Recruiting for your startup: interviewing candidates

One of the most challenging and critical parts of the startup recruiting process is the actual interview process, where you’ll be meeting what could be your future employees and team members for the first time. It’s also where you’ll be making your first real “live” impression as a company to the many candidates who have decided to take the time to apply and interview with you. Whether or not these candidates end up as hires, it’s important to treat them, and their time, with respect.

With that, let’s go over what the recruiting interview process should look like and how to ensure it represents your employer brand in the best light while working towards the desired outcome: the best employees you can find, excited and ready to dig in, startup style.

How to ensure a positive candidate experience

Let’s lay some groundwork first and develop some empathy for job seekers. The process of applying for jobs is just as daunting for applicants as it is for employers. Put yourself in their shoes: out of the reasons people could be applying for jobs, many of them are stressful. Finding a job is a lot of work. In fact, data shows that job-seeking is one of the most stressful things in life and a lot of the onus is put on the job-seeker to yes, do the work in tailoring their application for every single job, but also to regulate their emotions, set expectations, and be prepared and polished for every interview—most often on top of their current full-time job, which they are leaving for a reason. 

A clear, honest, and transparent recruiting process—nothing fancy, just treating people like people—goes a long way in creating a positive candidate experience that puts your company a step above many others that do things like ghost candidates, pull them through overly laborious and mostly unpaid interview processes, and provide so little information that the whole thing is based on hope in what feels like a one-sided cattle-call equation.

Here are a few pointers:

Automate communication with an ATS

You should always plan for the best case scenario of having a great pool of applicants, which means you’ll have a lot of people to respond to and screen. Automating where you can with an ATS (Application Tracking System) creates consistency across the recruiting pipeline, systemizing the process for everyone’s peace of mind. Tip: automate communication for earlier stages of the recruiting process (ie. application received, first interview follow-up) but don’t forget to tailor your voice, tone, and content accordingly. Automation doesn’t have to mean boring, impersonal, or off-brand. Once you get to the latter stages with fewer final candidates, switch to personalized communication.

Include details on the interview process in job posting

Whenever possible, include details of the hiring process in your job postings: what the interview process will look like, who they might be speaking to, when you expect the successful candidate to start, anything that you can think of that job applicants tend to ask a lot. Preemptively offering this information helps to build trust and keeps the interview process as tight and focused as possible when you don’t have to answer these questions—and if you do, you can tell who wasn’t paying attention. 

(For more information on what to include in a job posting, check out our article here.)

Move quickly

Moving quickly is a startup advantage when you’re up against well-known larger corporations with months-long hiring processes. Generally, the interview process should be complete from initial application follow-up to hire in two months, though in the startup world, there are advocates for a much shorter time frame, as little as ten days. On the other end, senior and executive roles can sometimes take several months. Aim to keep timelines as tight as possible, while accounting for time needed to screen applicants, conduct interviews, and assess candidates. Because while it’s possible that the recruiting process stretches out longer especially without a full-force HR/recruiting team, you will lose candidates, especially great ones, the longer your recruiting process takes.

Here are some ways to move through the recruiting process faster without sacrificing quality:
  • Focus on referrals and preemptively sourcing candidates through existing networks
  • Create dedicated channels for feedback and notes, and align with anyone involved in the hiring process that feedback should be recorded immediately after each interview 
  • As mentioned above, include as much preemptive information as possible not just to keep interviews tight, but also to screen out candidates who can self-select and opt out of applying if something doesn’t align with what they’re looking for
  • Systemize the process by using an ATS (Applicant Tracking System) and/or an interview scheduling software such as Calendly
  • Block out times every day for interviewing, versus only having a few times available for candidates to book time slots per week

Aim to have authentic and engaging conversations

Startup employees are indeed a different breed. In order to thrive and make the business-critical impact a startup needs, they need to be driven to show up. And it’s really hard to discern whether or not someone will be engaged in the work from a couple of conversations that feel more like interrogations, which traditionally have been designed to index for who can give the best answer.

Interviews should be as conversational and authentic as possible. Your goal is to create an environment that allows the interviewee to feel comfortable so that they can show you who they really are professionally and with sincerity, not the most well-prepared version of them.

Take notes and get feedback down immediately

There are all kinds of biases at play when it comes to interviewing. For example, recency bias may favor the people who you most recently interviewed. (Another case for hiring fast.) Aside from keeping the interview timeframe short especially with multiple people, taking notes after each interview—during if possible—also helps to ensure fairness across the hiring process. 

If you plan on taking notes during interviews, make sure to let the candidate know in advance and try to have a second person sit in on the interview to lend a second eye and to help fill gaps while you’re jotting down notes, or vice versa. Then, write down your candidate feedback and impressions immediately after the interview through whatever method best works for your team: a shared document, private Slack channel, daily regroup. This helps with reducing the time-to-hire window by reducing the number of follow-up meetings needed to discuss candidates and by reducing the number of follow-up interviews needed because things have been forgotten in the blur. It also very helpfully provides accurate information for anyone who makes it to the final stages and requests feedback.

Make a good last impression

At the end of each interview, iterate what the next steps are and any timelines, especially if they’ve changed. Thank the candidate for their time. We often don’t think about the fact that out of the many people we may interview, most of them will experience a rejection and the last time we speak to them in person may be the last impression they have, an impression that will color their entire view of your brand. So make sure that whatever that is, that it’s a good one.

Leave a buffer between interviews

It can be tempting to schedule a series of interviews back to back to back just to power through them but just in case interviews run long, leave at least a 15 minute buffer in between. This gives enough time to get any notes down and regroup before the next one so that you are fully present. (As it turns out, this is one of the signals of a poor candidate experience: interviewers who seem disengaged and distracted).

The interview process: a tactical walkthrough

Interview processes vary from company and company, with different considerations for technical vs non-technical roles. Here are a few companies that have well thought-out and transparent hiring pages that you can peruse for inspiration when designing your own recruiting process:

Let’s cover the basics:

Screening chat: ~15 minutes

  • With one person (could be anyone on the team who is a skilled interviewer or people person)
  • Depending on how many candidates are shortlisted and your startup’s capacity, this stage could be conducted by several different people as long as there is a cohesive and consistent matrix for assessing candidates (read: Being Inclusive with Your Hiring Process )
  • Start with an introduction and put your best foot forward: This is not only a meet-and-greet and tool for assessment, it’s also the very first real live touchpoint a candidate will have with your company. Concisely communicate your values, what you’re looking for, and set the tone.
  • Goal: meet the candidate, build trust and rapport, two-way screening. Do you want to continue? Do they?

1st interview: 45 minutes to 1 hour

  • With the hiring manager (could be the founder, an operational lead such as the COO, or team lead) + ideally one other person
  • Standard fare interview questions are typically asked in this interview
  • Goal: dive deeper into their story, the company and the role 

Skills test (depending on type of role)

  • In-office or remote; aim to emulate working conditions 
  • Can be conducted at any point but between interview 1 + 2 is a good spot
  • Goal: assess for technical skills and problem solving abilities

Second interview: 45 minutes to 1 hour

  • With the hiring manager + at least one other person (either senior team members or people the successful candidate may be working closely with)
  • Goal: follow-up on skills test, dive deeper into the role and its specifics, and see how candidate may work with the team

The offer

  • With the hiring manager 
  • Make the offer to your first choice candidate first before following-up with the rest of your final candidates (they may decline and you don’t want to backtrack to someone you’ve already rejected).
  • Aim to do this via a call (it’s always fun to break good news in person). If it has to be via email, schedule a follow-up call to celebrate—and talk over the logistics.

Startup Interviewing FAQ

What if you need more than two interviews? 

You might’ve heard that many startup nightmare stories that take the hiring adage of “hire slow, fire fast” a bit too far: candidates being pulled through 6+ interviews only to be ghosted or told the position is “taking a different direction”. Aim to consolidate interviews into two or three maximum (and this includes a short screening interview) by being strategic with the goal of each interview, having a predetermined matrix for assessing candidates, and writing down notes and feedback as soon as each interview is over while the experience is still fresh.

“Google found that adding a 5th interview only increased the predictiveness of their hiring process by <1%. Choose your 4 stages to maximize the signal you need.” —Alex Yang, CEO TapiocaHQ

Should you provide candidates with feedback? 

Not unless they ask for it. If you have the capacity, you can offer feedback, especially if they made it to the final stages and you want to keep them in the pipeline for a future role. But keep in mind that a rejection can feel very personal and you never know what else they may be dealing with. It’s important to be empathetic to that and realize that not everyone is in a place to be able to take feedback, as constructive as you feel it may be. A genuine thank you and “we went with a different candidate” is sufficient enough. Be prepared with a helpful, specific, and honest response in case they are up for feedback—and offer it along with positive feedback, too. After all, they did get further than most.

Who should be interviewing candidates? 

This depends on the size of your startup, but in very early stages, it will most likely be the founder and/or a COO, though other team members can help with screening. As the business grows past 10-25 people, it can start to involve more people with subject matter expertise and eventually to include someone in a Talent/HR-specific role. Importantly, you are looking for the candidate to meet as many people they will be working with (though this does not have to be in the same discipline/department; in an early stage startup, everyone will most likely work with everyone).
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