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Applying to Startups: 5 Tips on How to Make a Great First Impression

Startups are unique in culture and abundant in numbers. Nearly 98 percent of Canadian businesses are categorized as SME’s, so if you’re on the job hunt, you’ll likely be interviewing at one.  

Besides being notorious for having a fun work atmosphere, startups have different expectations regarding roles and recruitment. This means that the interview process will also look a little different. If you’re passionate about the role and hoping to land that job, you may want to level up your interviewing techniques.  

When it comes to sage advice, there are probably no better sources to hear it from than recruiters (yes, we’re biased – but they are a great source!) – the people who handle hundreds of candidate applications, phone screens and interviews on a daily basis.  

So, without further ado, here are five startup interview tips, to help you succeed – straight from the recruiting team at Pivot + Edge.    

1. Research the startup and its product. 

“The quicker the interview feels, the better it usually is. When someone comes prepared and they’ve done their research and are interested in the company, the conversation flows a lot more naturally, and I can then get a real sense of the candidate’s story, which is my favourite part.” – Evan, Talent Acquisition Specialist

As with any job, it’s essential to do your research before the interview. For startups, this step is just as — if not more — crucial. There are only so many important people up top to remember, and they’re likely working on one product that fixes one pain point. You could even be interviewing with one of the founders, so you want them to see that you care about their baby… er… business just as much as they do. Get to know the story, what motivates them, how they got to where they are, and the vision for what moves the business forward. In the words of MaRS: “startups are very personal workplaces, not simply because they’re small and nimble, but also because their stories are synonymous with the journeys of their founders.” 

You’re expected to do your research (and do it thoroughly). However, because startups are niche, and the role you’re applying for might be versatile, it doesn’t hurt to ask what the company will cover during the interview. Often, companies will provide helpful information to prepare you for your startup interview better.  

Bonus: Here’s how we’re suggesting startups structure their interviews. It could give you a bit of a heads-up! 

2. Practice interview etiquette and relevant skills in advance. 

“One of the worst things a candidate can do is leave video off in a Zoom interview with no explanation. Another red flag is if they choose their interview time but then still show up noticeably late without a heads-up. These things speak to their level of preparedness and commitment to the interview process.” – Taryn, Talent Acquisition Manager 

The Zoom interview is a far different beast than the ones you’ve had in an office space. If you’re still new to Zoom, that can be a learning experience in itself. Avoid doing things that might be distracting to the interviewer on the other end of the call like staring off screen, swivelling in your chair or failing to soundproof your house for 30 minutes! Remember: the interview isn’t happening in a luxurious, open space boardroom with natural light and limited distractions – it is confined within the borders of your respective computer monitors.  

If you find out from the employer that you’ll need to complete a technical test during the interview, don’t just assume you can handle it. Practice! Roles at tech startups often require specific working knowledge and base skills, so you’ll want to prove you have what it takes. On top of that, Muse suggests being able to demonstrate what you’ve done — and not just by adding it as a line on your resume. Building a portfolio can go a long way.  

3. Understand the team structure and where your role sits. 

“The Most memorable candidates are the ones who treat it like a human conversation; are prepared, show interest in the company and the role, come ready with intelligent questions, and demonstrate engagement throughout the call.” John, Chief Talent Officer

Understanding the team structure and how your role will work within it is vital for a few reasons. The first is that you’ll be better prepared for your interview with more base knowledge of the company. The second is that you’ll know more about what kind of work environment you’re walking into (see startup interview tip #1). Learn where you can progress within the company, who you’ll report to, and even what your role will look like depending on how many others share that same position. Otta gives the example of a sales role. Being the second sales hire in a company is vastly different than being the tenth. They also suggest taking a quick online tour of the company you’re interviewing at on LinkedIn. It doesn’t take much to get a good idea of a business and its team. Check out ours and see what key highlights you can pick out for practice 

4. Take an honest look at their company culture and identify how you’ll contribute to it. 

“More and more, candidates are asking about how work culture has shifted. While this is a positive change, one thing I don’t want to happen is for the topic to lose its importance – speaking about culture shouldn’t be a stock question or a time-filler. When candidates follow a company they like online, they are taking steps to show that they are interested in it, before they get to the interview.”   – John, Chief Talent Officer

Just like the startup will be looking for the perfect candidate to hire for the company, you should also be looking for the [right place for your skills and ambitions] (link to “Why Startups Aren’t For Everyone”). Company culture is essential, and a mismatch can make you less than excited about the job you thought would be the dream.  

According to a study by Robert Walters Group, 74% of professionals who experienced the wrong company culture felt demotivated at work. A startup is small, so the company culture can be strong. Try to meet your potential coworkers and be honest with yourself about whether or not you think you’d be a good match for the overall atmosphere of the workplace. Meeting the current employees will also teach you a lot about the startup itself. After all, the employees often reflect the employer brand. 

When startups hire, they’ve likely put a lot of thought into exactly what they need. They probably even have a perfect candidate in mind with their candidate persona. Curious? Here’s what goes into building one. Recruitment comes at a considerable cost, and the budget is probably tight. They’ll be picky. Make sure you know what they’re looking for and play up what you can offer the company.  

Bonus: Start with these five traits that startups should be looking for in their hires. 

5. Prepare good answers and ask good questions. 





Based on what they’ve let you know the interview will cover, try to think about what questions they could ask during the interview. Then, prepare some responses. Even something as simple as having relevant work examples for various scenarios can go a long way. Similar to tip #3, being able to demonstrate what you’ve done through past experience can come in handy. 

Here’s where all that research comes in handy again — prepare your own questions for the interviewer. For starters, this is an excellent opportunity to show your initiative and how you think. However, it’s also crucial that you don’t waste this time if there are things about the role or company that you need to find out to ensure the company is the right fit for you. Just make sure those things aren’t Google-able, first! To give you a head start, Alison Green compiled a list for The Cut of some tried-and-true questions to ask during an interview.  

So it’s clear, interviewing for startups is slightly different from big established companies. However, if you take these startup interview tips to heart and dive into what working at a small business means, you may come out on top.  


Have any questions? Make sure you join our network and stay up to date on the latest techniques and tips to help you on your job seeking journey!  

You can also connect directly with one of our Talent Acquisition Specialists and we can point you in the right direction! 

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