What to look for in startup interviews?

In the last 10 years I have taken loads of interviews for positions at startups and made a mix of good & bad hiring decisions. Basedon my experiences over these years I have evolved a certain mental technique of Startup Interviews, but I never had a chance to put it on paper and share with others. 

In last 3 days I did two telephonic interviews for one of Morpheus’ portfolio companies. I rejected the guy who has previously played the role that we are hiring for & has worked for two startups. I strongly recommended the guy who never played the role which we are hiring for & has only worked for large service companies. The results were surprising to me also & that got me going on this post.

 What to look for?

  • Honestly / Integrity / Character
    • This is one the most essential quality to look for – people who are dishonest can be very costly for a lean startup which runs on thin budgets and deadlines.
    • The first guy had somewhat lied in his resume about his current role. During the interview I discovered he has actually not been playing that role for last year but just to look more suitable for the position he choose to misrepresent things.
    • The second guy was totally upfront about never having played this role in past and said one of the reason he is interested in this role is that he has never played it before which means he gets to learn new stuff.
  • Startup hunger
    • A good startup employee is really hungry for doing something meaningful and for creating something he can be proud of. He will ask a lot of questions and if things are not right he will keep coming with up with new ideas about how things can be done in a better fashion. His doesn’t have ideas only for his department, but for pretty much every department that matters in the company
    • First guy did not have any hunger to create / do and do stuff in life which he be proud off. He did not want to get anywhere special with his career – he just wanted to get by. He did one job in city A, left in 6 months for some random reason, moved to city B, has been in the same job for 2 yrs – not really doing anything great, not happy – but made no great efforts to get out. I guess he was getting his salary every month and that was pretty much enough.
    • Second guy has spent two years with this large service company, has managed to achieve interesting things even within that setting and has been on interesting assignments. He recently moved to the “new businesses group” – he has shown a lot of initiative and urge to move things. If he comes to a startup, where qualities like initiative and ownership are valued a lot, he can a big difference.
  • Artist at heart
    • An artist is someone who creates. His creations come straight from the heart. He sees beauty in his creations and you can that purity his work. Thats the kind of people you want at a startup – people who are pure, who really care about what they do and what they create.
    • The first guy did not really have much deep feelings about his work and after the usual interview drill – we didnt have much to talk – the call ended in less than 30 minutes
    • The second guy was passionate about his current work and very interested to know more about work that he may be getting into. He cared about his answers – they seem to come from his heart. His approach reflected the purity of an artist. We talked for more than 60 minutes – still had more to talk but had to hang up because of lack of time.
  • Urge to do
    • I guess this one is pretty obvious. We are talking about people who are naturally interested in doing stuff, they get into fundamentals of things, they like trying new stuff. They are not just about coming to office at 9 and leaving at 5pm sharp.
    • Again I sensed the first guy was more of, I will be in office 9 to 5 – take care of my stuff and move on with my life
    • Second. guy has a strong urge to do / to own things / to have his neck on line – which was something absent from his current large company role and thats a big reason why he wants to move.
  • Urge to learn
    • This is very critical. Startups usually deal with loads of stuff thats not yet been figured and they need people who can learn new stuff quickly, and help implement the new stuff in the startup’s products.
  • Handling uncertainty
    • Its a must that a person working at startup knows to handle uncertainty of all kinds. In early stages uncertainty is a big part of a startup life – there are all kind of answered questions and you need to tackle them and perform 
  • Capability to handle the startup pace
    • Things move really fast in a startup. Critical decisions are made in made in minutes, implemented in hours and there is not much to scope to miss the target. So you need folks who can generate that speed, change directions fast and still be accurate in their results.
    • I could clearly see that the first guy is not cut out to handle the pace – he was more of easy going person – who would want things to move slower and may not be able to catch up with the startup pace
    • The second guy on the other hand seemed likes a fast learned and someone with the potential to generate the speed 
  • Can have fun?
    • For most people idea of a job doesnt include fun. Startups are very different from a regular 9 to 5, wear the formal clothe jobs and a lot more stressful. Unless the guy knows how to have fun – he wont be happy at startup. Unless a person is happy – they can not perform to the best of  their ability.
    • The second guy sounded a lot more fun and first was quite a drab
  • Wants to experiment with his role & is open to get into totally new territories 
    • Many times a startup would need a person to move into a new role than what they were originally hired for – in these situations you need people who are open to experimentations and folks who are just stuck on a career track and hate to do something different
    • The first guy has drifted from him original role at his current job but was cribbing about it
    • Second guy was looking for a role that different than what he has done in past to get out of his comfort zone and learn something new
  • Passion for the vision of the startup
    • You dont need people who are interested in your startup because – you have a branded investor / you will pay more than market / it will look good on their resume. You need people who are interested your vision of the startup , develop some passion for that vision and want to contribute towards achieving that vision
    • The first guy did not have much interest in company’s business model & sounded bored when I started talking about it
    • Where as with the second guy i talked about the business model for more than 15 minutes and he asked a lot of good questions that showed he not only understood the vision but also wanted to contribute   
  • Can he take calls & own upto them
    • You need people who can handle stuff on their own, can make decisions by themselves and not come running to you for approval on every little thing.
  • Problem solving skills /  Strong analytical skills
    • You need people who can think through situations, analyze them and based on the analysis, come up with solutions and try them on.
  • Is weird / abnormal in some ways?
    • Startups are anything but normal,  they are trying to question status quo and create something new. So the only people who will do well at startups are the one who themselves are weird in some way  
  • Money doesn’t come first
    • For a real startup guy things that matter are – do they really believe in what the startup is looking to achieve? will they have fun working at the startup? will they work with other really smart people? do they like the culture? Getting a job that gives then 1.5 x salary as compared to their current job is not the top of their list.
  • Wants to understand the bigger picture
    • When a candidate asks intelligent questions in the interview and attempts to understand the bigger picture, it means he is serious about their decision to work with you and wants to understand things from a larger perspective


I am sure you agree with some of my points and disagree with some. What’s been your experience? What do you look for?