How To Interview Candidates Like A Pro At Your Startup

Ask many people what comes to mind when they hear the words tech startup and interview and  you’ll usually hear of weird and not-so-wonderful interview questions which seem totally unrelated to the job.

Ever been asked ‘how many tennis balls fit into an aeroplane?’ or ‘how many times per day the hands on a clock overlap?’ You’ve either interviewed at Google or you’ve interviewed with someone who’s googled ‘how to interview like google’.

Most of the time these questions usually do little to help assess how good you’re going to be in the actual role. If you find yourself using these questions when interviewing, here’s a few tips to help you get the most out of your interview process and hire the best candidates at your startup.

Give everyone the same amount of time

When I started interviewing at Hired By Startups, the first face to face interview would last anywhere from 30-minutes to 3-hours, with the candidates I liked the most staying the longest.

We’d start in a meeting room and then often progress to an impromptu coffee or lunch. This seemed like a great idea at first but in practise, there are problems.

Firstly, if you and the candidate feel the interview is going well, they may feel rude ending the interview before you’re ready to do so. It’s unfair to ask people to take an hour our of their day to meet you, only for you to then take three.

Secondly, it means you shut down candidates early who don’t get off to the best start and give those with potential as much time as possible to keep impressing you.

I now have a set time limit for every interview and give every candidate the whole amount of time, even if I think they’re likely to be a no during the first few minutes. Keep an open mind throughout and make an objective decision if to proceed after reflecting on the interview.

Prepare before the interview

Few things make for a worse candidate experience than an unprepared interviewer. If a candidate has taken time out of their day to meet with you, at the very least make sure you’ve read their CV to get a good idea of their background.

Make sure there is a quiet and private space to hold the interview. Coffee shops aren’t great as few people feel truly comfortable interviewing with so many people in earshot.

The same goes for interviewing in the communal area of your office. You may feel comfortable having these conversations amongst your colleagues but your candidate is unlikely to feel the same.

Make sure you have a room booked well in advance, you have a copy of the candidate’s CV which you’ve read and any notes from any previous conversations you or your colleague have had with the candidate.

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail as the old saying goes.

Ask the same questions to every candidate

The fastest way to making a bad hire is to ‘just have a chat’ during the interview.

It’s really common for whoever is hiring to just have a discussion with the candidate about their background, experience and the role. If the chat goes well, they’re a yes. If it doesn’t, they’re a no.

The problem with this is some candidates are better conversationalists than others and so may come across better than those with better experience.

The major problem is a good conversation takes two. If you’re having an off day (which happens), it might be you that leads to an awkward conversation which, in your interview notes, isn’t likely to be mentioned and so will only reflect badly on the candidate.

In addition, trying to recount a 1-hour interview for feedback notes can be difficult if it’s been an hour of conversation. You can leave feeling overall impressed or unimpressed but it can be difficult to articulate what was said to cause that result.

The best way is to ask the same set questions to every candidate and make notes on their answers. Your follow up questions to deep dive on their answers may well be different but always keep the questions and structure of the interview the same.

This will give each candidate the opportunity to be evaluated against the same questions with equal opportunities to impress. It also makes it really easy to write up and compare post-interview feedback.

Evaluate candidates based on behaviours over opinions

When I’m hiring for someone to join the team at Hired By Startups, I focus much more on behaviour based interview questions than opinion based questions.

Opinion based interview questions are still useful. I want to find out if a candidate shares our core values and so I’ll often use opinion based questions to evaluate this.

These are usually posed as ‘What do you think about the practice of getting back to every applicant, regardless of their suitability for a role’ or something similar. Essentially, I’m finding out if we think the same thing.

The problem with interviewing on this basis alone (which so many startups do) is that you hire people who think the same as you, but you have no idea if they actually do that when in the scenario or if they actually default to another action.

Instead, focus on questions which ask the candidate to recount a past experience and walk you through what they did. For example: ‘Stakeholder management is vital in this role. Talk me through a time where you’ve had to deal with a difficult hiring manager with unrealistic hiring expectations. How did you approach this, what did you do and what was the outcome?’

It’s amazing when you ask questions like this the variety of answers you get. The above question has produced answers from ‘I’ve never had a situation where I’ve dealt with a difficult stakeholder’ (big red flag) to ‘I keep out of their way and keep searching based on their needs’ (big red flag). And sometimes, we’ll find a candidate with the perfect answer.

Take time to think about the important and difficult situations someone will find themselves in when in the role and carefully craft questions to explore what they’ve done in a similar situation before.

Allow time for reflection

It’s tempting when interviewing to book 4 1-hour interviews back to back. Sure, squeezing them in saves some time but afterwards it’s likely the specifics of the interview will become hazy and you’ll only be able to provide a top line summary on your general impressions, rather than specific feedback.

Make sure you take 15-minutes after each interview to review your notes, ensuring you have enough info to revisit later and made a decision as to whether to proceed with the candidate.

Creating an interview feedback sheet is a good idea. I usually keep it simple, with a top line overview on my general thoughts and if I think they’ll add to our culture. Bullet point positives and negatives followed by an overview of their answer to each behavioural question. Finally, I’ll follow up with a proceed / do not proceed decision. There are no maybes, if they’re not a yes they’re always a no.

Bonus tip. Don’t forget, you’re being interviewed too!

The earlier stage your startup is, the more likely it is you’re the one really being interviewed. The most talented people will generally have a number of options on the table and so you need to make sure you standout.

Make sure you have a really clear and concise pitch on why your startup is the one to join and, if you’re not a Founder, why you love working there.

Above all, find out what motivates the candidate. Where do they see their career in the next 3 years and realistically decide if working with your startup can genuinely help them get there. If it can’t, best be honest and pass as they’ll only leave you after 6 months when they realise it’s the case too.

If you’re unsure if your interview process is working for you, feel free to get in touch with me on LinkedIn and I’ll be happy to see if we can help you improve it.

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At Hired By Startups, we help startups, scale-ups and VC backed companies hire really talented people and build teams that are more engaged and productive. Our fixed cost Hiring on Demand and Onsite Hiring Partner solutions enable startups to see the benefits of having their own internal recruiter, with the flexibility of using an agency.

We’ve helped some of the UK’s best known and fastest growing startups scale their teams whilst saving 50% on their cost and time per hire. If you’re a startup looking to scale rapidly, get in touch to find out how we could help! For more info, check out us out here.

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About the author 

Tom Ladds

Hi, I’m Tom – Founder & CEO at Hired By Startups. You can connect with me on LinkedIn here.

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