The Art of Interviewing: Assessing Skills and Fit in Startups

Each candidate you interview is a potential piece in your startup’s puzzle, and it’s essential to ensure they fit just right.

by hao-nguyen on September 12, 2023

Hiring the right person isn’t just about checking off skill sets on a list; it’s a bit like matchmaking. Especially in a startup environment, where every new addition can significantly impact the company’s culture and trajectory. It’s about finding that balance between someone who has the technical chops and someone who fits snugly into the unique culture your startup is cultivating.

Preparation: Laying the Groundwork

Before you even begin the process of interviewing potential candidates, it’s crucial to take a step back and understand the specific role you’re hiring for. Is it a technical role? Customer-facing? Leadership? Knowing the role inside-out isn’t just about the day-to-day tasks, but also about how this role will evolve as your startup grows. After all, the landscape of a startup is always shifting, and roles may pivot or expand over time.

With a clear image of the role in mind, you can then formulate your interview strategy. It’s not just about a set of questions but understanding what answers, or more importantly, insights, you hope to garner from them. For startups, it’s beneficial to have a blend of standard questions that assess the technical aspects of a role and more open-ended ones that offer a glimpse into a candidate’s character, adaptability, and alignment with your company’s values.

Assessing Technical and Soft Skills

Every role, from your software developer to your marketing head, has a specific skill set that’s non-negotiable. And while it’s essential to ensure your candidate is technically adept, in a startup environment, there’s often a bit more to it.

To get a grasp on their technical proficiency, consider incorporating skills tests relevant to the job or giving them hypothetical but role-specific tasks. For instance, if you’re hiring a developer, a coding test might be in order. For a content marketer, maybe it’s drafting a sample article or campaign idea. Scenario-based questions can also be invaluable. Pose a challenge they might realistically face in their role at your startup and ask how they’d handle it. It offers a dual insight: their problem-solving skills and a sneak peek into their on-the-job approach.

Yet, for a startup, soft skills can be equally important. The early stages of a startup are fluid, often requiring team members to take on responsibilities outside of their strict job descriptions. So, traits like adaptability, problem-solving capabilities, and the ability to collaborate efficiently within a team become paramount. Dive deep into their past experiences: When did they face a challenge and pivot? How do they handle team conflicts? Their answers can be telling.

Probing for Cultural Fit

Startups, with their close-knit teams and unique environments, have a culture of their own. It’s not just about ping-pong tables or Friday happy hours. It’s about values, mission, and vision. It’s about how decisions are made, how teams collaborate, and how challenges are addressed.

When interviewing, it’s vital to ensure that a potential hire doesn’t just understand your startup’s culture but resonates with it. This goes beyond asking, “Did you read about our values on our website?” Dive deeper with behavioural questions that explore how they’ve embodied similar values in their past roles. Maybe ask about a time they went above and beyond for a project or how they’ve previously contributed to a positive team environment.

But don’t just listen to their answers; observe. How do they interact with others if given a tour of your workspace or introduced to a few team members? Are they respectful? Curious? Enthusiastic? Their non-verbal cues, from body language to the way they phrase their questions, can give you insights into their fit within your startup’s ecosystem.

The Role of Structured Interviews

In the fast-paced world of startups, there’s sometimes a temptation to wing things, even interviews. But there’s a genuine art and science behind structured interviews that can prove invaluable for startups. So, what’s the deal?

For one, structured interviews involve having a standardised set of questions for every candidate applying for a particular role. It sounds simple, but the benefits are many. By asking every candidate the same questions, you’re creating a level playing field. It’s an effort to ensure fairness in the process, making certain that every individual gets an equal shot.

But it’s not just about fairness. Structured interviews can play a significant role in eliminating unconscious biases. When you’ve got a clear structure, there’s less room for those inadvertent judgments that we all, as humans, are prone to make.

Moreover, structured interviews make the data collection and comparison process much more efficient. Imagine trying to compare candidates when each was asked a different set of questions! By standardising this, startups can make more informed decisions faster – a crucial capability in the startup realm where time is often of the essence.

Involving the Team

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “It takes a village.” In the startup ecosystem, this couldn’t be truer. While the final hiring decision might rest with the founders or the HR team, involving multiple team members in the interview process can be a game-changer.

Consider panel interviews or multiple interview rounds with different team members. It’s not about grilling the candidate from all sides but about gaining diverse perspectives. Different team members might pick up on different things, be it a candidate’s potential, red flags, or nuances that indicate cultural fit.

Involving the team in the hiring process can also lead to better integration of new hires. When team members have had a say or at least a view into the hiring process, there’s a higher likelihood of them investing in helping the new hire succeed. It fosters a sense of collective responsibility and can lead to more seamless onboarding and collaboration.

Remember, in a startup, every new hire doesn’t just fill a role; they become a part of the family. It’s a commitment, both ways. And like any lasting relationship, it’s built on mutual understanding, trust, and a shared journey.

Post-Interview Reflections

If you think the hard work ends when the candidate leaves the room, think again. This phase is where the real magic happens, where individual perceptions merge to shape a collective decision.

First things first, gather feedback from everyone involved in the interview process. This isn’t just about ticking boxes on a form. It’s about getting genuine insights. What did each interviewer perceive? Where did they see strengths, and where were the gaps? Tools like structured feedback forms can help streamline this, ensuring you capture both the tangible (skills, experience) and the intangible (cultural fit, potential).

When reviewing feedback, it’s crucial to differentiate between objective skills and subjective fit. While both are important, they play different roles. Objective skills are often easier to assess – does the candidate have the technical knowledge or industry experience you need? But subjective fit, that’s a more delicate dance. It’s about intuition, gut feeling, and shared team perceptions.

It’s also the time to bring out any red flags or concerns that arose during the interview. Maybe there were discrepancies in what the candidate said, or perhaps someone picked up on a potential cultural mismatch. These concerns should be discussed openly, ensuring the team is making a holistic decision.

Final Thoughts

Interviewing is as much an art as it is a science, especially in the high-stakes, dynamic world of startups. Each candidate you interview is a potential piece in your startup’s puzzle, and it’s essential to ensure they fit just right. Effective interviewing goes beyond just filling roles; it’s about shaping the future of your startup. It’s about finding individuals who will not only excel in their roles but also elevate the entire team. The importance of this process cannot be understated, and it’s a journey that evolves as your startup does. Every interview, every hire, is a lesson and an opportunity, a step forward in the grand adventure of building something remarkable. 

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