When interviewing for larger technology companies, tons of resources are available to candidates who want to learn about their work culture, benefits, compensation, and campus perks.
Unfortunately, the same can’t really be said about growing startups that have little public information you can use for research. This opacity can get even more challenging when you’re trying to compare opportunities between companies at different stages such as Series A versus Series D.
Regardless of what series I’m interviewing for, I’ve noticed that I’m commonly asked the same types of interview questions.
- Details about previous projects I’ve worked on. This is to signal to the startup that I’m capable of coding and have the technical skills they’re looking for.
- A coding assessment. Companies both large and small often ask a HackerRank-style question to assess whether my coding foundation is strong enough.
- Discussion of system design. This includes a discussion about my approach to building a larger app like Twitter or Facebook to make sure I’m capable of building the kind of product the startup is focused on. Reviewing resources like Alex Xu’s system design is more than enough to cover these topics.
As someone who has interviewed with startups at all levels, here’s what I consider after an interview and some things you can look for.
5 Important Things to Consider When Interviewing With a Startup
- How rigorous was the interview process?
- Will I be the most experienced person in the room?
- Who are the founders?
- Does the product have a market?
- Is this opportunity worth missing out on the compensation and benefits a larger company can provide?
1. How Rigorous Was the Interview Process?
Everyone else you’ll be working with will have gone through the same interview process. Its rigor will tell you a lot about how much knowledge you can expect your coworkers to have.
If the interview required completing a take-home project, I’d feel comfortable that most of my coworkers will be technically capable. If the questions seemed like simpler, university-level coding problems, however, I’d wonder whether the startup was desperate for engineers.
The interview process can tell you a lot about what type of talent the company expects to recruit, and you need to decide if that fits where you are in your own career.
2. Will I Be the Most Experienced Person in the Room?
I always want to know who will be on my team and who the other engineers are.
If everyone else is at a junior level and I have two years of experience, I’d worry how much of my time would be spent teaching others instead of building my own skills by learning from someone more senior. Being a senior member of a team may make growth hard.
If I’m the only engineer on the team, I also might run into problems since there’s no way of knowing if I’m making the right choices or not.
If you’re choosing a startup over a large technology company, you may miss out on industry standard learning opportunities with knowledgeable engineers. All of these potential trouble spots are things you can learn from the interview and consider as you make your decision.
3. Who Are the Founders?
The biggest factor in the success of any startup is who the founders are. They have the largest say in deciding who gets hired, which customer segments to focus on, and how they want to pitch their startup for more funding.
If I don’t feel comfortable working with them or their company culture feels more like a close group of friends who I’d struggle relating to, I know I’ll feel left out and unimportant to the team.
Look up their backgrounds as well. Are they first-time founders, or have they built companies and made exits before? Are they more technically oriented or are they just trying to wing it to bring a far-fetched dream to life? Those with engineering and business backgrounds might be more reliable than starry-eyed new graduates trying to be the next Mark Zuckerberg. After all, you don’t want to be worried about whether or not your paycheck will bounce.
4. Does the Product Have a Market?
Working on something people don’t want never makes sense. How do the founders know their product/service is needed in the market?
Actual research is more valuable here. For instance, did they validate their idea by sampling their users like Zappos founder Nick Swimmurn did by posting shoe pictures on the internet? Or are they just building a cryptocurrency startup because it’s the hottest market this decade?
This uncertainty probably isn’t an issue with late-stage startups, but you’ll always have to think about this for companies at Series A or earlier.
5. Is the Opportunity Worth Missing Out on the Compensation and Benefits a Larger Company Can Provide?
You’ll have to do some math to figure out if the startup opportunity is worth your time over the long term.
An offer of 1 percent equity of a 100 million dollar valuation company that IPOs in 10 years is $100,000 a year. If the perks and benefits of working at a larger company like Microsoft over 10 years are similar, the startup job might not be worth the risk.
Do the math and figure out if the startup opportunity is worth the opportunity cost of security at a larger company.
If you find yourself comfortable answering these questions, consider the opportunity with the startup. Larger companies like Google and Microsoft will always be around if things don’t work out.