsibility was in that situation.
- Action: Explain exactly what steps you took to address it.
- Result: Share what outcomes your actions achieved.
While you don’t want your resume to be pages long, try to draw at least one specific outcome from each position you’ve held.
Startup hiring managers will not resonate with vague summations of your previous roles and responsibilities. What they will resonate with is outcomes.
Here is an example of the STAR method in writing:
“When our company needed a rebrand, I was responsible for getting media coverage. I leveraged my relationships in the media, and as a result, our press release was covered by 20 media outlets, and our website traffic increased by 400 percent.”
2. The interview stage: Be curious and enthusiastic
If you’ve made it to the interview stage, you can be confident that you are qualified for the job, and the team wants to examine your qualifications further. This is a huge accomplishment and where the real work begins.
Sign up for the website, use the product, request a demo, etc.
If you are applying for a company that offers a service or built a product, a great way to prepare for the interview is to get as much firsthand knowledge as possible about it.
Is it an app? Download the app and poke around. Software company? Sign up for a free trial or create an account.
The initiative will demonstrate you are serious about adding value to the company. As a bonus, jot down some ideas and observations about the product or service.
Get to know your hiring team
When assigned an interviewer or a team of interviewers, ensure you get their full names and do your research. Walking into the interview, you should know their professional background and experience. This information will help you formulate your “sales” pitch and communicate how you culturally align with their organization and will fill any gaps.
With this knowledge, you can ask more relevant questions, find out what drew them to the company, and keep them there.
Don’t just ask questions – ask hard, smart ones
By now, every candidate knows that they must come into an interview with questions to ask at the end. As a result, the same few questions are beginning to regurgitate in interviews, and hiring managers have likely heard them all.
If you want to stand out, dig a little deeper into this step of the interview process and prepare four to five questions that wouldn’t necessarily apply to any other interview.
These questions should be based on:
- Who are you interviewing with? (How did your background in finance help you succeed in your operations role? Does this organization support cross-functional growth?)
- What does the industry surrounding the company look like? (Given the distrust in data collection, how are you positioning yourself to gain users and grow?)
- How do they respond to competition? (Your competitor offers case studies with hard data on “x.” Is this something your organization is considering?)
Ultimately, your questions should demonstrate a genuine curiosity about what the operations and growth of the company look like.
Related: What Makes Working at a Startup Special?
3. The follow-Up Stage: Be proactive, not reactive
The relief you feel at the end of the interview process might feel like your time to heave a sigh of relief and know that you’ve done all you can and “it’s out of your hands.”
On the contrary, there are still steps you can take to stand out, even after the in-person interactions have ended.
Ask for specifics while you have an audience
At the end of your in-person interview, get all the information you can about the decision process. Try and get a time frame/date, whether you will be contacted by phone or email, and if you will be notified in either scenario (offer or rejection.)
Master the art of the “thank you” note
The follow-up thank you note (or email) should be used to demonstrate excitement and gratitude for the time you spent being considered for the role.
If you left something glaringly open-ended in your interview, you could use the thank you note to clarify that item (i.e., start date.) By and large, you should avoid using the thank you note to add content to your qualifications.
Harvard Business Review recommends this template:
- Thank them for their time and attention
- Mention one thing you learned about their organization that excited you
- Mention you look forward to hearing from them
Follow up thoughtfully
If you were provided with a date for a decision, follow up a week after that date if you have not heard from the hiring team.
It’s possible that they made an offer to someone else that might be rejected, or other logistics are at play. Remember that human processes don’t always go smoothly.
When the day comes, send a brief note to the hiring manager you dealt with, reiterating the content in your thank you note and requesting a status update.
So long as you approach this thoughtfully and humanly, you will avoid coming off as eager or aggressive.
Be patient: Startups don’t always run a meticulous process
Though it can be excruciating to wait for an answer from a team you want to be a part of, try to extend patience and understanding as you wait.
Continue to network, volunteer, apply to other jobs, and find outlets for your energy. Remember that finding the perfect match will take time.
This blog was written by Viaduct Director of Recruiting and Business Operations Tom Hausler.